Design with the desert : conservation and sustainable development
Webb, Robert H.
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In the desert, we have no sustainable alternative to design with nature when it comes to our human environments. We have limited, long-term options for the world at large, but the desert poses special problems including the extremes of temperature and scarcity of water. The realities of the desert environment, combined with the need to make our developments more sustainable for future generations, make it obvious that we must be guided by ecological knowledge in desertregions when designing new living and working spaces or retrofitting old ones. Our current condition requires that we reconnect with the nature of our regions instead of designing spaces under the old ethos of “conquering nature” and isolating humans from their natural environments. We need to look back at what our society has collectively learned about this seemingly harsh environment in order to move ahead. The Roman Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote the first guide to architecture and dedi- cated On Architecture to his emperor, Augustus. A good architect, according to Vitruvius, was not a narrow professional but an intellectual of wide-ranging abilities. For example, Vitruvius included medicine in his extensive list of subjects of which an architect should “have some knowledge.” An architect should understand medicine, “in its relation to the regions of the earth (which the Greeks call climata)” in order to answer questions regarding the healthiness and unhealthiness of sites. A knowledge of air (“the atmosphere”) and the water supply of localities is essential, “[f]or apart from these considerations, no dwelling can be regarded as healthy.”1 Vitruvius devotes much of his writing to site-specific, or landscape, considerations. As one classicist observed, “Vitruvius’ conception of architecture is... wide, at times almost approaching what we define as urban studies.”2 Vitruvius made detailed pronouncements for planning new urban developments. The very first consideration must be salubrity. He noted, “First, the choice of the most healthy site. Now this will be high and free from clouds and hoar frost, with an aspect neither hot nor cold but temperate. Besides, in this way a marshy neighborhood shall be avoided. For when the morning breezes come with the rising sun to a town, and clouds rising from these shall be conjoined, and with their blast, shall sprinkle on the bodies of the inhabitants the poisoned breaths of marsh ani- mals, they will make the site pestilential...”3 In addition to his directions for using an understanding of nature to design houses and plan cities, Vitruvius provided considerable advice for building civic structures and spaces. The Romans constructed many new communities, a good number of which con- tinue to prosper today throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Twenty cen- turies after Vitruvius, in their detailed study of architectural education for the Carnegie Foundation, Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang urged architects to shift their focus from designing objects to “building community.”4 Such a change requires careful consideration of what constitutes “community” and what is the relationship of communities to their physical and biological regions.
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