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Proceedings of The Great Megastructures Debate

Bigging It Up
Proceedings of a debate held as part of Newcastle Science Festival 2007
by Mo Lovatt and Caspar Hewett

Chair: Caspar Hewett

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Ian Abley, architect, project manager audacity
John Thackara, design producer, Director of Doors of Perception
Dr Sean Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in Structural Engineering, Newcastle University

Ian Abley Manmade Modular Megastructures Ian Abley opened by saying that the “Megastructures” of the title of this debate are the issue of our age: Humanity consists of 6.5 billion people and is expected to rise to 9.0 in the next quarter of a century. Together with uncertainties such as China transforming into a huge powerhouse, the issue is one of housing production. The invention of carbon fibre means that big structures are now possible and Abley thinks this is an exciting development. The discussion of megastructures has a long history going back to Fumihiko Maki's investigations in Collective Form, published in 1964, writing at a time of massive social change and technological advancement. However, this architectural debate had lapsed by the 70s, and has only recently come back onto the agenda particularly with people like Jeremy Till who are arguing for sustainable housing growth. In contrast to the debate of the 1960s the new debate centres on trying to downsize demand rather than arguing for more housing. 75% of housing in the UK is new housing. There is an urbanising, growing population and it is possible to sprawl out, removing the green belt, so London could be doubled in size. Or we could sprawl upwards. However we do it, it is clear that housing needs to be increased.

In closing Abley made the point that energy efficiency does not need to compromise behaviour and argued that we should be confident about moving forwards in architecture, citing exciting examples of technological changes in kitchen and bathroom developments in Germany.

Sean Wilkinson Sean Wilkinson began by holding up a £50 note and asking what can you buy with £50? More specifically what area of land could you buy with that much money? In Belgravia, for instance, you could afford a piece of land about 1/3 the size of the £50 note. That works out at £65,000 per square metre (and that’s cheap by international standards). Furthermore, the higher you get (i.e. the taller the building) the more expensive it becomes. Designing against the effect of wind loads become increasingly expensive. There are also human factors such as the fact that most people don’t like to walk up more than two flights of stairs, so you have to put in lifts. Even in Tokyo, 30-40 storeys is about as high as you can justify building on the grounds of economically viability. Fifty storeys is pretty much as high as you get in Tokyo, although there are higher buldings in some places such as Hong Kong, New York and Chicago.

So why build tall buildings? Basically, vanity – it’s a bit like owning a Porsche. The tallest building in the world is 101 storeys, which is twice as high as what can be justified economically. Some buildings in Dubai that are currently under construction, are going to be about 150 storeys. How can that be justified? Well, CEOs of big companies, footballers and rock-stars will pay for the prestige of living such places. Well, isn’t that okay? Buying is a risky business. You have to start selling the apartments / office space before you begin building. You don’t start building until you’ve sold at least 50% of the space. Sometimes these spaces are bought and sold speculatively and the proceeds used to buy new land for further building, which can lead to point where the bubble bursts and the industry collapses.

The human cost when this happens is high: ex-pats, builders and engineers lose their jobs and have to go home. Local builders go back to their previous jobs or unemployment. Wilsinson was not saying whether this is a bad or a good thing, just that it is a symptom of an economic system that encourages huge accumulation of wealth.

John Thackara In the Bubble by John Thackara John Thackara opened by making the point that a tonne of concrete leads to a tonne of CO2 emissions. He argued that the megastructures discussion represents an old paradigm way of thinking about how we should populate the planet and how we should live. It is brute force over rational thinking, which should rather consider using less matter. Megastructures are things like the internet and the global information network (mobile phones), man-made devices which make our lives better – tele-density over material-density is the way forward for revolutionizing our lives. Tele-geography concerns itself with the efficient use of matter. We should deploy resources in the best ways. For Thackara the megastructures debate is a problem because it is backwards thinking.

Ian Abley responded first to John Thackara, saying that of course we are physical creatures and so we do rely on matter. We need material things: things wear out and need to be replaced. We should not restrict ourselves to thinking we have to do more with less. In response to Sean Wilkinson Abley simply wanted to say that "going up" (bulding high buildings) is a good thing.

Sean Wilkinson picked up on Abley's points about building on the green belts, agruing that you need to decide if you want to build into recreational spaces or to go up. People talk about the social problems with high-rise buildings, but that is a European phenomenon. Other countries do not experience these problems. However, going higher than 50 storeys is the equivalent of taking the kids to school in a 4x4. The other problem is that there is an overheated construction industry at present. What is more, there is not a big enough skills base, so inexperienced labour is used. People say that concrete is unsustainable, but timber is a sustainable resource. However, you have to use more sophisticated materials if you are going to build high.

John Thackara though it unthinkable that nine billion people could live sustainably. He thinks that human beings do not have the capacity to think long-term and that we do not think collectively about how to live efficiently. For him the design challenge is about more people living with finite resources.

One person in the audience wanted to know why we want to people to live crowdedly in cities? She though this would be at a huge cost. A second participant argued that there is a limit to how many people the earth can accommodate.
Alistair Horsfield pointed out that John Thackara was not presenting an alternative to high-rise and larger structures and asked if he had one.

John Thackara argued that no one knows the capacity of the planet. However we do know that we live inefficiently as compared to, for example, someone who lives in the desert. The point for him is that human activity is having a negative effect on the biosphere.

Sean Wilkinson though it would be nice if the population was smaller, but that this was not the point. The greatest population growth is in developing countries where people need more kids to farm the land and to look after them in their old age. He made the point that most people actually prefer living in communities and not in isolation and that cities are actually very popular.

Ian Abley made the point that human intervention has a long and healthy history of generating social and technological development. He wasn't buying old Malthusian arguments about population - after all Malthus has already been proved wrong several times over. He argued that there isn't a limit to accommodating a growing population, and that this is a flase way of looking at the problem. What we should realise is that there is the possibility of developing space.

The next round of questions and points from the floor was quite varied, including: Cities are where people like to live – we need cities to be more friendly; Population growth is always followed by a population crash; The birth-rate in the UK is stable, our population has grown by 10% but this is mostly through immigration; We share this planet with other living things and we never ask snails and slugs if they mind if we build on their environment; How much would it cost to dismantle these huge buildings?

Aidan Burton asked the panel if they could come to a consensus as to whether living in a city is more cost-effective than sprawling out?

Ian Abley thinks we should be going up and out arguing that we cannot design-out materiality. If more houses were built then the demand and cost of housing would go down and it would be more feasible for people to live nearer to where they work, there would beless need to commute and people could live more efficiently (if they so wished!)

Sean Wilkinson argued that mono-cultures reduce bio-diversity. Living in cities may not be better (i.e., thay can be overcrowded) but cities do save spaces for other things. The market tends to work these things out. Wilkinson thinks that Megastructures are usually ugly and that they are designed for prestige, not for aesthetics reasons. He added that the UK government, after Kyoto, looked at thermal ratings of buildings saying that they had to be more efficient (they were about the only government to do so). Heating and cooling of buildings has a huge impact on global warming.

Peter Alic pointted out that cities are where innovation takes place. He is for high rise bulding rather than letting cities sprawl – in the 1960s in the UK high rises were popular until it was found that people didn’t like living in them. Some were knocked down but some were re-marketed at middle-class people who loved living in them, but that was because they could disappear off to France for the weekend!

Michael Anderson stated that there are too many people in the world.

Sean Wilkinson closed by drawing attention to the way the debate had turned into one about mega-cities rather than megastructure. However, that was fine as it is a debate that needs to take place. In developing countries, there is no alternative to growing populations (unless you consider it acceptable to take draconian measures such as those implemented in China). Ian Abley thought the more people the better - more people means more solutions to problems in the future. John Thackara made the point that 25% of the ecological footprint comes from the way people eat. There is no one single solution - everything is connected.

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Useful Links

Manmade Modular Megastructures Newcastle Science Festival
Discovery Museum
Ian Abley
John Thackara
Amazon.co.uk: books by Ian Abley
Amazon.co.uk: books by John Thackara
Let’s Build! – Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years
Doors of Perception

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© C J M Hewett, 2008