On the couch Massimo Bottura
Architecture’s grandeur is linked to the amount of energy mobilised: the architecture of the Early Middle Ages was built with human muscle suffering. Twentiethcentury architecture is boosted by carbon energies and cranes
Presented by Walter Mariotti
Nothing remains of the European architecture of the six centuries of the Early Middle Ages. From the fall of the Roman Empire until the 10th century AD, everything has disappeared: no monument, no trace of cities, no castle, no house. Everything burned, everything collapsed, nothing held. Actually, everything was made with an extreme poverty of means, raised with extreme energetic weakness. Pieces of wood assembled painstakingly, some stones piled up painfully by undernourished and ailing carpenters and masons. And without a design, because architects were non-existent, on the edge of famine, unable to find time and energy to think about their art, occupied in an unceasing quest for food to reduce their hunger, looking for a missing treatment against their disease. Culture is energy multiplied by technology, wrote American anthropologist Leslie White in the 1940s, by continuing the analysis of Edward Burnett Tylor, who established that social progress is a consequence of technological development. We will say the same thing about architecture: its grandeur is linked to the amount of energy mobilised. The Italian historian Carlo Maria Cipolla described in 1961 the three main stages of human cultural development in relation to energy sources: the muscular ones of men themselves first, then that of animals, and finally that of coal. The architecture of the Early Middle Ages was an underpowered architecture, built with human muscle suffering. Twentiethcentury architecture, that of skyscrapers, is boosted by carbon energies. If we estimate the energy needed by one person today at 2,000 kilocalories per day, we must imagine that the men of the Middle Ages received only 200 kilocalories. And it was these undernourished workers, eating only poor calorific cereals, sick, with a life expectancy of 25 years, who had to build. And of course, the buildings were not too high and not very solid. An important revolution took place around the 10th century AD, initiating the High Middle Ages. Because of the invention of the plough with a steel blade that makes fertile the hardest fields, and the invention of the rotation of field crops, new foods, more calorific than cereals, were added to the human diet. UCLA historian Lynn Townsend White Jr described the phenomena in 1962, that French historian Jacques Le Goff resumed in 1964: “vegetables such as beans, lentils, peas-endowed with a high energetic power, gave Western humanity the strength that would make it build cathedrals”. The Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, taking up these theses, went so far as to say in The New York Times of 18 April 1999 that beans saved civilisation and were responsible for the blossoming of art and the grandeur of culture which flourished from the 10th century until today. Culture, civilisation, social values, but also moral values, as Ian Morris, a Stanford professor, now establishes,
would have something to do with the quantity and type of energy at our disposal. A small quantity of beans in the human diet first generated Romanesque art while increasing quantities of beans in the workers and architects’ diet later generated Gothic art. Finally, the grandeur of the naves of the Gothic cathedrals was due as much by the imagination of the architects as beans; the grandeur of skyscrapers or gigantic airports of the 2000s is defined as much to engineers as by oil. And today’s fossil fuel crisis will inevitably lead to a low-profile, low-energy architecture before the development of a new renewable energy production and storage technology that will enable the construction of tomorrow’s cathedrals.
Philippe Rahm is an architect with a Master’s degree from the Polytechnic School of Lausanne in Switzerland. He is the principal of Philippe Rahm architectes, an architecture firm based in Paris since 2008.
This spread: The diagrams show how food is converted into energy by the metabolism. Opposite page, bottom, from left: vitamin A and provitamin D become energy for muscle activity; a serving of yogurt equals 120 kcal, even when inactive, the body consumes 60 kcal per hour This page: digestion converts proteins into energy and heat