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

Domus - - CONTENTS - Pre­sented by Philippe Rahm

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

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