THE EDUCATION OF AN ECO-ARCHITECT
by Kenneth King, VerticalCity.org
I was born in 1933 to a family of modest means, the youngest of four children. We lived in the Yu Yuan section of Shanghai, which is now a tourist area in the southern part of the city. Toys were expensive and therefore few so I spent my childhood playing chess, making origami, and raising silk worms. In the process I learned to think strategically, to be dexterous and see geometrically in three dimensions, and to appreciate Nature and the delicate balance of its living system.In retrospect I realize that these are the very qualities that predisposed me to become an ecologically-driven architect.During World War II my family moved to the French Concession within Shanghai for betterprotection from the Japanese occupation. When Japan surrendered, I remember vividly how, after years of air raids and huddling under the dining room table, Shanghai exploded with life, flooded by all manner of American war surplus, including everything from C-rations and chocolates to thousands of U.S. sailors. The excitement lasted about two years until civil war broke out between Kuo Ming Tang (the Nationalist party) headed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist party under Mao Zedong.
Kuo Ming Tang was riddled with corruption and started printing currency without the necessary reserves. When inflation soared, Chiang Kai-shek sent his son Chiang Jin Guo to Shanghai to restore control. But all of a sudden the goods on store shelves disappeared and the “Black Market” became the only source of provisions. People started losing faith in the Nationalist party. Despite hefty support from the United States, the Nationalists could not prevail and in 1949 Kuo Ming Tang retreated to Taiwan.
In December of the same year, shortly after the Communist take-over of China, my father decided to move to Hong Kong, which at the time was still under British sovereignty. In a practice that was common at the time, almost like insurance, he split the family in two, taking me and my oldest brother but leaving behind my middle brother and sister. If Hong Kong didn’t work out, the family could always return to Shanghai.
I finished high school in Hong Kong and in 1953 went to London where I studied architecture at Northern Polytechnic, now London Metropolitan University. It was there that I was introduced to modern architecture. I loved the clean Bauhaus aesthetic, its simplicity and rational proportions. But somehow, even while fully in its sway, I never felt that the siting of International Style buildings was really resolved. To the degree that buildings had any connection with their surroundings, it was more by accident than purposeful design. Buildings were typically a-contextual, isolated and imposed on the land rather than meaningfully joined with it. I always felt there should be a better balance.
In 1958 I received a full scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and received my M.Arch degree the following year. After a short stint in a small Massachusetts architectural firm I settled in New York City, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1965.
My early career focused on hospital design. The complex functions of this specialized field, particularly with respect to critical efficiencies and layered circulation systems, led me naturally to learn more about planning. I subsequently became involved in the master planning of Mokkattam, a 10,000-acre development in the hills overlooking Cairo. Today Mokkattam is best known for its sprawling views, ancient caves and quarries, and its thriving modern community. It is also known for “Garbage City.” Zabaleen (garbage collectors in Arabic) transport the trash of Cairo’s growing population, currently about 18 million, and bring it to the foot of the mountain for sorting. In an effective and environmental-friendly system that is far ahead of most modern green initiatives, the Zabaleen have been an integral part of Cairo’s waste disposal for decades. Pigs are fed on organic matter and then sold profitably for food. The remainder of the solid waste is processed and some 80 percent of it is recycled (Western garbage collectors recycle only 20-25 percent). This grassroots venture, operating virtually without cost, has become a model for developing countries.
Another project that I later became involved in was the planning of Montazah, a 300-acre recreational development on the rocky bluffs overlooking the sea in Alexandria, Egypt. As it is the planner’s role to envision the future and to recognize possibilities even when others cannot, I started to think broadly about human needs and to explore, eyes wide open, what really works and what does not.
I recalled my early days in Shanghai. Given its role as a hub of international banking and commerce, and consequently its greater contact with the outside world, Shanghai in the 1930s was much more developed than other parts of China. In fact, as the rest of the world struggled through the Depression, it experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity and growth, with more skyscrapers than anywhere except Chicago and New York. Outside the commercial district, houses and apartments were grouped around common courtyards or lanes. Bathroom and kitchen waste was discharged into septic tanks, which were emptied periodically and sold as fertilizer. In older parts of the city there were no sewerage systems so people used chamber pots. Some were dumped directly into the storm drains but more often farmers purchased “night soil” as they had for centuries on end.
Shanghai’s neighborhoods throbbed with life and in every district there was a conveniently located market with fresh produce, fish, and meat. Since refrigerators were a rarity, most people shopped daily, buying only what they could carry in a reusable sack. There was virtually no waste. Paper, cans and bottles were reused or sold so that even without understanding the broad-scope benefits, people recycled as a matter of course. With all of our industrial waste, consumerism, and disposable mentality, we need to restore the life balance of an earlier, less destructive time.
Given the unprecedented urbanization taking place in China and other developing countries, the need is urgent. If China, for example, keeps on building sprawling new cities to accommodate the massive migration that is expected to continue for the next thirty years, there won’t be enough land to grow food. There won’t be enough water or other resources. And if, with their new found wealth, people continue to buy cars in record numbers, the eco-consequences will be calamitous, not just for China but for the world.
For years I have toyed with the notion of setting forth my ideas in a book. Ironically my most altruistic and lofty aspirations were unleashed by the base plight of many an urbanite: bumper-to-bumper full stop traffic. What could possibly be the problem? I wondered. It turned out that underground service crews were making a repair. The roadbed had to be opened and excavated, the utility repaired, and then the street resurfaced with heavy equipment. The entire operation took days while the repair itself required just over an hour. The inconvenience and cost, the exasperation, the lost time, and the idling pollution of so many cars for such a long period all struck me as so destructive and unnecessary. There just has to be a better way! This incident was the seed that launched my quest to eliminate as much as possible the urban problems that we’ve inherited, to find a better way to accommodate human needs, and to design a modern sustainable city.
This, as much as anything, is the story of my adult life.
开罗的人口一直在增长中，目前是一千八百万。Zabaleen (阿拉伯语中的垃圾收集器) 将大量日常生活垃圾运送到位于山脚的“垃圾城”进行分检。这个环保高效且领先于许多现代绿色环保设施的系统，已 经为开罗的废物处理工作了几十年。废物经处理后的一部分转化为有机猪饲料。剩下的固体废料中，80%被分配到住宅区各个家庭进行分检再循环（相比之下，西方国家的垃圾收集站只能循环利用20%到25%的垃圾）。整个系统的运行从实质上来说是零成本，因此也成为了世界上发展中国家环保发展的范本。
This article was archived on December 18, 2015.