Melbourne City Council likes to promote itself as the loveable alternative authority to the Victorian State Government. It is green and progressive (approving an experimental scheme limiting motor access to the CDB) where the State Government is outdated and reactionary (over-ruling the council and quashing said scheme). It is friendly and accessible (the ever-smiling "world's most popular mayor" John So) where the State is cold and distant (the pugnacious and increasingly unpopular Premier John Brumby). Little surprise then, that down the road from the State's faceless power-structure, the Council has built a pioneering piece of eco-architecture. Where the Justice Building is all glacial coldness, the Council building is a Pompidouesque Mechano set writ large. Cuddly constructionism.
Winner of many industry awards, Council House 2, or CH2 (sounds a bit like CO2 and is also the chemical formula for Methelyne, do you see?) is the jewel in the Council's eco-friendly crown. Reflecting the preoccupation with sustainability in contemporary planning, CH2 is a carbon-neutral, auto-recycling, self-sustaining Gaia-structure. It is a technologically impressive project. Yet, as is the fashion with many green skyscraper projects, the Council and its cheerleaders do not promote the building in technological terms. Instead we find hippyish justifications and celebrations of the buildings being 'in tune with nature'. Who are they trying to kid? Are we expected to think that if nature were allowed to dominate the environment freely we would find neatly clipped hedges in window boxes and self-sustaining air conditioning systems? These projects are the ultimate example of man's domination of nature, the taming of it to meet our needs. We largely want to tackle climate change not because of concern for the earth but rather for concern over our reliance on it to survive, and these kinds of buildings offer the possibility of a sophisticated mechanical means of doing so.
These buildings do not deserve the epithet 'natural' by any means, on the contrary they are utterly artificial, a glorious fusion of the organic and the inorganic. We should not shy away from this but rather embrace it unashamedly and reclaim our dreams of the future. This marriage of the synthetic and the natural should be touted as a testament to humanity's genius, yet it provokes widespread discomfort and this technological masterpiece does not celebrate its own achievement. Instead it hides behind a facade of pine, looking like a 19th century Scandinavian woodcutter's hut, shielding its true nature from the public. But why do we not wish to see this structure in all its magnificent mechanical nakedness? Why does it not display a proud techno-aestheticism but only an atavistic pseudo-natural appearance?
In our new century the concept of the organic has been fetishised to such a degree that technology itself is forced to cloak itself in order to be accepted. Scientists used to be our heroes, and now they are the ultimate villains. Issues such as GM crops (boo!), nuclear power (boo!) animal testing (boo!) and cloning (boo!) have turned people against science. We now treat 'Science' as a pariah, the evil opponent of the morality of the organic. There is an element of Heidegger in this, who famously declared after the war "Agriculture is now a motorised food-industry - in essence the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers". There is truth in this statement, yet coming from the Nazi-supporting Heidegger in the late 1940s it smacks of a squirming passing of the buck; 'It weren't me guv, it was the machines what done it!'. But there were men operating those machines and Heidegger lent them his moral authority as a philosopher. He spent the rest of his days bemoaning technology, pining for an imagined agrarian past and drifting into the realms of mysticism, promoting an anti-modernism that was in actuality an attempt at vindication through denial. It was essentially a philosophical elevation of the 'I was only obeying orders' line. This is what we are now seeing with regards to climate change. Able to accept its anthropogeneticity only at face value we instead pass the buck to a usefully ill-defined Other: Science. Like Heidegger we tut tut, and wag our finger at technology for harming Mother Earth, taking the moral high ground where we ought to be taking responsibility. 'How could I, with my fair trade coffee and organic potatoes be responsible for that?' we ask incredulously. In a sense we are all climate change denialists, denying our own culpability.
Unlike Heidegger though, rather than abandon faith in technology we are able realise that it provides our only hope of reversing the effects of climate change. Moreover, aside from a few hardcore feudalists who would be happy to live in a treehouse with just a spliff and a banjo for company (the only honest perpetrators of the anti-science orthodoxy) people overwhelmingly like technology. How else could one get to organic supermarkets and self-help workshops? And so we take a spectacular and paradoxical leap of bad faith to a state of affairs where science is both the redeemer and the devil incarnate, where a highly technological achievement is swathed in the language of anti-science.The hypermodern Western man lives in the luxuries of technology, whilst simultaneously lambasting them, and pompously propagating obscurantist teleologies. We must put an end to this morbid and masturbatory posturing and wholeheartedly embrace our technological future. There has to be a realisation that the fusion of the organic and the inorganic is not undesirable, but indispensable. That the ideals of the Viridian Design Movement and others are necessary for a stable future.
The forms of CH2 are not displeasing in themselves, I actually find its IKEA-architecture quite attractive. But for its purpose the structure is simply too timid. What we should see in a project such as this is not the self-conscious restraint and 'naturalism' of CH2 but something more akin to the biotopian eco-science of the Eden Project or the recently launched Earthrace eco-ship, both purveyors of a striking futurist vision.
Technology helped us get into this mess, but it is the only thing that can help us get out.