Ross Adams on the ‘eco-city’

Ross Adams has written a challenging and suggestive critique of the ‘eco-city’ as exemplified by projects such as the zero-emissions ‘technology cluster’, Masdar,  by Foster and Partners for Abu-Dhabi. In his essay ‘Longing for a Greener Present: Neoliberalism and the eco-city,’ he addresses the neoliberal context of contemporary urban design, the meaning and uses of the supposed ‘crisis’ of the environment, and the disappearance of architecture as a critical ‘project’. An extract appears below, but I recommend checking out the full version in the current issue of Radical Philosophy, 163, Sep/Oct 2010 (available in the AA Bookshop).

‘The eco-city is a mechanism conceived by neoliberal state politics, in which the nature of urban design itself, as both practice and form of knowledge, has changed dramatically. Most importantly, the operative status of the urban project today is strictly intermediary. Whereas in the past, architects and planners concerned themselves with highly precise, calculated and definitive plans, today’s urban designer has quite a different task. Because in the current political context, urban-scale design has become an increasingly accessible and unregulated venture for private investment, the central occupation of urban design has shifted to the construction of sophisticated, high-profile, branded advertisement campaigns used to leverage popular, ‘democratic’ support for large-scale real-estate development. Its inspiration is market speculation and its objective is the facilitation of growth. In so far as such projects in themselves no longer bear pretensions of actually executing what they propose (and often what they propose is left deliberately unclear), their service is to lend the architect’s endorsement to an anonymous body that will carry out the project in its name. The drawings produced have little need for coherence with that which may or may not actually be built. Instead the success of urban design depends only on the composition of images and text, and their corroboration with the language of sustainability.

In light of this, architects and planners have adopted a rhetoric of sustainability that wholly embraces a humanitarian ethics in regard to ecological catastrophe. Avoiding at all costs the pomposity of a political position, such ethics are often conveyed by means of impressive data, statistics and impending notions of ‘tipping points’ quickly approaching. In this way the discourse on sustainability has given new life to an old humanist impulse, while raising the stakes with its implicit humanitarian call-to-duty. Not surprisingly, however, because such ideals feed off an economy of good intentions, they remain beyond scrutiny since the survival of our species seems to depend on their promise. Yet also implicit in such ethical posturing is a kind of imposed state of exception, paralysing the process of architectural criticism. Introducing this silent suspension of judgement, the language of sustainability plays a crucial role in the propagation of such work, for the purpose of urban design ultimately remains to equip the absolutely ordinary with a rhetorical supplement of ethical goodness. Thus, by posturing in this way, the rhetoric of sustainability at once deflects criticism while guaranteeing support for its virtuous cause.’