The Arizona Desert Lamp

White Paper: College for Design and the Sustainable Environment

Posted in UA Transformation Plan by Evan Lisull on 22 October 2008
Sustainable Housing

Sustainable Housing

Not getting enough sustainability in your life? Well, you’re just in luck — the Dean of the architecture school, Janice Cervelli has a proposal for you — an entire college dedicated to sustainable design! What the Arizona Research Laboratories did for “interdisciplinary,” this white paper attempts to do with “sustainable”:

HAY: Golly gee, Robbie, this paper sure uses the word “sustainable” a lot.
SHELTON: Silly Meredith, of course it does —  Sustainable means ‘budget neutral’ !
HAY: Oh, right — it means that it can be sustained on the budget.

Today’s world is confronted with challenges of immense environmental scale and complexity.
Global climate change and unprecedented population growth are putting many societies under stress for such basic human needs as food, shelter, and water.  Turbulent shifts in geo-political and economic structures have spawned threats and instability.  Our dependence on oil has led to an urban infrastructure that is highly resource consumptive and unsustainable.  The state of Arizona faces the multidimensional challenges of globalization along with those uniquely its own.  As the second fastest growing state in the nation, Arizona is limited by an economy that is precariously dependent on growth, a resource consumptive construction industry, strained urban infrastructure, and limited water supply.

I didn’t realize that they had Al Gore ghostwriting white papers for the UA. Anyways, we’ve seen the basic thrust of this kind of argument before — department proposes “interdisciplinary” new program, touting how it will bring in the top talent, and then proposing to execute a few administrators and use their blood as a zero-emissions source of energy for the new school. Or something like that.

This, however, proves to be even more revolutionary — like the word “sustainable” itself, it threatens to devour everything in its path. The first school would contain the present accredited degrees for Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Planning. The second school, of “Human-Environmental Studies,” is the weak link, containing among others the Arid Lands program (who seem, shall we say, indisposed towards such a relocation).

The third school proposed, however, encapsulates the absurdity of this proposal, and deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

3. School of the Visual Arts
Description:  The School of the Visual Arts represents the former School of the Arts in the College of Fine Arts and presumes the establishment or transfer of the performing arts disciplines as a distinct unit.
•Accredited Degree
Home Academic Programs Collaborating Programs
•Studio Art                                          Architecture
•Graphic Design & Illustration             Landscape Architecture
•Art History                                         Architectural History
•Art Education

So the School of the Arts would be now be under the aegis of the College of Design & the Sustainable Environment. Read this out loud a few times to let it sink in. Imagine, for instance, an art history class on medieval art that emphasized the unsustainable use of eggs in the making of tempera. Or a class that criticized Christo and Jeanne-Claude for the environmental impact of their “Running Fence.”

Broadly, this is another case putting the cart before the horse. You can’t build a sustainable building before you can put four walls and a roof together without it collapsing in on itself. Certainly, there will be greater demand for “sustainable” buildings as marginal costs of alternative energy goes down, and the UA should offer a class or two dedicated to this purpose. But to completely absorb the School of Arts and the School of Architecture into this scheme is akin to the Women’s Studies program absorbing the English and Education departments.

The budget section focuses on the gains from centralization and integration, as well as yet another volunteer scheme:

The School of Architecture and the School of Landscape Architecture faculty are currently considering initiating a graduation requirement for all students to complete a semester or year-long study abroad program and/or a full co-op education experience.  The departure of students from campus during the school year will reduce basic overhead costs of instruction.

The school also falls for the Deus ex Alumnis fallacy, claiming that increased support will draw a shower of money from Beyond.

Your humble author would offer a modest proposal: this sustainability department, with the associated programs, could be sent off with a backpack into the forests surrounding Mt. Lemmon. There, driven by sheer necessity, they would be inspired to create some of the most environmentally sustainable architecture known to man — under a more than budget-neutral program.


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  1. […] Posted in Campus, UA Transformation Plan by Evan Lisull on March 4th, 2009 When the white paper that proposed to devote an entire college towards sustainability, I chortled in disbelief, certain […]

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