An Interview with Richard Register

January, 2000
Part one of a three-part series - Page 2 of 3

Part two
Part three


It seems to me that we may well be in a position in the internet where we can create some sort of different architecture somewhere down the line. But, it seems to me as though the kind they were talking about was science-fiction, fantasy, fun, more like art, very expensive, very delicate. How can we have your liquid walls that are lit up by lights that are controlled by computers that may be beamed across the whole planet through space? You need to shelter this thing. It is not going to be out in the hailstones and the wind and exposed to freezing-it needs shelter itself. It is not architecture in the sense that architecture provides an artificial climate in which we can go about our own business, though it is interesting and sort of fun, like art.

Anyway, there we are at this conference, and Paolo is unveiling the next phase of Arcosanti. That is cloisters which will have in them a media lab set up by the guys who organized the conference. But Soleri is so tuned to this in so many ways that he doesn't have, for example, his structures completely climate modified to the comfort optimum of 65 degrees, or whatever it is. He likes people to be just a little bit uncomfortable so they notice the season's as they come and go, and the time of day. He has bridges planned connecting one part of the building with another, in the next phase of construction, that are for no other purpose than promenading about, enjoying the view and looking across the valley. He has places to sit on the tops of the buildings. This, to me, shows that he grasps the pedestrian environment. This is something really important.

Insofar as the computers come together with Arcosanti in, say, paying the rent so Arcosanti can help finance it's construction, that is really great. Insofar as they can do prosaic things like print out your labels and connect you by email, that is really great too. Obviously there will be much more sophisticated things that will come down the line later. All of this has happened in the last 10 or 15 years, which is pretty remarkable that we are even calling it common or prosaic. But, in fact, this kind of application of the internet and of computers that is pretty straight forward in transferring information, is really helpful, and you can put good content through that.

Register rendering of a Bridge City (click on image).

But, if the content's is not good, or if you are building something that is, frankly, fun and expensive but doesn't serve anybody, or possibly even diverts them from dealing with the crisis of the time which is the collapse of species all over the planet, a change of climate, and a few other garguantuan problems, then it is questionable as to whether it is serving very well. You have to ask the deeper question, "What is the content of the information that is flowing here? We've got a good system for moving it. Let's concentrate now on what it is going to move in terms of the information. I would say, of course, "even more importantly, what is it going to build that is the home, the environment, that we all live in. Are our cities and towns going to be harmful to the planet or not?" Of course, the sprawl, automobile, oil freeway infrastructure is deadly to the whole planet. We have to get away from that and think through the pedestrian city very seriously.

What struck me as most profound about the (issues brought up by the conference) is that you really do need to get the city reorganized. The ecological city that Paolo was talking about, going way back to the early 1960s, is a purely pedestrian city that is very, very compact, like the Indian pueblos of a long time before, like the villages he knew as a child growing up in northern Italy.

The village structure is a profound invention. Ecovillage people don't respect it. They take little separate houses, put little solar greenhouses on them, put in a permaculture garden, and that's fine. It operates really neat, you get these nice recycled materials, no toxic outgassing in these structures, and so on. You collect solar energy and start your crops early in your solar greenhouse, and, in a lot of ways, it's off to a good start.

But, in fact, the traditional village is built around a street with zero lot line, very compact, with two to three story buildings frequently. I took a trip to Nepal this year and saw villages that were four and five stories high that were two blocks wide and only six blocks long-way up in the Himalyas. The were very three dimensional, very compact, with wide, wide open spaces all around them.

Why would someone live like that? Well, you share heat between buildings, you have very quick access to one another, you can defend these places when under distress. A lot of things are going on that make a lot of sense from the social and the access point of view, energy conservation and preservation of agricultural and natural land.

ECOTECTURE: You have said that the design of cities is a critical or a central issue. How do you position cities on the biospheric or planetary scale?

RR: Are you saying, how do cities impact the environment in a way I think is negative or could be positive?

ECOTECTURE: That's one issue. Another is that now, for the first time in human history, half the population is living in cities. Obviously, that number is going to increase very rapidly. When you say that cities are a central issue-why not ecoforestry, or population control?

RR: Number one, we live in the cities and we learn from the environments we live in. The cities we build now teach us some pretty specious notions about life on earth. You get in the car and you are entertained and lulled and spend money to get a sense of who you are. Your status or your ego structure is based on the things you buy. The most expensive, other than your house, is your car, and that connects you to other houses. The house itself is isolated and disconnected from the rest of your world. To get to the rest of your world you need to consume an average of 500 gallons of gasoline per year for each American person. There is a problem there. You are spending five, six, seven thousand dollars a year on your automobile, you're changing the climate, and so on.

You may be asking, "how does one quantify all this?" There are some numbers there, but, just in energy alone, the automobile is responsible for around 21 percent of all (US) energy. If you add the other motor vehicles you have a total of something like 25 percent. You think in terms of your separate houses scattered across a sprawl infrastructure, created largely by cars, each little house uses its cooling and heating energy once and loses it through the walls and doesn't share it with any other building. If you put those things together, transportation and land use... even with the public transit system instead of pedestrian access you have a city like New York operating on half the energy per capita as the American average. That's because it has a transit system, which is much more energy conserving than cars, and because buildings share heat and cooling from one unit to another- they have common walls. So, with transportation, space heating losses, "scatterization" of buildings- now you are talking around 40 percent or more of the energy load of the entire country.

Then you throw in some other things, like, "What is it you are manufacturing?" The fact that the buildings are scattered and don't share walls means you are manufacturing a whole lot more building. That they are little and scattered doesn't mean that the total is little at all, it means that the total is much greater. When you lay down asphalt in these vast ribbons all over the place and track the gasoline, manufacture the cars, and put that into the world you are talking about a large section of your industrial capacity being for cars and sprawl as well. If you start adding it all up, I wouldn't be surprised if you find that over 75 percent of the investment that we make in the world is in the infrastructure that we build. The rest of it would include clothing and technological gizmos we enjoy, music, movies, or whatever. That takes a lot of money. It takes probably a whole lot less energy. Certainly to have you sitting there listening to a Walkman isn't paving over the agricultural land, but the built infrastructure is.

So the effect, not just the energy effect, but the pollution load and the actual covering of the landscape is awesome because of the way we build. The American Farmland Trust points out that one million acres of agricultural land are lost every year in the United States because of sprawl. Not only that, but 50 percent of the value of America's agriculture comes from the 12 percent of the land closest to the cities. It is the richest soil, that is why the cities are built there in the first place, and it is closer into everything so the distribution routes are better. Usually, the cities popped up in areas where the climate was good for agriculture as well, so these sprawled cities, even in agricultural zones, tend to cover agricultural land. From many different points of view you have a real disaster caused by structuring cities the way we structure them. Especially when you consider that you could structure them so they would take up very small amount of land compared to that.

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