In the foreword to the 40th anniversary edition of Ernest Callenbach’s now famous novel Ecotopia (1975), the mother of all contemporary environmental utopian novels, Malcolm Margolin offers an attempt to pin down the novel’s strange enduring appeal. Margolin suggests that the novel remains popular as “a model for sustainability” (vi), instead of positing an unattainable fantastical vision of a world out of reach. For Margolin, Callenbach’s instincts as a writer were decidedly pragmatic, concerned with “solv[ing] a plumbing problem,” rather than “desir[ing] to make a perfect world” (vi). He declares Ecotopia as “a handbook, an instruction manual, a guide” that allows the reader to “eventually bring back home some useful ideas for a better world” (ix).
Margolin might have unexpectedly enunciated a paradox about sustainability that explains why it is still given the time of day as a global political issue despite the fact that the parlous environmental state of our world remains more or less unchanged, if not worse. While sustainability might entail urgent real problems and simple technical solutions, it is also a powerful fiction which renders the possible imaginable, and the imaginable as possible. Design collective Rotor teases out this paradox – and more – in Behind the Green Door: A Critical Look at Sustainable Architecture Through 600 Objects, a catalogue of Rotor’s research project-exhibition in the 2013 Oslo Architecture Triennale. This exhibition/catalogue incidentally shares the same title with a 1972 American classic pornographic film, but Rotor’s volume, with its focus on green architecture and sustainability, has no intention to titillate in that direction. The book however does provoke reflection on sustainability as a topic of significant public concern, in spite of the prospect of sustainability having “the sex appeal of a doormat” (195).
The research project Behind the Green Door is an inquiry into what sustainability is – or rather, as Rotor brings up in the incisive introduction, “what worldview [is] needed to in order to consider [a] project sustainable” (16). Rotor examines 600 objects identified as sustainable design with the forensic eye of an archeologist assessing artefacts of a projected future. In a landscape of sustainability literature filled with technical manuals, manifestoes and policies that emphasise practical solutions, Rotor’s creative contribution is refreshing. There is a certain playfulness to the design collective’s approach to the serious topic: their methodology involves dividing and placing objects on tables and having topics and narratives of sustainability emerge from their configurations. These collections are translated into the book in the form of thematic sections with introductory captions heading the images of the various objects and their descriptions. The titles of the sections range from “Whole Earth”, “Brundtland”, “Nature”, to “LEED,” “Living Skins,” to “Beauty.” These tables are followed by a much longer section called “collection” that functions much like a historical record of the achievements, failures and milestones of sustainability and sustainable design, beginning from its countercultural origins reflected in the Whole Earth Catalog. The discrete items filed under each table reveals a vast array of ideas, models, materials and contraptions, which includes the Unabomber’s cabin (74) as a model of destructively obsessive self-sufficiency, and architect Bjarke Ingel’s waste incinerator plant refurbished as ski slope (121), amidst more recognizably sustainable entities such as passive houses and vertical green walls.
Without spelling it out too obviously, Rotor demonstrates how sustainability, as a concept, is less universally coherent and more ideologically contested with the effective employment of juxtaposition of these sustainable objects in the book’s layout format. The book wryly poses questions on the effectiveness of sustainable design and demonstrates how sustainability is driven by multiple agendas, which include capitalistic and nationalist ones. The history of sustainable design is riddled with ironies and failures; one of these incidents involves the acrylic panels of Buckminster Fuller’s Expo ‘67 US Pavilion geodesic dome – hailed as an environmentally progressive structure – being accidentally set on fire by workers while they were welding it in 1976. There is plenty of hypocrisy in terms of greenwashing and capitalist out-maneuvering with innovation patents, some ludicrousness, but also moments of understated success, ingenuity and quiet wonder (such as the Japanese Cool Biz shirt marketed by Uniqlo).
In the Triennale exhibition, Rotor had organised for architects, environmental scientists, philosophers, curators, and politicians to comment on the objects, thus presenting the audience with a multi-disciplinary tableau of opinions and reflections. The book format similarly features pithy quotations from various architects, academics, sustainable design professionals, writers, curators, artists and urbanists who express critical and emotional responses that furnish insight into the description of the featured object.
Sustainable design gets to the heart of how we live, and it also communicates how we can live. Behind the Green Door provides an entertaining, visually-driven quick survey of the hard issues. They range from the narrowness and overreach of sustainable design, to the material conundrums that sustainable design and technology pose with regards to issues of safety, efficiency and the economy of effort in using and producing a given object. The book also highlights the various interests coopting sustainable design for their purposes. It raises the question of where beauty fits in relation to sustainability and sustainable design. Sustainability is an aesthetic concept – it seeks to balance multiple, sometimes conflicting, needs in a way that enhances or even elevates our individual and collective experience of life. But sustainable design faces the dilemma of either coming across as simply ugly, or misleading in its green sheen.
Sustainability inevitably needs be attractive in order to be successful, but beauty is also subjective. Behind the Green Door explicitly confines itself to examples of sustainable design mostly from Western Europe, and this further prompts these questions: do we inadvertently valorise only specific Western-centric kinds of sustainable lifestyles? Are these preferences class-related? Are there other modes of sustainable living or design from other parts of the world, especially from less developed nations, that have been overlooked because they do not fit the image of what we appreciate as sustainable? MIT professor Mark Jarzombek’s comment in response to a Norwegian log cabin surfaces the volume’s lack of critical engagement with the fact that there is an international hegemony of Western notions of sustainability: “Norway and Germany appears 16 times. The word Africa only appears twice. And in both cases it was something made by non-Africans for Africa. One would think that something more could be found from this continent to engage in these issues!” (302) Even though the curators’ focus understandably limits the categorical scope of the objects chosen, more could have been gestured to address this aspect.
However, as the book version of an exhibition catalogue, Behind the Green Door does an understatedly impressive job of pointing out some of the political stakes and also suggesting the continued political potential of the project of sustainability and its design, despite its current status as an overused buzzword. Behind the problems and innovations, there lie narratives of existential concerns articulating our collective hopes for the future. As architectural historian Simon Sadler says, in responding to a primary school project made of compressed-earth blocks, “[a]nd just when sustainability seems lost to cynicism – we encounter poetry” (162).
 Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia: 40th Anniversary Epistle Edition. Berkeley: Heyday, 2014.
Behind the Green Door: A Critical Look at Sustainable Architecture through 600 Objects. Eds. Lionel Devlieger, Livia Cahn, Maarten Gielen. Leuven: Oslo Arkitekturtriennale/Exhibitions International, 2014.
Wong May Ee is a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of California, with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory. Her current research examines epistemologies, aesthetics and ideologies of contemporary ecological and complex systemic discourses pertaining to the global sustainable city.