13 December 2013

Review: Big Data

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.
"We’re going to find ourselves in the not too distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data." (1)
For Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data: A Revolution That Will TransformHow We Live, Work, and Think, the “revolution” that is currently shaping the contemporary world has the potential to create fundamental transformations in the way in which society operates, on a par with the introduction of the Guttenberg Printing Press in 1450. They point to the fact that "In less than a person's life span, the flow of information has changed from a trickle to a torrent" (2) and that throughout history people have always “opted for more information flows rather than less." (3) The book sets out to describe big data, (4) defined as “the ability of society to harness information in novel ways to produce useful insights or goods and services of significant value", (5) as a theoretical and practical construct that will continue, and greatly accelerate, this trend.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We
Live, Work, and Think (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

The co-authors, an academic and a journalist, share common research interests in areas surrounding Internet governance and technology, recurring themes throughout Big Data. Considerable time is spent dealing with the Implications, Risks and Control (Chapters 7, 8 and 9 respectively) of big data, which is perhaps a testament to the fact that Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford, and in 1986 he founded Ikarus Software, a company focused on data security. (6) With other interests surrounding innovation and intellectual property rights (both touched upon in Big Data), Kenneth Cukier is currently the Data Editor of The Economist, having previously been the paper's technology correspondent. (7)

Setting out their intentions for the book early on, the co-authors intend to “explain where we are, trace how we got here, and offer an urgently needed guide to the benefits and dangers that lie ahead." (8) Judged by these criteria the book is fairly successful, providing a comprehensive yet accessible overview to both the benefits and the risks of big data. It should be noted that early on in the book they describe themselves “not so much big data's evangelists, but merely its messengers”, however at times Big Data does come across as evangelical in its praise of big data’s virtues. (9) Whilst this is tempered by discussions about the risks associated with its adoption, which widens the discussion beyond issues of privacy, the tone nevertheless falls firmly on the side that big data is good and that it is here to stay. (10) When asked in an interview about the likely trajectory of big data over the next five years Cukier predicted that it will unfold in much the same way as the Internet, with widespread adoption of big data “around all corners of society”. (11) Big data’s ‘breakthrough moment’ may already have happened, with Cukier drawing comparisons between “the birth of the Web at the Netscape IPO” (1995) and the Facebook IPO in 2012: “It is a $67 billion company with very small revenues and small earnings and all the value of its share is in the promise of what its data holds." (12)

Datafying, then digitizing, big data

The term “big data” emerged during the 2000s, with an ‘explosion’ of data in sciences such as astronomy and genomics; it has since migrated across disciplinary boundaries “to all areas of human endeavour." (13) Today big data “refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more." (14) This relies on a dramatic increase in not only the amount of quantitative information available but also the expertise and the tools to properly utilise it. However, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier go to great lengths throughout the book to explain that whilst “changes in technology have been a critical factor making it [big data] possible, something more important changed too, something subtle."(15) This subtle shift is a change in mind set about data itself and how it can be used; this is the “revolution” Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier are referring to, not the machines. (16) An initial quantitative change (technology) has produced a qualitative change, comparable to the difference between a photograph and a movie: “by changing the amount, we change the essence." (17) Furthermore, today data is no longer “regarded as static or stale, whose usefulness was finished once the purpose for which it was collected was achieved” but is instead recognised as “a raw material of business, a vital economic input, used to create a new form of economic value." (18) To put it another way data is “the oil of the information economy" (19) but whereas oil can only be used once, data can be used again and again.
That big data is often conflated with issues surrounding technology is not surprising when you consider that “The amount of stored information grows four times faster than the world economy” and that this process is only speeding up with further technological advancement, to the point where “Everyone is whiplashed by the changes." (20) This conflation is further aggravated by the fact that big data is “described as part of the branch of computer science called artificial intelligence, and more specifically, an area called machine learning … [but] Big data is not about trying to ‘teach’ a computer to ‘think’ like humans." (21) Regardless of this it is difficult not to argue that technology, and particularly digitization, has not had an important role to play, even if “it is important to keep them separate." (22)

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier trace the building blocks of big data back far beyond the realm of the digital age. (23) Ancient civilizations attempted to collect census data for entire empires but the difficulty in the analogue world was that this was both costly and time consuming—the intrinsic value of large datasets was never in question. The work of Matthew Fontaine Maury in the 1800s is used to demonstrate “the degree to which the use of data predates digitization”. (24) Alongside his dozen “computers”, Maury revisited old logs to extract and tabulate valuable information on temperature, wind speed, and time, which had been discarded, and from it draw new navigational charts. (25) There are then two prerequisites to ‘datafication’: having the right set of tools; and a desire to quantify and to record. (26)

Whilst mathematics gave new meaning to data in centuries past, the shift from information no longer being stored in atoms but in bit has resulted in much larger transformational effects. (27) However, “The act of digitization—turning analogue information into computer readable format—by itself does not datafy." (28) The differences between datafying and digitizing are epitomized, for the co-authors, in the differences between Google’s Book Project and Amazon’s Kindle, surmising that: "Perhaps it is not unjust to say that, at least for now, Amazon understands the value of digitizing content, while Google understands the value of datafying it." (29)

Valuing more, messy, correlation

At the core of the principles underlying big data are three major, interconnected, shifts in mind set, each serving to reinforce the others position. The first is the ability to analyse vast amounts of data, without the restrictions of smaller sample sizes. Second, there is a “willingness to embrace data's real-world messiness rather than privilege exactitude.” Finally, causality is replaced by correlation as the driving force. (30) 

Historically, we have “relied on to the barest minimum” when collecting information; this was (and still is) “a form of unconscious self-censorship … an artificial constraint imposed by the technology at the time." (31) Today the ‘codified practice of stunting’ is no longer necessary because "The shortcomings in counting and tabulating no longer exist to the same extent." (32) This data is also increasingly temporal but its’ chronological contingency is less relevant because newer data is always being gathered by passive measures, from GPS to Twitter, replacing the outmoded data set. (33) Of course all of this requires "ample processing and storage power and cutting-edge tools to analyze it” but with these now accessible the cost of comprehensive data collection has fallen dramatically. (34) Furthermore, just as the Lytro Camera “records the entire light field instead of a 2D image” enabling the viewer to refocus pictures after they are taken, data can be revisited for entirely new reasons and purposes. (35)

The issues of dependency, messiness and exactitude are explored through descriptions of various translations devices that have been developed. It is argued that previous failures at translation software can be accounted to their design being based on a predilection with exactitude, an obsession which is “an artefact of the information-deprived analogue era." (36) To discard, or at least lessen, the importance of exactitude relies on embracing that we are never able to collect perfect information; therefore “as long as it is imperfect, messiness is a practical reality we must deal with." (37) Previous statisticians relied on imperfect information in the form of sampling, in the hope that the accuracy would make up for the limitations of the sample size, but today we can work with much larger samples that seem to iron out any errors produced by inexactitude. (38)

Having embraced having more, messy data, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier present a new “pragmatic approach” wherein with big data “Knowing what, not why, is good enough." (39) The pursuit of one single version of the truth is seen as a distraction, things are far “more malleable than we may admit”, (40) and as such causation is less important than correlation. The work of Daniel Kahneman is used as a demonstration of the human obsession with causalities, painting causation as a fast-thinking activity that jumps to conclusions far too quickly. (41) Whilst, correlation does not bring about certainty, only probability, when “a correlation is strong, the likelihood of a link is high." (42) The advent of machines capable of more powerful computations means that the limits of traditional linear correlation can be discarded in favour of more complexity, identifying non-linear relationships among data. (43)

If these three mind sets are fully adopted then, "in the age of big data, all data will be regarded as valuable, in and of itself." (44) This is because information is a “non-rivalrous” good, that doesn’t wear out and as such “The crux of data's worth is its seemingly unlimited potential for resuse: its option value." (45) In order to unleash the option value of data three methods are presented:  basic reuse; merging datasets; and finding "twofers." (46) Wilst each of these strategies is relatively straight forward, it is when they are applied to “data exhaust”—the by-product of people’s actions and movements in the real and digital world—that the greatest option value can be obtained.. (47) As seen by the valuation placed on Facebook, data as an intangible asset is now as valuable to a company as its brand, talent and strategy. (48)

Implications and controlling the risks

Currently companies can be differentiated into three broad categories based upon the data, the skills, and the ideas they offer, although some, such as Google, benefit from "vertical integration in the big-data value chain, where it occupies all three positions at once." (49) According to Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier the skills to succeed in this new big data workplace are shifting and “Today's pioneers of big data often come from disparate backgrounds and cross-apply their data skills in a wide variety of areas." (50) The breaking down of traditional silos and the cross-fertilisation of ideas amongst disciplines is not a trait unique to big data however the co-authors go one step further when discussing the possible demise of the expert, due to big data practices. They point to a change in the way in which knowledge itself is valued, and that expertise, like exactitude, is only appropriate for “a small-data world where one never has enough information, or the right information, and thus has to rely on intuition and experience to guide one's way." (51) In this new landscape the middle of an industry will be squeezed, so that firms will be either very large or small and nimble, recasting traditional sectors as diverse as city planning, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and financial services. (52)

If these are the wider implications for a new big data world, there are three categories of risk that we will all be faced with: issues of privacy, propensity and the fetishization of data. (53) This is the dark side of big data; it “allows for more surveillance of our lives while it makes some of the legal means for protecting privacy largely obsolete … [it] renders ineffective the core technical methods of preserving anonymity ... [and] there is a real risk that the benefits of big data will lure people into applying the techniques where they don't perfectly fit". (54) The three core strategies of individual notice and consent, opting out, and anonymization, are no longer effective in the big data age and as such Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier  "envision a very different privacy framework for the big-data age" (55) wherein there is “a regulatory shift from privacy by consent to privacy through accountability" (56) They are keen to stress the importance of maintaining individual responsibility within these new systems and that the more we attempt to reduce risk in society by relying on “data-driven interventions” the more we devalue that responsibility. (57) They propose a new caste of professionals, big data auditors or Algorithmists, who “would take a vow of impartiality and confidentiality", as a means to ensure human agency remains amid computer driven predictions. (58)


Each of the measures set out in the book are designed to put big data in its place, as nothing more than a tool and a resource. (59) Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier talk about a new world that is taking shape now, “already sketched in faint traces that are discernible to those with the technology to make them apparent." (60) To them this is not a world built on "ice-cold … algorithms and automatons” rather there is “an essential role for people, with all our foibles, misperceptions and mistakes, since these traits walk hand in hand with human creativity, instinct, and genius." (61) The question then is if big data is happening all around us, how is it shaping our lives beyond the invisible infrastructures and business systems with which the book is primarily concerned and for whom the co-authors view as its most advanced users. (62)

Aside from fleeting references to sensors being fixed to bridges and buildings, (63) to grey infrastructures, such as roads and vehicle tracking, (64) or manhole inspections and illegal conversions in New York City (65) (this is not to say that these are not important activities) there is little tangible evidence presented in Big Data with which a built environment professional can grapple.  This seems odd given the assertion that the new mental outlook of big data “may penetrate all areas of life” so that the world is seen as information, with “oceans of data that can be explored at ever greater breadth and depth”, and that this in turn “offers us a perspective on reality that we did not have before.” (66) It is seems curious then that the book is lacking in any references to the smart city concept, described by Adam Greenfield as either “urban-scale environments designed from the ground up with information-processing capabilities embedded in the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions that between them comprise everyday life” (67) or the broader “drive to retrofit networked information technologies into existing urban places.” (68)

Perhaps there is something to be drawn from the examples of European car manufacturers given in Big Data (69) or the business model of Rolls-Royce, (70) which could possibly be replicated by companies specialising in building components or systems, such as façade packages. Would this lead to large scale transformation of society? Probably not. It may alter procurement or operation and maintenance procedures but as for the wider public, they would likely see little difference. These ‘solutions’ have more to with the enthusiasm over the Internet of Things (IoT) (71) or the ’smart’ offerings of IBM, Cisco and Siemens, that Greenfield calls into question, than a revolution. (72)

If smart cities are ‘missing’ it is perhaps not surprising that there is also no mention of Building Information Modelling (BIM). (73) As recently as June 2013, The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London hosted a conference on big data and BIM. At the conference, Andrew Hudson-Smith, Director of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at The Bartlett, stated that big data is the medium through which to join Building Information Modelling (BIM), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Citizen Science and the Internet of Things together. (74)

As successful as Big Data is in painting a picture of the new big data age, when it comes to the built environment the brush is broad and the detail lacking. Those concerned with how big data is shaping the built environment must instead turn to others.


In a trilogy of papers, published between 2011 and 2013, Nick Dunn re-imagines digital space as a new terrain within which architects and urban planners can operate. Whilst this in itself is not a new approach, finding precedent in Archigram’s Plug-In City (1964) or Instant City (1968-70) and Archizoom’s No-Stop City (1969), or more recently UNStudio’s Time-based Urbanism (1997), MVRDV’s Datatown, Sector Waste (1999), and Asymptote’s New York Stock Exchange (1999), Dunn brings the discussion into the physical world. He describes the overlaying of digital technologies upon extant physical situations as a “multi-layered landscape”, (75) noting that “the city as we understood it … has now changed." (76) Whilst the emergence of new city models predates the digital age, it is clear that “The transformation of the physical landscape towards an increasingly incoherent set of urban conditions and the corresponding flows of endless data into an apparently infinite and united system has implications for what we might consider to be public domain." (77)

For example, the Sensity (2004-09) project by Stanza provides the public with “access to invisible but important qualities of the city” and “offer[s] a rich platform across which we [might] better understand our urban landscape”. (78) It is part of a much longer lineage, which includes the Nolli Map of Rome (1784), in providing new representations of public and private domain. Mapping exercises such as Stanzas are important to Dunn because they describe “the ecological mutuality between digital and physical landscapes, especially with regard to social behaviour and patterns." (79) Furthermore he is critical of the position that posits “digital networks and physical conditions are distinct, as opposed to integrative” and challenges designers to “to develop greater instrumentality that affords thick descriptions of scenarios and enables us to develop appropriate design strategies and responses” to deliver these multi-layered landscapes. (80)

With or without architects a new “intelligent terrain” is emerging, based on a framework of “community-led digital platforms that are easily accessible, robust and responsive to their citizens." (81) Projects such as Open Raleigh (82) or Data Driven Detroit, which has produced the D3 Toolbox, “envisioned [supporting] communities with the data necessary for them to take action in their neighbourhoods." (83) Large scale data collection has always been the purview of the state, (84) and whilst private enterprise may now be collecting their own big data, “Recently the idea has gained prominence that the best way to extract value of government data is to give the private sector and society in general access to try." (85) The future production of space and place will be dependent upon new interfaces, with built in feedback mechanisms, that enable the general public to not simply read a dataset but to get involved in it; this new “connective tissue, i.e. our sociospatial relations and experiences [and will] result in a useful territory from which to develop responsive tactics to urban space from places that are both socially constructed and personally perceived." (86)

It has not been possible to go into the various claims that Adam Greenfield makes against the smart city, however central to his argument is that the ubiquitous off-the-shelf products being sold as ‘smart cities’ are designed for “abstract, featureless terrain” and not “actual places”. (87) He is calling for work which is “technically sophisticated and [can] take every advantage offered us by emergent ways of doing and making." (88) I would posit that it is the “realistic hybrid of top-down and bottom-up systems” described by Dunn that Greenfield is arguing for, “rather than the illusion of an always on, always ready, always connected, networked society" (89) (a description that seems to aptly fit the new world traced by Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier).

Today then “our cities are already densely and intimately linked with one another, bound together by their own citizens in a constant and mutually reinforcing traffic in atoms and bits." (90) Finally, in the age of big data the scale of the city no longer matters, it is scale of the data that is important. (91) However, it is important to remember that “we are the network and [we are] the data”. (92)


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.

1. Magnuson, S., ‘Military ‘Swimming in Sensors and Drowning in Data’’, National Defense [Online] January 2010. Available at: [Accessed: 26th November 2013] This quote first came to my attention through Kumar Navulur, Director of Next Generation Products at DigitalGlobe, during his keynote address at PennGIS Day 2013, University of Pennsylvania, 20th November 2013, entitled “The New Spatial World – A Vision for the Future”.
2. Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K., Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013), New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 171.
3. Ibid., p. 172.
4. Throughout the book Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier refer to the term as ‘big data’ and ‘big-data’ interchangeably. For this paper I will be using the un-hyphenated version.
5. Ibid., p. 4.
6. ‘Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford [Online] 25th November 2013. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
7. ‘Biography’, Kenneth Cukier [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
8. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 18.
9. Ibid., p. 7.
10. It would seem that I am not alone in questioning the evangelical spirit with which the authors approach their subject matter. Press, G., ‘What’s to be Done about Big Data?’, Forbes [Online[ 11th March 2013. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013] Sentences such as “The data can reveal secrets to those with the humility, the willingness, and the tools to listen” do not exactly help Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier case. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 5.
11. Press, loc. cit.
12. Ibid.
13. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 6.
14. Ibid., p. 8.
15. Ibid., p. 5.
16. Ibid., p. 7.
17. Ibid., p. 10.
18. Ibid., p. 5.
19. Ibid., p. 16.
20. Ibid., p. 9.
21. If big data is not concerned with teaching machines to think like humans it is at least creating more intelligent systems with feedback mechanisms designed to “improve themselves over time, by keeping a tab on what are the best signals and patterns to look for as more data is fed in." Ibid., p. 12.
22. bid., p. 77.
23. Ibid., p. 78.
24. Ibid., p. 76-7.
25. “Computers” was the job title given to those who calculated the data. Ibid., p. 74-5.
26. Ibid., p. 78.
27. Negroponte, N., Being Digital (1995), New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
28. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit., p. 83.
29. Ibid.,, p. 86. On Google they add that: "The company understood that information has stored value that can only be released once it is datafied." p. 83.
30. Ibid., p. 18.
31. Ibid., p. 20.
32. Ibid., p. 26.
33. "The presence of the old data diminishes the value of the newer data." Ibid., p. 110.
34. Ibid., p. 27.
35. Lytro, ‘You’ll never think about pictures the same way’, Lytro [Online] No date. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013] This is discussed in Big Data Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K., Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013), New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 28.
36. Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K., Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013), New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 40.
37. Ibid., p. 41.
38. Although not stated directly in the book, there is an implication that whilst the sample sizes may be ‘x’ times greater, with digital methods, the order of inaccuracy is not ‘x’ times greater as well. The importance of accuracy is still highly relevant though for some big data disciplines, such as GIS, where accuracy is king.
39. Ibid., p. 52.
40. Ibid., p. 48.
41. Kahneman, D., Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013), New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
42. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 53. Of course, there is the danger that “when the number of data points increases by orders of magnitude, we also see more spurious correlations” p. 54.
43. Ibid., p. 61. This is taken one step further with the suggestion “in a big-data age, the argument goes, we do not need theories: we can just look at the data." p. 71.
44. Ibid., p. 100.
45. Ibid., p. 101-2, 122.
46. Ibid., p. 104.
47. Ibid., p. 113.
48. As with all intangible assets the difficulty lies in placing a stock market valuation on them. One possible solution to further extracting the value of data is the idea of licensing the data to third parties. Ibid., p. 120-1.
49. Ibid., p. 132.
50. Ibid., p. 131.
51. Ibid., p. 142.  The authors continue “In such a world, experience plays a critical role, since it is the long accumulation of latent knowledge—knowledge that one can't transmit easily or learn from a book, or perhaps even be consciously aware of--that enables one to make smarter decisions."
52. Ibid., p. 148. "Smart and nimble small players can enjoy ‘scale without mass,’ in the celebrated phrase of Professor Brynjolfsson. That is, they can have a large virtual presence without hefty physical resources, and can diffuse innovations broadly at little cost." p. 146-7.
53. Ibid., p. 152.
54. Ibid., p. 170.
55. Ibid., p. 173.
56. This vision will require technical innovation to help protect privacy in certain instances. Ibid., p. 175.
57. Ibid., p. 177.
58. Ibid., p. 180.
59. They describe big data “as a tool that doesn't offer ultimate answers, just good-enough ones to help us now until better methods and hence better answers come along.” Ibid., p. 197.
60. Ibid., p. 195.
61. Ibid., p. 196.
62. Ibid., p. 97.
63. Ibid., p. 59.
64. "Tracking individuals by vehicles also changes the nature of fixed costs, like roads and other infrastructure, by tying the use of those resources to drivers and others who "consume" them." Ibid., p. 89.  Whilst the book is solely concerned with the implication for the highways industry, there is far greater potential here for how all people interface and interact with a wider range of public goods (infrastructure), such as schools and parks. If it is not inconceivable that the fixed cost of consuming a road is tied to its use, why not extend this to these other infrastructures, with the cost reflected in the taxes a person pays or how taxes are proportioned.
65. Ibid., p. 69.
66. Ibid., p. 97.
67. Greenfield, A., Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use), (2013) Do projects (Kindle Edition), Loc. 77-8.
68. Ibid., Loc. 119-20.
69. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 69.
70. Ibid., p. p. 146.
71. "The enthusiasm over the ‘internet of things’—embedding chips, sensors, and communications modules into everyday objects—is partly about networking but just as much about datafying all that surrounds us." Ibid., p. 96.
72. Greenfield, op. cit., Loc. 159-60.
73. In reality this is hardly surprising given that it is very much a ‘niche’ industry compared to the mass-market audience this book is aimed at, even if Mayer-Schönberger lists ‘learning about architecture’ as one of his interests in his spare time.
74. Hudson-Smith, A., ‘Big Data, Sensing and Augmented Reality – New Directions for The Crowd and Industry’ [Online] September 2013. Available at: [First Accessed: 25th November 2013] This is a copy of his keynote address given at the Pedagogy meets Big Data and BIM: Building environment education and information management Conference at The Bartlett, 24th – 25th June 2013. On his own research he states that: “We explore various augmented reality systems and conclude that the next decade will see the fall of the smart phone and the rise of electroencephalograph embedded devices with information sent directly to our retinas – this is, we argue, the future of big data, sensing and augmented reality in relation to the built environment”.
75. Dunn, N., Infrastructural Urbanism: Ecologies and Technologies of Multi-Layered Landscapes. In: Spaces & Flows: An International Journal of Urban & ExtraUrban Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2011, p. 87-96.
76. Dunn, N., The end of architecture? : networked communities, urban transformation and post-capitalist landscapes. In: Spaces & Flows: An International Journal of Urban & ExtraUrban Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2013, p. 67-75.
77. Dunn (2011), Ibid.
78. Ibid. The project is described by Stanza as “A series of artworks based on connecting city spaces. The results are visualisations and sonificications of real time spaces.” ‘Sensity’, Stanza [Online] 2006. Available at: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
79. Ibid.
80. Ibid.
81. Dunn (2013), Ibid.
82. ‘Open Raleigh’, City of Raleigh [Online] No Date. Available: [Accessed: 25th November 2013]
83. Dunn, Ibid.
84. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 20.
85. Ibid., p. 116.
86. Dunn, Ibid.
87. Greenfield, op. cit., Loc. 1438.
88. Ibid., Loc. 1446-1449. He cautions: “But equally, it ought to remain profoundly informed by our understanding of the values and processes that have enabled cities to serve as vital engines of opportunity, platforms for personal reinvention and expressive creations in their own right for over seven millennia.” I would counter that we must beware forgetting that ideas about what a city is and should constitute do change, they are “engines of opportunity” precisely because they have never remained static.
89. Dunn, Ibid.
90. Greenfield, op. cit., Loc. 1417-9.
91. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, op. cit.,, p. 146.
92. Dunn, 2013. Ibid.

27 November 2013

Review: Reinventing Fire

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.

Could the United States of America realistically stop using oil and coal by 2050? And could such a vast transition toward efficient use and renewable energy be led by business for durable advantage? (1) It is these two questions that the “Reinventing Fire initiative”, launched by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and spear headed by Amory B. Lovins, set out to answer.

Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the
New Energy Era (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011)

The research was published in 2011 in the book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, however this is simply a distillation of a much larger body of research, disseminated through a variety of other channels including digital media, presentations, conferences, and other research papers. The majority of information is accessible through a comprehensive website and online presence, including a number of open-source tools that can be downloaded and a raft of methodological reports and technical summaries. This paper is primarily concerned with the research as it is presented in the book. Necessary additional insights have been gathered from these other sources.

Reinventing Fire

The book, like the research project, is concentrated around four themes, broken into three sectors—transportation, buildings and industry—that have the potential to “make possible shifts in how electricity is made." (2) An entire chapter is devoted to each of these four themes, with demonstrations of how oil and coal, as well as natural gas in the long run, can be saved. Despite the dynamic interconnectivity of each theme, each chapter can be read as a standalone piece, complete with its own introduction, case studies and conclusions.

Opening with an ‘origin story’ in the Preface, the metaphor of fire is immediately evoked by Lovins. The primeval memory of groups gathered around a fire is a powerful one. Fire not only nurtured our ancestors but also enabled the development of western civilization, however “nearly half of our fellow human beings still live in that medieval world." (3) Of what energy we do currently use globally, 80% is the result of burning the rotten remains of “primeval swamp goo”, or to put it less colloquially, fossil fuels. (4) Furthermore, quoting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Joint Force Quarterly, Lovins explains that whilst “Energy is the lifeblood of modern societies and a pillar of America’s prowess and prosperity … [but it] is also a major source of global instability, conflict, pollution, and risk." (5) For the RMI team none of the current problems associated with fossil fuels are necessary, either technologically or economically. They go so far as to say that “We can avoid them in ways that tend to reduce energy costs—because technological progress has quietly been making fossil fuels obsolete." (6) The solution posed is that “we just need a new fire", (7) one that allows us to be safe, secure and durable in the future. Here once again the metaphor of fire is used in a powerful and positive manner; just as a forest fire can be seen as productive reallocation of resources, instead of a destructive force, so shall this new fire.

This new fire comprises two intrinsically linked approaches: using energy very efficiently; and getting that energy from diverse and mainly dispersed renewable sources. A “twin transition” is described, one that isn’t restricted to “the old what—technology—and the old how—public policy”, but is instead increasingly about “the new what—integrative design that combines technologies in unexpected ways—and the new how—novel business models and competitive advantages." (8) The two pairings are seen as enhancing one and other, allowing for greater efficiency and diversity in energy solutions. The book’s aim is to show that in each of these four areas “important innovations are converging to create perhaps the biggest flood of disruptive opportunities ever seen, with effects as pervasive as those of the Information Age but even more fundamental." (9)

Before proceeding any further the book is interrupted by two Forewords, the first by Marvin Odum, President of Shell Oil Company, and the second by John W. Rowe, Chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation. The inclusion of these short pieces are no doubt crucial to achieving the buy-in of any major business heavily indebted to the current energy network, although they extent to which Odum and Rowe ‘buy-in’ to Lovins argument isn’t exclusively clear. (10)

Returning to the central argument of the book Chapter One, Defossilizing Fossil Fuels, sets out the ‘bigger picture’ of a U.S. economy built on cheap oil and coal. (11) Today U.S. gasoline prices are about half to one-third the “normal” price in other industrial countries and this in turn “has helped to create a pervasive pattern of inefficient vehicles and settlement patterns that maximize driving, causing a massive treasure transfer from America to oil exporting nations." (12) In 2008 America’s Oil bill came to $0.9 trillion but $388 billion went abroad (approximately 43%). (13) The total cost of oil dependence, including U.S. military expenditures for Persian Gulf forces, and minus the cost of the oil itself, equates to approximately $1.5 trillion a year, or 12% of GDP. (14) Early on Lovins relies on twin tactics, the use of empirical data and ‘shock and awe’ statements. For example, “A Pentagon study found that a handful of people in one evening could cut off three-fourths of the oil and gas supplies to the eastern U.S. without even leaving Louisiana." (15)

Energy consumption in the U.S. economy, 2010-2050.

The energy economy of the U.S. is complex, with a myriad of uses for the energy generated, however Lovins believes that the application of three basic principles—do more with less, modulate demand, and optimize supply—can, if applied holistically, rid the U.S. of its fossil fuel dependency. (16) However, this weaning is limited to coal and oil, natural gas is still seen as part of the energy mix in 2050. Nuclear Fission is also removed, on the basis of its hazardous waste and a link between nuclear power generation and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. (17)

Lovins goes on to outline how the proposals presented in Reinventing Fire show efficiency savings—doing more with less—can be used to achieve a larger economy, by 2050, with half the delivered energy, with less risk, and for $5 trillion less (in net present value). (18) Evidence for these efficiency savings trends is found in current data, not projections, wherein “By 2009, America was making a dollar of real GDP using 60% less oil, 50% less energy, 63% less directly used natural gas, and 20% less electricity than in 1975." (19) RMI’s proposals are aimed at accelerating these trends.

Reinventing Fire U.S. Energy Consumption in 2050.

Chapter 2, Transportation: Fitter Vehicles, Smarter Use, tackles the first key theme, setting out to show how we by 2050 we can “drive superefficient vehicles fuelled by a flexible mix of electricity, hydrogen, and sustainable biofuels (and, if desired, some natural gas for trucks), and we’d use those vehicles far more productively." (20) Just as the wider economy will derive its energy from a mix of sources, so will vehicles. In the case of biofuels this equates to an equivalent of 3.1 billion barrels of oil today, less than five times of volume of today’s U.S. biofuels industry, which provided 3% of 2010 mobility fuel. Lovins acknowledges that there are substantial challenges to overcome, most notably the inertial drag of current transportation industries and will require the buy-in of all stakeholders. (21) Three critical ways for business to lead this transformation are proposed: drive the transition to superefficient vehicles; invest across technologies and fuel types; and support policies to speed the transition to radical vehicle efficiency and productivity. (22)

Buildings are the focus of Chapter 3, Buildings: Designing for Better Living. Here the challenge is scaled up because “Building a few million ultralight electric cars seems almost trivial compared to retrofitting or replacing everything from double-wides in a trailer park to high-rises in San Jose.” (23) Furthermore, building-based solutions “require every single American to make different choices." (24) If enough societal change can take place “efficient buildings can become the foundation, and efficient vehicles and factories the pillars, of the vastly different U.S. energy system we’re already starting to build—less risky, probably less costly, and far more robust and resilient." (25) The end result is that by 2050, despite a 70% increase in floor space, buildings will use 13-55% less electricity and 24-68% less natural gas than compared to 2010 levels. Remarkably this could be achieved without using any onsite renewables, simply relying on efficiency savings. (26) “Transforming America’s building sector will demand national attention and action, an intensive ramp-up of investment and innovation, and broadly targeted policy enhancements and changes.” (27)

"Where does the money go?" Average annual consumer expenditures in the U.S.

While Lovins argues that the experienced practitioners already do know what to do, there are six main imperatives that should be driving this sectors transformation. (28) First, there is a need to attack buildings’ inefficiencies with trans-disciplinary insight and entrepreneurship. Second, energy use must be made more transparent. (29) Third, provide easy-to-access financing, priced commensurate with energy efficiency’s exceptionally low risk. Fourth, train and educate a high-quality workforce. Fifth, upgrade to next-generation building efficiency policies and align utility incentives. And finally, begin overhauling how building design is done, taught and built.

The final sector analysed, Industry: Remaking How We Make Things, is the focus of Chapter 4, and by now a common theme has emerged wherein Lovins surveys the existing situation, proposes changes, presents some concluding remarks, and ends with a table of recommendations for the key actors in that sector to pursue. Lovins focuses on the idea of creating resilience in industry, “the ability to survive in hard years and flourish in good ones, learning from stress to become ever more adaptive." (30) He draws parallels between rainforest and industrial ecosystems, stating that a different, longer-term view is required by business, one more akin to “a rainforest than of a chainsaw operator." (31) The key concepts to achieve “startling efficiency” in industry are summarised as: invest in factories and in the people on the factory floor; innovate to guarantee long-term competitiveness; and incentivise the right behaviour. (32) The environmental references continue with talk of “Obvious evolutionary pressures to make industry more robust and resilient, to work like an ecosystem” perhaps most importantly “properly pricing the commons into which things get thrown “away”, whether gunk in our water, junk in our landfills, soot in our lungs, or carbon in our air." (33)

It is argued that the lack of respect for the commons (34) has created “deliberately false price signals, subsidies, and other lopsided policies that handicap the whole economy." (35) This in turn has put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage compared to Germany and Japan, where the “more truthful prices” are driving bigger efficiency gains.

Having established the possibilities of these three key sectors, Chapter 5, Electricity: Repowering Prosperity, proposes a “hybrid of centralized and distributed renewables, integrated by advanced communications and controls that securely choreograph supply- and demand-side resources nearly in real time". (36) Central to this argument is the convergence of 21st century technologies and business models with 20th and 19th century cultures and institutions. As in the previous chapters, several lessons and core actions emerge: one, it is about choosing a system that can best exploit the full range of supply- and demand-side options in an integrated, least-cost fashion; two, the economic and technical challenges are much smaller than the needed institutional shifts; and finally, energy consumers will choose whether and when to adopt new technologies, inform their choices, change their behaviours.

The final chapter, Many Choices, On Future, brings the discussion to a close with a fictional account of what the U.S. might be like if the Reinventing Fire strategies are implemented. The future is not too outwardly dissimilar to the U.S. of today: “The coffee smells the same and the view out the window of the house onto a quiet neighbourhood looks fairly similar." (37) The tone is positive, however whilst the ‘interface’ may be the same, the underlying systems look remarkably different; this attitude recalls the “hedonistic sustainability” championed by some architectural practices, such as BIG (38) Lovins though puts it along these lines: “Energy can do our work without working our undoing." (39)

Difficulties, Risks and Barriers to Change

In Chapter 6 Lovins touches upon the political ‘hot potato’ of fracking and shale gas, he admits that “It will probably take a decade to resolve fracking controversies, reform bad operators, and build a stable regulatory engine that earns public confidence." (40) Nevertheless, natural gas is seen as a key transition fuel to assist with the process of removing coal, oil and nuclear but is still part of the energy consumption mix in 2050. It would seem then that the U.S. cannot fully shake its fossil fuel dependency by 2050. (41)

Despite this difficulty, Lovins suggests that the risks to the Reinventing Fire vision are limited, and although it “includes some technological advances based on aggressive learning curves, especially for carbon fibres, batteries, and renewable technologies, the accelerating advances in material and biological sciences suggests that [their] assumptions might be conservative." (42) There are of course “problems” (read risks), however these lie outside of the technological and economic arguments; these are referenced throughout the book and have resulted in efficiency and renewable technologies not being adopted as quickly as the Reinventing Fire path would need them to be." (43)

The range of barriers includes: active or passive resistance by incumbents; knowledge and culture; financing; value-chain complexity; unclear value proposition; lack of long-term leadership; policy and regulatory structures; and entanglement with partisan politics. (44) However, the main barrier is “slow adoption rates, not inadequate technologies." (45) Each sector also faces individual challenges, for example, the slow-turnover in buildings, industry and electricity. “If these sectors don’t reach roughly 40% adoption rates by 2030, later years’ adoption is unlikely to make up for those early delays." (46)

Business solutions for the United States of America

Whilst Lovins and his contributors may suggest an expanded world view throughout the book, this is first and foremost a book about the U.S. and the new energy era—a more accurate title would be Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the United States of America in the New Energy Era—and as such a nationalistic rhetoric runs throughout. These statements often rely on fall-back position that glorifies America’s past achievements and that “The real underlying fuel of America and of modern civilization is innovation and ingenuity." (47) The question is posed that “As the greatest transition in industrial history unfolds, will America lead this transformation or trail behind others, condemned by old thinking and bad politics to lose the opportunity?” (48) There is an implication here that America has lost its way in the world and that it needs to carve out a new space by striving “to be the sort of society others admire, emulate, and want to do business with." (49)

When other countries are introduced into the discussion it is often to highlight the lack of action being taken in the U.S. For example, “China invested $54 billion in clean energy in 2010—60% more than the U.S. (and 139% more in relation to GDP)”. (50) Other examples have already been highlighted, including the “oddly persistent” myth “that a country can best compete in the global economy by keeping energy prices low.” If this myth were true “America, the current world capital of cheap-energy policy, would have no trouble beating countries like Germany and Japan". (51)

The what and not the why

I would argue that the single greatest achievement of Lovins and the RMI team is not the way in which they are able to re-frame the boundaries of the energy question facing the U.S., rather it is their ability to shift the focus from the why to the what, whilst still demonstrating the how. “Amid the energy cacophony, the swirl of conflicting opinions and agendas, this simple approach bears emphasis: if together we focus on outcomes, not motives, that’s good enough, because the actual things to be done are the same no matter whether we each care most about national security, profits and jobs, climate and environment, or something else." (52) The approach of proposing “bold business solutions” in the title of the book underlines this; surely business leaders will be more receptive to the what than the why.

This then is not a book about Climate Change, the why that is typically at the core of any discussion today on issues surrounding energy. As Lovins describes: “For you to welcome this book’s thesis and embrace its recommendations, you needn’t accept the global scientific consensus on the reality and severity of the risks of climate change." (53) The Copenhagen climate conference (2009) is highlighted as an example of how “pricing carbon and winning international collaboration are hard if policymakers, pundits, and most citizens assume climate protection will be costly.” To go further, ever since the Kyoto Conference (1997) “most efforts to hedge climate risks have made four main errors: assuming solutions will be costly rather than profitable; insisting they be motivated by concerns about climate rather than about security, profit, or economic development; assuming they require a global treaty; and assuming U.S. business can do little or nothing before carbon is priced." (54) Chapters 2 through 5 aim to demonstrate that these assumptions are wrong; instead the conversation should turn to issues surrounding “wealth creation, jobs, and competitive advantage”, ensuring maximum buy-in from a maximum number of stakeholders”. (55) To borrow Markusen’s (2003) analysis of the term ‘sustainability’ I would posit it that Lovins relies on “fuzzy concepts” throughout the book. (56) Whilst he seeks to avoid the “linguistic slippage" (57) afforded by terminology such as sustainability, arguably because it has “emerged as a catchall term for many of humanity’s diverse environmental concerns and responses, so that it now acts as a point of identification and belief for many”, terms like ‘wealth creation’ or ‘competitive advantage’ are equally ‘slippery’. (58)

It is of course hard to escape from so-called ‘green wash’ today, wherein ‘green issues’, are used to smuggle in other outcomes. Penelope Dean demonstrates the potential for ‘green’ ideas to be “used as a Trojan horse to both recuperate a sociocultural design project for architecture and urbanism and to smuggle back into the disciplines those things that have ultimately been left behind”. (59) Lovins argument highlights that ‘green’ may not always be the most appropriate cover under which to smuggle our agendas, and as such the power of the dollar should not be undervalued in this respect as a tool to leverage a more socially durable position. This is not to say that the dollar is any more of a false idol than green is and we should always be aware of such blunt ideological instruments.

The limitations of the printed word

It is virtually impossible to separate the book from the entire Reinventing Fire project, whilst it is undoubtedly an integral part to RMI’s strategy for disseminating their findings; it is only one element from a project with a much broader scope because the issues it tackles cannot be solved by one book alone. Immediate comparisons can be drawn between the Reinventing Fire project and the EU Roadmap 2050 proposals that emerged in 2010. Road Map 2050 is an initiative of the European Climate Foundation (ECF) and was developed by a consortium of experts to “provide a practical, independent and objective analysis of pathways to achieve a low-carbon economy in Europe, in line with the energy security, environmental and economic goals of the European Union." (60) The research was never presented in one definitive book, rather the ECF chose to publish it in three separate volumes: Technical and Economic Analysis; Policy Report; and, Graphic Narrative. (61) The benefit of this is that the different data streams can be parsed for their respective audiences, whilst sharing a framework in the methodology and technical studies. As with Reinventing Fire a raft other digital media is also available through a website. Whilst the two messages share some commonalities they are different in their approach, in Reinventing Fire the emphasis is on business-led change, in Roadmap 2050 individual governments of the nation-states take a more prominent role in the transition to a carbon free economy.

An interactive iPad App was launched to help promote The Metropolitan
Revolution project. It is updated with new case studies on a regular basis. 

Lovins and RMI may have invested their time more productively by establishing a series of separate volumes, aimed at different audiences, rather than attempting to design a catch-all book that arguably ends up leaving the reader over whelmed by its breadth of scope. The columns, the long chapters, and the use of sidebars leave it slightly confused, at times it reads like a text book, at others like a set of financial accounts. Producing a narrative volume, similar to Volume III of Roadmap 2050, may have better disseminated what is a highly important message to a larger population. The use of the word ‘narrative’ does not necessarily mean a fully representative account of what this future might look like, but rather a more concise, better illustrated analysis of the present and the paths to that future. For example, the renderings presented in Roadmap 2050 are not highly polished but they still succeed in conveying a message that different audiences can understand. Lovins may not have wanted to depict exactly what this future would look like, despite his description of it in the final chapter, and yet an important opportunity is missed by not doing so.
Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s work on The Metropolitan Revolution, whilst not necessarily a research initiative in the same vein as either Reinventing Fire or Roadmap 2050, documents the growing trend wherein “Across the nation, cities and metropolitan areas, and the networks of pragmatic leaders who govern them, are taking on the big issues that Washington won’t, or can’t, solve." (62) This ‘projects’ primary means for disseminating its message is through a book (with the customary lecture circuit to accompany it), however unlike Reinventing Fire and Roadmap 2050 the Brookings Institute have chosen to release a free iPad App that “brings examples of the revolution to life, with video interviews, infographics and data visualizations." (63) This allows them to develop their case over time, adding new cities to the app as more research is gathered, and extends the message beyond the lifetime of the book, which is after all produced at a frozen point in time. It seems highly unusual that RMI have not gone to similar measures with Reinventing Fire and the website is too reliant on words. That RMI are capable of better distilling their ideas is not in doubt, as demonstrated in their short YouTube videos, but it does seem strange, given the importance placed on the Information Age and social media in the book that these have not been exploited to their full potential.

Sustained transformation in the built environment industry

Throughout the book Lovins repeatedly returns to the economic argument that “Some $5 trillion in savings over 40 years may seem small in a $15-trillion-per-year economy. But it’s the opposite of the economic collapse that some pundits predict." (64) However, it can been demonstrated that sustained effort pays off: California shrank greenhouse-gas emissions per dollar of GDP by 30% between 1990-2006, whilst Denmark shrank its energy intensity 39% and its carbon intensity 50%, made its electricity 28% more renewable and three-fourths micropower, and created a world-class renewables industry between 1980-2006 (65)

In describing the world post Reinventing Fire clear references to issues affecting all disciplines in the built environment industry are made. A future where “we organize our communities around people, not autos, we drive much less because the places where we live, work, play and shop are nearly all in easy walking distance” has obvious implications for the way our architects and urban planners of the future must operate." (66) Furthermore “The old zoning rules that ended up segregating housing by income level, causing isolation and dispersion, and requiring that you have a costly private car to get anywhere, are long repealed." (67)

Today cities are no longer considered as two-variable (density and open space) problems but instead as complex entities more comparable to the emergent behaviours witnessed in ecology. The world post Reinventing Fire is the same, with urban and industrial ecosystems where what waste is generated becomes food for another part of the system. (68) The Kalundbord Eco-industrial Park, Denmark, is a prime example of this happening today. A process of “industrial symbiosis” allows a network of regional companies to collaborate, use each other’s by-products and share resources. (69)
If there is one ‘hero’ in the world of Reinventing Fire it is not one person but an idea—integrated design—that will enable this post-fossil fuel U.S. to come to fruition. It is curious that at the same time that the ‘old fire’ began to proliferate, during the Industrial Revolution, that the proliferation of specialists took place and everything became de-integrated. Not only does two hundred years of energy structure need to be transformed but a milieu two hundred years in the making must also be reshaped. “To turn dis-integrated design into highly integrative design, architectural and engineering pedagogy needs reform, in-practice design professionals need mental retreads, clients need to value and require integrative design by experiencing its benefits, and incentive-aligning approaches like performance-based design fees and integrated project delivery need to become the norm." (70)

I would like to leave the final word not with Lovins but instead with Belgian architect Julien De Smedt. I believe they are describing very similar futures when, in 2010, De Smedt, wrote: “As young architects, our generation must enthusiastically embrace new ideas about sustainability, questioning inherited doctrine and forging new trajectories. We are the first generation of architects for whom sustainability was embedded in our education—what could in the near future come to be known as the post-sustainability generation. We believe architecture must shift its focus from sustain to ability, abandoning the ambiguity , guilt and compromise characteristic of too much sustainable design today, and demanding instead precise, beautiful, and systematic instigations for change." (71)


The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Systems Thinking elective in Fall 2013.

1. Lovins, A., Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era (2011), White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, p. IX.
2. Ibid., p. IX.
3. Ibid., p. XI.
4. Lovins, A. ‘A 40-year plan for energy’, TED Talks [Online] February 2012. Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
5. Lovins, A., (2011), op. cit., p. XII.
6. Ibid., p. XII.
7. Ibid., p. XI.
8. Ibid., p. XIII. The use of italics is my own.
9. Ibid., p. XIII. The use of italics is my own.
10. Ibid., p. XVI. In his piece Rowe highlights that “carbon is not the only harm that comes from burning fossil fuels. Burning coal emits sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulates, mercury, arsenic, lead, hydrochloric acid and other acid gases, dioxins, and the other toxins that are harmful to human health.” He also points out that “Natural gas, an abundant, inexpensive, domestic resource, will play a key role as the bridge to whatever energy future prevails.”
11. Ibid., p. 3.
12. Ibid., p. 3.
13. Ibid., p. 3. This is equivalent to a 2% tax on the whole economy, without the revenues that would generate.
14. Ibid., p. 4. This is far greater than the total U.S. energy bill.
15. Ibid., p. 6. In the modern, digital age, we are often bombarded by information Lovins is still able to ‘shock’ us with the majority of his revelations.
16. Ibid., pp. 11-2.
17. An interestingly paradox could present itself here when dealing with nuclear energy, as Nuclear Fusion is discounted due to the lack of viable energy production currently and the substantial work required to reach a point where it can add For recent developments in Nuclear Fusion see Rincon, P., ’Nuclear fusion milestone passed at US lab’, BBC News [Online], 7th October 2013. Available at: [Accessed: 13th November 2013]
18. Ibid., p. 11.
19. Ibid., p. 13.
20. Ibid., p. 69.
21. As always his argument is that this is easier than not doing anything and having to deal with those consequences.
22. Ibid., pp. 70-1.
23. Ibid., p. 118.
24. Ibid., p. 118.
25. Ibid, p. 118.
26. Ibid., p. 119. There is obviously a big difference between saving 13% electricity and 55% electricity, the target is to achieve the higher figure and is perhaps reflective of the challenge societal changes present.
27. Ibid., p. 117.
28. Ibid., pp. 117-8.
29. Ibid., p. 117. This is a real possibility through “Cheaper sensors and monitoring technologies, cheap and ubiquitous telecommunications, the dawn of the smart grid, and rising customer demand are creating momentum, capability, and markets for high-quality data collection and application."
30. Ibid., pp. 158-9.
31. Ibid., p. 158.
32. Ibid., pp. 161-2.
33. Ibid., p. 159. Other “pressures” include: desubsidizing fuel; mandating producer lifecycle responsibility; allowing and encouraging waste-heat recovery and reuse; removing distortions that favour virgin over recycled materials; and letting business expense energy-saving investments against taxable income rather than having to capitalize them.
34. This is a direct reference to ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.
35. Lovins, op. cit., p. 159.
36. Ibid., p. 222. This would use “islandable microgrids as necessary to ensure resilience."
37. Ibid., p. 229. This is markedly different to the world described in the utopian novel of Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975).
38. Ingels, B., ‘Hedonistic Sustainability’, TED Talks [Online] January 2012. Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
39. Lovins, op. cit., p. 232.
40. Ibid., p. 233.
41. There is no reference to what could be seen as the clever marketing of the word ‘natural’ in ‘natural gas’.
42. Ibid., p. 234.
43. Ibid., p. 234.
44. Ibid., pp. 246-7.
45. Ibid., p. 247.
46. Ibid., p. 248.
47. Ibid., p. 228.
48. Ibid., p. 228.
49. Lovins adds: “What better way to be a moral beacon and reinvigorate our own aspirations than helping lead the world to the cleaner, safer future this book envisions?" Ibid., p. 241.
50. This is more than the world’s entire clean energy investment in 2004. Ibid., p. 243.
51. Ibid., p. 239.
52. Ibid., pp. 250-1.
53. Ibid., p. 238.
54. Ibid., pp. 238-9.
55. These issues can also “sweeten the politics so much that any remaining resistance can melt faster than the glaciers.” Ibid., p. 238.
56. Markusen, A., Fuzzy concepts, scanty evidence, policy distance: The case for rigour and policy relevance in critical regional studies, Regional Studies 37 (2003), p. 702., in Gunder, M. Sustainability: Planning’s Saving Grace or Road to Perdition?, Journal of Planning Education and Research (2006), p. 211. Markusen defines a fuzzy concept as something that “posits an entity, phenomenon, or process that possess two or more alternative meanings and thus cannot be identified or applied reliably."
57. Gunder, M. Sustainability: Planning’s Saving Grace or Road to Perdition?, Journal of Planning Education and Research (2006), p. 213. Gunder adds that “Planners regularly use these ambiguous terms, often as justification for their professional actions…” The term ‘Planner’ could just as readily be swapped with the term ‘Architect. Ibid., p. 212.
58. Ibid., p. 209. Gunder adds that it is not just professionals working in the built environment who require “ideological concepts of belief and identification to be fuzzy”, but that the wider “socio-political processes” would not function without them. p., 213.
59. Dean, P., ‘Under Cover of Green’, in Cuff, D, and Sherman, R., ed., Fast-Forward Urbanism: Rethinking Architecture’s Engagement with the City (2010), New York: Princeton Architectural Press, p. 65.
60. Roadmap 2050, 2013, Roadmap 2050 [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 13th November 2013]
61. Volume I: Technical and Economic Analysis was prepared by: McKinsey & Company; KEMA; The Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London; Oxford Economics and the ECF. Volume II: Policy Report was prepared by: E3G; The Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands; The Regulatory Assistance Project and the ECF. Volume III: Graphic Narrative was prepared by: The Office for Metropolitan Architecture and the ECF. Each of these volumes is available digitally and at the time they were made freely available in print form too.
62. The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (2013), Brookings Institution Press [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
63. iPad App (2013), The Metropolitan Revolution [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013]
64. Lovins, op. cit., p. 235.
65. Ibid., p. 239.
66. Ibid., pp. 229-30. Lovins continues “Sprawl is no longer subsidized either: developers pay all the costs they impose on public infrastructure and services.” For further discussion on the changing role of the suburbs in the U.S. see Leigh Gallagher’s recent book ‘The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving’ (2013).
67. Ibid., p. 230.
68. Ibid. p. 231.
69. Kalundborg Symbiosis, 2013, Kalundborg Symbiosis [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13th November 2013] This arose unintentionally through market forces, over fifty years, making it a model of private planning and initiatives that Lovins is advocating. Of course this network has a coal-fired power plant at its centre which wouldn’t suffice in the world post Reinventing Fire.
70. Lovins, op. cit., p. 118. The challenge of performance-based design fees presents the largest challenges here, in part due to a lack of research-based practice within the built environment professions.
71. Mostafavi, M. and Doherty, G., Ecological Urbanism (2010), Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, p. 122. The use of italics is my own.

19 November 2013

The Contradictions of Viollet-le-Duc

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Architectural Theory elective in Fall 2013, taught by Professor David Leatherbarrow.
"One day we entered into the church of Notre-Dame; and he carried me in his arms, for the crowd was great. The cathedral was hung with black. My gaze rested on the painted glass of the southern rose-window, through which the rays of the sun were streaming, coloured with the most brilliant hues. I still see the place where our progress was interrupted by the crowd. All at once the roll of the great organ was heard; but for me, the sound was singing of the rose-window before me. In vain did my old guide attempt to undeceive me; the impression became more and more vivid, until my imagination led me to believe that such or such panes of glass emitted grave and solemn sounds, whilst others produced shriller and more piercing tones; so that at last my terror become so intense that he was obliged to take me out." (1)
Rose Window at Notre Dame, Paris.

Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc is often painted as a rational figure of the 19th century however a more accurate depiction would be a man of contradictions. He was undoubtedly a great and progressive theoretician, but there is no escaping that his built work was, in the words of some architectural historians and critics, ordinary at most, failing to live up to his own ambitions. He is also a highly emotional figure, he quarrelled with the institutions of his day throughout his entire career, in fact he spent most of his time sitting outside of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and yet he was more than happy to accept the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of Britannic Architects in 1864. As I lay out some of his key thoughts on architecture I think it is important to keep the image of that young child, so moved by the rose-window, close to hand; for me it presents us with an invaluable insight into the mind of the man, I would even dare to say that this story alone could explain his interest in the Gothic, for which he has become so associated, indeed it may be his own way of acknowledging this.

Without wishing to fall into the trap of amateur-psychoanalysis which my opening statements have already brought me precariously close to I think it is necessary to explain that for this review I will be dealing with a reprinted edition of the English translation of Viollet-le-Duc’s Entretiens sur l’architecture (Lectures on architecture) translated by Architect Benjamin Bucknall between 1877 (Volume I) and 1881 (Volume II). Viollet-le-Duc is known to have been aware of the translation, with Bucknall making it clear in his Preface that he has carried out the translation with the sanction of the original author.

Bucknall holds Viollet-le-Duc in high regard, this much is clear from his Translator’s Preface, putting forward that Viollet-le-Duc shows us, the reader, “none of the various forms of Architecture can lay an exclusive claim to artistic excellence." (2) Consider this statement with the story of a young Viollet-le-Duc at the start of this paper and some of the aforementioned contradictions begin to manifest themselves. He is of course associated with the Gothic Revival style of the 19th century however for Viollet-le-Duc it is the methods—or arguably the rational design process—that he reads as the underlying theme of ‘Gothicism’, that he is advocating, not the architectural ‘style’. This point is reinforced by Bucknall when he advocates Viollet-le-Duc’s approach: “it is to analysis and the application of principles, and not to the imitation of forms, that we must look for a true revival." (3) If Bucknall is to be believed then Viollet-le-Duc is not so much interested in a revival of styles but a revival of methods, indeed Viollet-le-Duc sets out his own aims, in his Preface of 1860, as follows:
“If my lectures should have no further result than to induce in our students a respect for the past, and a habit of founding their judgment not on prepossessions but on careful and thoughtful examination; if, moreover, they should foster the spirit of method among artists, I shall have done good service." (4)
Viollet-le-Duc is reacting against the prevailing attitudes of his time, when he will have witnessed a rehashing of previous styles for purely ornamental or typological effect, an approach taught openly in the leading schools of architecture. His aim then is to find the “Truth" (5) behind the styles and he does not “conclude in favour of one form of architecture of the prejudice of the rest". (6)

A portrait

We have already heard a little about the life of Viollet-le-Duc but in order to better understand the man we require further details. Viollet-le-Duc was born in Paris in 1814; his father was an undistinguished civil servant and his mother, the daughter of a successful contractor. His uncle, Eugene Delecluze (his mother’s brother) played an important role in the life of the young Viollet-le-Duc; Delecluze was a painter in the mornings, a scholar in the evenings, a romantic and a liberal, opposed to his loyalist brother-in-law. Despite the differences between his father and his uncle, it was to his uncle that Viollet-le-Duc’s education was entrusted (along with his brother); Delecluze selected a school for the two boys that was headed by a radical anti-clerical republican. From any early age Viollet-le-Duc is known to have disliked school, preferring the long walks, lively readings and charades that Delecluze used to supplement his education. This had a lasting effect on the young Viollet-le-Duc, as Summerson notes, “When he left school, nothing would induce him to pursue a conventional line of conduct." (7)

Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1979).  

At the age of 18 his mother died, this sever shock is said to have “goaded him to furious absorption in work—reading, travelling, writing, sketching.” (8) By the age of 19 he had fallen in love twice, with the first girl’s parents dismissing him for being too young, the second he married. It was around this time he became Professor of Composition and Ornament at a small, independent Ecole de Dessein (School of Design) in Paris.

For a while Viollet-le-Duc remained a “a man without opportunities” and this was to remain so until 1838 when, at the age of 24, he was nominated ‘auditeur-suppleant’; being charged to report on the condition of the Abbey Church of Vezelay in 1840. Summerson explains that this was made possible on the back of a “movement which had been gathering strength for some years suddenly discovered in him [Viollet-le-Duc]  its ablest and wisest protagonist. That movement concerned the scientific study and preservation of monuments of medieval France.” (9) This movement owes much to the work conducted by Arcisse de Caumont, founder of the Societe des Antiquaires de Normandie, who published a great work on Norman architecture in 1830—inspired in part by work conducted in England, including Britton’s Cathedral Antiquities (1814), and the work of Pugin, Le Keuz and Thomas Rickman.  Following from de Caumont there was also Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, “in which a great medieval building was made the hero of a novel, dominating the story with patriarchal grandeur, and making Gothic architecture touch the reader’s imagination in a way it had never done before.” (10) We have already seen that Gothic architecture had a profound impact on the life of Viollet-le-Duc, arguably it permeated his entire life, and enabled him “to construct a vast and elaborate theory of ‘rational’ architecture.” (11)

In the following years Viollet-le-Duc would go on to work on Notre Dame itself, preparing an initial report with Lassus in 1844, and being selected by a special commission to direct the restoration of Notre Dame on March 11th of that year. Work began in 1845 and would continue until 1864. In 1846 Viollet-le-Duc was appointed head of the Office of Historic Monuments and in 1849 he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour, part of a commission appointed to choose artists for sculptures on the Louvre exterior.

The prupose of this paper is not to focus on his other achievements, needless to say that Viollet-le-Duc’s career post 1838, and before his death in 1879, consists of numerous building projects: 45 built works (17 of which still exist), including the structural study for the Statue of Liberty, New York (1874-78); and 44 restoration projects. It was also highly decorated by the institutions of other nations globally, including the American Institute of Architects in 1870.

The importance of Viollet-le-Duc to European architectural theory is eloquently expressed by John Summerson when he states that:
“There have been two supremely eminent theorists in the history of European architecture—Leon Battista Alberti and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.  They were successful for this reason. They constructed towers of thought—the lighthouses, let us say—at points in history where such towers were very particularly needed. … Viollet-le-Duc his at the point where the romantic movement of the early 19th century was passing into the age of criticism.” (12)
Early on in his Preface Viollet-le-Duc describes a 19th century professional landscape that is not at all unfamiliar to that of the 21st century: “In the present day “specialities” alone are recognised. … Each is confined within a narrow sphere, beyond which he cannot pass without losing a great part of his importance in the eyes of the public.” (13) The notion of specialisms arose in the 19th century and continued through into the 19th century as the various built environment professions were stratified and codified, each staking out their own territory (it also reflects a wider societal trend wherein the Arts and Sciences are separated, or better defined as various different sub-categories). By the time that Viollet-le-Duc is writing and practicing the narrowing of professional spheres in the eyes of the public is well underway. It is something he seems to resent, claiming that “it is evident that my range seemed too wide, seeing that it has been so vehemently contested.” (14) He would perhaps cite this is one reason for his professional struggles and clashes with the various different institutions of his day.
“Independence of mind was absolutely essential to him—he confesses as much in his diary, and it was perhaps this ability to confess, this self-knowledge, which enabled him to direct and balance his energies so well. The enjoyment of independence is always enhanced by a consciousness of something to be independent from—it is stimulating to have an object of despite in one’s mind’s eye. Now such an object Viollet-le-Duc did not lack for a moment—it was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.” (15)
Only once did Viollet-le-Duc have direct involvement with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, an institution he railed against (even refusing an offer of entry when he was younger), and it did not end well. He was appointed by the Government to draft a new constitution for the Ecole, tasked with, amongst other things, bringing the curriculum up to date. His then radical ideas about the education of an Architect were not well received by those at the Ecole, who were aghast when he was appointed Professor of History of Art and Aesthetics in 1864. Summerson describes the reception of Viollet-le-Duc at the Ecole as thus: “At the first lecture, hisses, boos, cat-calls and a shower of halfpennies greeted the Professor.” (16) It is during this brief stint though that Summerson suggests modern architecture may have in fact been born, when during one lecture a moment of silence gripped the audience as Viollet-le-Duc “Drew a parallel between the ability of the Greeks to give form and shape to their mythologies and the potential ability of the 19th century to express such concepts as the power of steam and electricity in an analogous way.” (17)

Lectures on architecture

Viollet-le-Duc produced two great literary projects, the first published in 1854, when he was 40, is the famous Dictionnaire Raisonnee de l’Architecture Francaise du XIe au XVIe Siecle (or more simply a ‘Rational History of French Architecture from the 11th to the 16th century’). The Dictionnaire is the prime example of Viollet-le-Duc employing his rational criterion to the study of architecture, with “only the purely sculptural parts of Gothic architecture … actually admitted to be ornamental.” (18) Never does he arrive at a “complete and final estimate of the style” which is exactly why this work is important to the study of architecture. (19) His second great literary work is the Entretiens sur l’Architecture (Lectures in Architecture).

Viollet-le-Duc originally prepared his lectures as part of an intended course for pupils he would deliver at his own studio. In the Author’s Preface Viollet-le-Duc gives the impression of a conspiracy led against him by “Certain Professors of the Ecole des beaux-arts and of the Bibliotheque imperial [whom] wished to do [him] the honour of attacking [his] “tendencies” by preventive measures.” (20) He reports that rooms were suddenly made unavailable to him and audiences deterred, with the ‘establishment’ of the time deeming what he wished to teach as “dangerous”. Viollet-le-Duc’s combative nature or rebellious streak, as outlined in the short biography previously, comes across strongly here although at times it seems he has a ‘chip on his shoulder’. Nevertheless he saw fit to publish his lectures anyway, presenting 20 in two volumes, 10 in each, in 1863 and 1872 (the second after the resolution of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 in which Viollet-le-Duc served), with an ‘Atlas’ of accompanying plates.

The wide breadth of topics covered by Viollet-le-Duc in his lectures further reinforces the image of a cross-disciplinary professional, working across boundaries, more akin to the broader definitions of architectural practice found in earlier treatises (although he never goes as far as Vitruvius as including military machines). This placed him in a difficult position described by him as thus:
“Either my teaching must limit itself to the circle to which I am supposed to be restricted, and will thus rest on too narrow a basis, and in fact be more dangerous than useful; or, in advancing beyond that circle, I shall lose the confidence which every author or professor ought to inspire in those who read or listen to him.” (20)
Lecture I

The questions posed in the title of this first lecture are designed by Viollet-le-Duc to act as an introduction to the subject of architecture and its relationship with the wider world, including the other arts and sciences, but also civilization and society as a whole. To open this discussion Viollet-le-Duc asks “Is man in becoming civilised, refined, tolerant, moderate in his tastes, and well-informed,—such in fact as our social conditions can make him,—thereby rendered more apt and capable in the domain of Art?” (22) He is attempting to lead the reader into a natural response of “yes”, that the changing world view that accompanies higher levels of civilization would in fact lead to a great appreciation and rendering of art. This though is not so, Viollet-le-Duc goes onto argue at length that the two are in fact separate and that one does not lead to another. To illustrate his point he draws upon the example of the Roman Empire, contrasting the brutality of the colosseum, an uncivilized act in the eyes of the 19th century, with the “admirable monuments” they were also building. (23) He draws similar examples from Greece, the works of Christianity as a whole, and through to the middle of the seventeenth century, with the burning of people for accusations of sorcery at the stake sanctioned by Parliaments, all the while producing great works of art.

For Viollet-le-Duc to separate civilization and art as two distinct categories, not interdependent, is highly important in order to justify his interest in the Gothic, produced at a widely ’uncivilized’ point of history (the argument is that the uncivilized acts of Greece, Rome, et al are over looked). For Viollet-le-Duc then:
“The point of interest when the arts are in question is, not whether such or such a period in history of humanity was more or less civilized,—or, if we will, more of less barbarous,—than another; but whether the period under consideration was more or less favourable to the development of the arts. … The Value of Art is independent of the element in which it originates and flourishes. Art cannot be barbarous, for the simple reason that it is Art.” (24)
Of course, there is something in this discussion where Art is separated from morality, that Art is amoral, but this is never directly dealt with by Viollet-le-Duc.

After making this distinction clear he proceeds to set out the various different arts, and how these have changed over time. He begins with the “liberal arts” of the Middle Ages, explaining how some of these now rank as sciences—Theology, Astronomy, Geometry, and Medicine—and that in the 19th century art is “confined” to Music, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting (ranked in that order of age). (25) In his definition of architecture as art he makes it clear that there is also a distinction between building and architecture:
“Building a hut with branches of trees is not Art; it is merely the supplying of a material want. But to hollow out a dwelling in a declivity of soft rock;—to divide the excavation into compartments of different sizes according to the number and habits of the occupants;—to leave pillars for the support of the ceiling, and to enlarge them at the top for the greater security of the mass above; then gradually to cover these walls and pillars left in the solid with gravings and signs intended to commemorate an event, such as the birth of a child, the death of a father or of a wife, or a victory gained over an enemy,—this is Art.” (26)
The argument is expanded further when he sets out that “Art is not dependent on Science; neither is it dependent on the political condition of a country.” (27) Here the illustration is drawn through analysis of the governments of the 19th century, which he argues are more complete and better organised than those of Greek and yet “this does not prevent the Iliad and the Odyssey from maintaining their rank as superior to all other poems" (28) In order to counter accusations that he wishes to carry “us” back to “barbarism” he once again calls for consistency in the historical analysis, that each age must be judged fairly and equally:
“Either the Arts follow step by step the material and moral progress of civilisation,—in which case, we live in the age most favourable to the Arts, since we enjoy the benefits of civilisation in a higher degree than any preceding period, and consequently we must regard all Art anterior to our time as relatively barbarous;—or else the Arts are independent of moral and material civilization, and in this case we have nothing to guide us in our preference of one form of Art to another but individual taste and caprice.” (29)
The argument here relies on an understanding that the Art of the 19th century is not the greatest ever achieved and that the level of civilization is, thus the two cannot be in step. What is left is a familiar argument—seen in Perrault and Boullée—that Art is in fact judged by taste, and that taste is both individual and a result of societal pressures at that time. Viollet-le-Duc explains that “Acquiring taste is nothing else that familiarising ourselves with the Good and Beautiful; but to find it,—that is to say, how to distinguish it.” (30) In asking ourselves “Why is this building beautiful?” we must:
“…try to analyse all the parts of the work which charms us, that we may be able to proceed synthetically, when it is our time to construct. This analysis is difficult in the present day, perplexed as we are by prejudices, and by systems, every one of which assumes to be absolutely true.” (31)
This is the first real indication of his method for understanding architecture, however he does not dwell on it, moving swiftly on, rather it is the entire approach with which he deals with the subject of architecture, illustrated through all of his lectures.

Having spent much of the Lecture discussing the conditions upon which Art is not dependent Viollet-le-Duc finally introduces the conditions that he believes Art is dependent upon. In so doing his answer seems at odds with his earlier distinction between civilisation and Art. He puts it that “the Arts develop themselves with vigour when they are, so to speak, riveted to the manners and customs of a people, and are their truthful expression.” (32) On the one hand then we have art as being independent of the civilization but dependent upon the customs of the people of that civilization, which surely are a constituent part of that civilization? Perhaps what he is trying to illustrate is his belief that the Arts should not be kept as separate institutions (his principal target here seems to be the schools); instead they should permeate every aspect of everyday life and not adopt a specialist language that can “no longer [be] understood by the multitude.” (33) As with Boullée the idea of ‘the public’ seems to be an important component of Viollet-le-Duc’s arguments.

Lecture VII

In Lecture VII on The Principles of Western Architecture in the Middle Ages Viollet-le-Duc gives a historical account of the changing architectural style and methods of this period. Now I must confess that my reasons for choosing this Lecture are twofold: one, it illustrates his approach to rationally understanding architectures of the past; two, he makes reference to Gothic architecture in England, specifically Peterborough Cathedral (1118-1237).

Viollet-le-Duc is known to have visited Peterborough in 1850, between May 26th and June 21st, also visiting London, Cambridge, Oxford, Ely, Lincoln, Canterbury, Hampton Court, Winchester, Boston. From this we can say, with some certainty, that what Viollet-le-Duc writes about his based on his own observations.

Peterborough Cathedral.

The Norman style for Viollet-le-Duc “is severe, methodical, scientific, powerful, elaborate in point of structure, but with less sculpture”. (34) Peterborough Cahtedral is undoubtedly of the Norman style, without English precedent or direct successor. It is perhaps important to briefly note that this is one of Viollet-le-Duc’s rare, lengthy forays outside of France; nationalism is an important theme of his writing. The following passage on Peterborough Cathedral is typical of how he describes buildings in his writings:
“The transept of Peterborough Cathedral, for instance, built about the middle of the twelfth century, is a perfect specimen of the Norman style in its best days—Plate XIII. We observe excellence in the masonry, and careful execution, but an absence of sculpture; a system of construction based on sound reason and knowledge, a delicate sense of proportion, mouldings of no great variety, but well designed for the place they occupy. Plate XIII. shows on the right, the system of construction adopted: the walls are solid in their lower part, ornamented on the interior by an arcading G, which is only a surface decoration. At the second range of windows, at I, the architect has reserved a passage in the thickness of the wall to facilitate the inspection and repair of the glazing. At the third range of widows the construction becomer still lighter; there the wider passage K forms a gallery open to the transept. Under each tie-beam of the timber roof, engaged columns, rising from the ground, divide the combination into bays. If this architecture departs more widely from Roman art than any other of the Romanesque period, it must nevertheless be confessed that wants neither grandeur nor science.” (35)
In this short passage we clearly see the rational mind of Viollet-le-Duc at work, he is thinking through the construction as he sees it, finding the reasons for decisions routed in structural, practical or economic means. Later on in the Lecture, as he moves into the thirteenth century he shows that “it is impossible to separate the form of the architecture…from its structure; every member of this architecture is the result of necessity of that structure, as in the vegetable and the animal kingdom there is not a form of a process that is not produced by a necessity of that organism". (36)

The importance of structure and architecture can be found in Viollet-le-Duc’s discussion of triglyphs in his second Lecture. To begin he outlines a long held interpretation wherein, “Just as the triglyphs are taken for the ends of joists, so the rain-drip of the cornice is supposed to represent the rafter-ends.” (37) However, Viollet-le-Duc does not go along with this argument:
"We have too high an opinion of the good judgement of the Greek artists to allow that they could have committed so flagrant an offence against reason and common sense. … The Greek temples are buildings of stone in which the system of the lintel is worked out in accordance with reason and taste: why not take them simply for what they are? why content that Greeks, the inventors of logic—men gifted with refined aesthetic sensibility,—amused themselves with simulating in stone a construction of wood,—a thing essentially monstrous? … It is by explanations such as these of the derivations of Ancient and Medieval architecture,—more ingenious than well-considered—that the course of architectural study has come to be misdirected, and consequently the mind of the architect perverted. In explaining buildings we think it a commendable principle to take them for what they really are, and not for that which we should wish them to be. This supposition that the Greek temple is an imitation in stone of a wooden hut is of the same order as that which refers the architecture of our Gothic churches to the forest avenues of Gaul and Germany. Both are fictions well adapted to amuse the fancy of dreamers, but very hurtful, or at best useless, when we are called upon the derivations of an art to those whose vocation is to practise it. … The triglyphs fulfil the purpose over the architraves of a clerestory. They are uprights of stone, relieving the pressure on the architrave…by their separation and the space intervening between them.” (38)
Constructing architecture

We have already seen that Viollet-le-Duc had a deep interest in Gothic architecture but for him it was not simply about adopting a new style.  “The mere adoption of Gothic styles in place of Classic was not enough…if it could be shown that Gothic architecture was not merely emotionally exciting but more intellectually satisfying than the architecture of the schools—then there was a cause to be embraced, a battle to be fought.” (39) Central to this then is that the notion that the outwards appearance of a building should reflect its construction.

According to Dr Middleton, and highlighted by Pevsner, Viollet-le-Duc, in pursuing a rational argument for gothic construction, “was only following in the footsteps of earlier French theorists, of Delorme in the 16th century, Derand in the 17th, Cordemoy and Frezier in the 18th century.” (40) However in his Dictionnaire he goes far further than anyone previously.

He was the pioneer of exposing iron in masonry construction; “Labrouste had exposed his organ piers and iron roof construction in the Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve in 1843-50, and Boileau had built several churches with iron piers and iron ribs in the fifties, best-known among them St Eugene in Paris of 1854-5.” (41)

Bibliotheque Ste Genevieve.

John Summerson explains that during the 19th century there was a “fallacy that architecture is a matter of structure plus adornment.” (42) He aims this accusation at virtually all who follow Viollet-le-Duc—implying he was the instigator in this 19th century preoccupation—with his central issue being that even if the ‘technical’ is the primacy of Gothic architecture, rather than the aesthetic, to ignore this second element is dangerous. Summerson suggests that Viollet-le-Duc’s theory of rational architecture, of which considerations of structure and construction are key, in fact relies on a 19th century confusion between rationalism and materialism. (43)

Designs and built work

Within his Lectures Viollet-le-Duc makes reference to a number imagined works, however Summerson is highly critical of these, stating that the “weaknesses show as soon as he leaves the written word and begins to design.” (44) The designs included in the second volume of his lectures are intended to test, illustrate and elucidate his theory.

Viollet-le-Duc's Concert Proposal.

One such example is a design for a concert hall for 3,000 people, there are also designs for a town house and a country house. For Summerson these designs are “at once unattractive and fascinating.” (45) He praises the disciplined, daring, economical and ingenious nature of Viollet-le-Duc but is left feeling that what is in fact missing is style. He is a little more forgiving of Viollet-le-Duc’s willingness to make use of a new structural material in his designs—iron. Viollet-le-Duc “wanted architecture to conform with the conditions imposed by modern scientific discovery; he was ready to use cast-iron and to use it in forms appropriate to industrial production, with precision and economy.” (46)

For Viollet-le-Duc the materials of modern construction consisted of cast-iron, masonry, brick and timber—“an arsenal still half-medieval but lacking the homogeneity of that great age of masonry construction”—however Summerson hints at what might have been when discussing the development of reinforced concrete in the last two decades of the 19th century.

Garage at 51 rue Ponthieu, Paris (1905).

Summerson suggests that this material, combining the compressive strength of cast-iron with the tensile stress of steel, would have provided Viollet-le-Duc with the same homogeneity afforded to the Medieval builders through masonry, whilst remaining modern and routed in scientific discovery. A garage at Rue Ponthieu in Paris designed by Auguste Perret in 1905 offers one possible ‘future’ for Summerson, for there is a “frame in a concrete opening, [with] a huge rose-window of iron.” (47)

To return to Viollet-le-Duc, in his concert hall proposal he proposes a polyhedron construction of iron members, with light iron ribs spanning between them, and an infilling of brick; this is “quite evidently, a paraphrase of a Gothic vault.” (48) What we see in the design and the connection details he proposes is an embryonic form of cast-iron construction, something not yet fully formed, you can see Viollet-le-Duc trying to work through the ‘problems’ but lacking a “vital unity which any one language posses.” (49) Viollet-le-Duc is not openly admitting to copying what he finds in the Gothic, instead he is trying to apply his rational process, developing a new rational language.

Pevsner points out that Viollet-le-Duc may not have recommended imitation but “in his own churches he practised it.” (50) Furthermore, he says that if you “examine some of Viollet’s designs for buildings and you find him devoid of the courage of his words and drawings, whether you look at houses by him or his design of 1860 for the Opera.” (51) These sentiments are echoed by Summerson. Pevsner does though offer a possible explanation for this ‘lack of courage’:
“…can one suggest that, as the Georgian age had been conventional in its architectural style, so was the Victorian, and the Radicalism became possible (for various reasons) only after 1890 or even 1900, but that radical thought always precedes the radical action – not only in the French Revolution?” (52)
It can be argued then that of all Viollet-le-Duc’s great contributions to the architectural profession since the 19th century, his new constructions are not one of them—the same cannot be said for his restoration projects.

Preservation versus Restoration

In order to discuss his restorative works we must begin by comparing him to another great thinker of the 19th century, John Ruskin (1819-1900). The idea of preservation was arguably “invented” as part of a groundswell of modern innovation between the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in England. (53)

John Ruskin (1819-1900).

Viollet-le-Duc is often portrayed as the rational thinker, Ruskin the emotional thinker, however this is to ignore statements made by Viollet-le-Duc himself, such as: “An architect who can listen to a melody or a poem, or view a sculpture or a painting, without experiencing emotions as lively as those he would feel in viewing a building, is not an artist, but a mere practitioner”. (54) For Ruskin though it is “all feeling, not reasoning.” (55) The differences between Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc are best epitomised through Nikolaus Pevsner’s article 'Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Englishness and Frenchness in the Appreciation of Gothic Architecture': “In 1830 Viollet was on the barricades; Ruskin’s social criticism never got near instigation to violent action, as William Morris’s did.” (56) Here we see the seemingly rational Viollet-le-Duc moved to emotional involved, whereas Ruskin is not. Furthermore “Ruskin was a speaker and writer, Viollet was a doer”. (57)

Compare the following two statements. For Ruskin (1849):
“Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”
For Viollet-leDuc (1855):
“To restore a building is not just to preserve it, to repair it, and to remodel it, it is to re-instate it in a complete state such as it may never have been in at any given moment.”
(For Pevsner this statement from Viollet-le-Duc, taken from the Dictionnaire, shows that: “Nor was Viollet-le-Duc even as faithful restorer as one might have expected.” (58)

In spite of these differences they did share common approaches:
“Viollet-le-Duc wrote in 1852: ‘Who in the Middle Ages has produced these admirable monuments? Any privileged class? Not at all. The architect, the painter, the sculptor were “les enfants du people”. [The children of the people] Ruskin’s words in 1853 are similar: the building ‘is the work of the whole race, while the picture or statue is the work of one only.’” (59)
Perhaps most importantly though “Viollet here appears wholly forward-looking, Ruskin wholly backward-looking”. (60)

His approach to restoration, as opposed to preservation, is perhaps surmised by the following statement: “The past is past; but we must search into it sincerely and carefully; seeking not to revive it, but to know it thoroughly, that we may turn it to good account.” (61) This approach stems from his belief in the thorough analysis of past architecture, highlighted earlier in observations about his approach to finding truth in the Arts, taste and what constitutes beauty, and also his analysis of cathedrals.

We have already seen how Viollet-le-Duc distinguishes architecture from simple acts of building, for Ruskin the distinction lies in the ornament and the craftsman, whereas for Viollet-le-Duc it is in the process of design, the designer. (62) “His restorations are now notorious among conservationists but his method of inductive analysis and interpretive reconstruction based on his comprehensive knowledge of medieval architecture continues to fascinate the architectural intellect.” (63) Furthermore “Viollet went on restoring and remodelling till he died, Ruskin could see a few years before Viollet’s death his principle of preservation instead of restoration coming to full fruition in the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.” (64) To compare their respective impacts is a difficult process however perhaps the following is most telling: “Ruskin said bitterly of the Dictionnaire—‘I ought to have written that book.’” (65)

Hybrid rationality

The theme which runs throughout out the whole body of Viollet-le-Duc’s work, in the words of Summerson, is as follows:
“Architecture has to do mainly with the faculty of reasoning. Taste, properly understood, is simply unconscious reasoning. For the artist, however unconscious reasoning is not enough. … The architect’s education must, therefore, proceed in two stages. First, he must learn to analyse the masterpieces of the past; then he must learn to make his own synthesis, serving the conditions and using the materials dictated by his age.” (66)
It is important to note here that his theory has nothing to do with Gothic architecture, or Classical architecture, or any architectural style in particular at all. For Viollet-le-Duc the modern architect must “analyse the masterpieces of the past, reduce them a process of argument, then apply argument to his own problems.” (67) For Summerson it is this which distinguishes Viollet-le-Duc from his English contemporaries whom he lays the following accusation: “not one of them was man enough to think his way through the romantic attraction of style to a philosophic point of view applicable to all buildings at all times.” (68)

If further evidence is needed to support the argument that Viollet-le-Duc was more than a proponent of Gothic perhaps it can be found here:
“The Greeks, then, will always remain the kings of Art. They have enlarged, and, more than this, have elevated the sense, the instincts, the passions, and the feelings of man in always approaching them by their nobler side. They are never vulgar, even in depicting the most vulgar actions and objects.” (69)
The association between the Middle Ages and that of earlier civilizations, such as Rome, is highlighted by Summerson in the following statement: “The Middle Ages possess a traditional recollection of Rome but did not know Rome; the only threads which they held firmly in their hands were literary threads—textual threads.” (70) And:
“Thus, Gothic architecture, however striking may be its individuality and however great may be the temptation to oppose it to classicism as the embodiment of a different principle, is truly a continuation and development of the classical line, a metamorphosis of classicism, temporary and unstable, seeking its way back to permanence and stability as soon as the great creative crisis of the 12th-13th centuries had spent itself.” (71)
Summerson notes that “Viollet proceeds to show that Greek, Roman and Byznatine are also, within their limits, rational architectures and, in fact, that all good architecture is rational.” (72) But:
“For what do we mean by a rational architecture? We may mean two things. We may mean an architecture which aims at fulfilling certain specifiable functions with the nearest approximation to absolute efficiency and economy. Or we may mean an architecture which seeks to express its function dialectically—to offer a visible argument to the spectator.” (73)
Throughout this paper there have been numerous discussions on ‘taste’, without necessarily using this word. Taste though is something hybrid for Viollet-le-duc, revealing a contradiction in his own thinking wherein he attempts to have it both ways, that “taste is unconscious reasoning  [and] it is arrived at through intermittent efforts of conscious reasoning”. (74) This is in part a reflection of his own life experiences, the prevailing romanticism towards Gothic architecture in the 19th century and, as Viollet-le-Duc would later uncover, his own hybrid sense of rationality.

It is also worth noting here that at various points in his lectures Viollet-le-Duc demonstrates a knowledge beyond the confines of the West, with references to architecture in India and Egypt, amongst other. (75)

Architects influenced by the work of Viollet-le-Duc and his methods include Antoni Gaudi and Hector Guimard, “while Berlarge’s Amsterdam Stock Exchange and Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple remain the most important single testaments to the impact of his theories.” (76) Indeed Berlarge’s Exchange at Amsterdam (1898-1903) “followed, in a personal and local way, the principles exposed in the Entertiens.” (77)
It has even been argued that the great master of the modern architecture, Le Corbusier, essentially reproduces, in his famous book Vers une Architecture, arguments made by Viollet-le-Duc sixty years earlier: “The beauty of the machine, the importance of geometrical tradition, the lessons of the past in precision and logic”. (78) Of course the emphasis is different, “lighter and faster, adapted to an age of headlines and headlights.” (79) As recently as 2010 Rem Koolhaas framed Viollet-le-Duc as a key figure in his Cronocaos exhibit at the Venice Architecture Biennale, is seen re-borrowing 19th century arguments, repackaging them for a 21st century audience.

Perhaps there is still some truth in Summerson’s summary of ‘modern architecture’ (1963) that “At the moment it [modern architecture] can show no theoretical basis whatever, beyond a handful of generalizations borrowed (unknowingly, very often, and at fifteenth hand) from Viollet-le-Duc, and a number of clichés which could be applied equally to most other styles of architecture.” (80)

As a final observation I would like to conclude with comments made by the editorial team behind the Architectural Design Profile on Viollet-le-Duc, writing in 1980, whom observed:
“His belief in the chantier or building site, as the centre of the architectural process, encouraging direct collaboration between architect, builder, craftsman and client in order to create a built environment responsive to individual and social requirements, has obvious present-day implications.” (81)

The following was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design as part of the Architectural Theory elective in Fall 2013, taught by Professor David Leatherbarrow.

1. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987).  London: Dover Publications. Lecture I, p. 22.
2. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987).  London: Dover Publications. Translator’s Preface, p. 1.
3. Ibid., p. 2.
4. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987).  London: Dover Publications. Author’s Preface, p. 6.5. 
5. Ibid., p. 4.
6. Ibid., p. 7.
7. John Summerson, Heavenly Mansions and other Essays on Architecture, (1963). New York: The Norton Library. p. 137.
8. Ibid., p. 137.
9. Ibid., p. 138.
10. Ibid., p. 138
11. Ibid., p. 153.
12. Ibid., p. 135.
13. Ibid., p. 5.
14. Viollet-le-Duc., Author’s Preface, op. cit., p. 5
15. John Summerson, op. cit. p. 142.
16. Ibid., p. 143.
17. Ibid., p. 143.
18. Ibid., p. 147.
19. Ibid., p. 147.
20. Viollet-le-Duc., Author’s Preface, op. cit., p. 3.
21. Viollet-le-Duc., Translator’s Preface, op. cit., p. 5.
22. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p. 9.
23. Ibid., p. 10.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid., p. 11.
26. Ibid., p. 12-3.
27. Ibid., p. 14.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid., p. 16.
30. Ibid., p. 29.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid., p. 30.
33. Ibid.
34. Viollet-le-Duc., 1872. Lectures on architecture. Translated by B. Bucknall., 1877 (1987).  London: Dover Publications. Lecture VII, p. 275.
35. Ibid., p. 279.
36. Ibid., p. 283.
37. Ibid., p. 52.
38. Ibid., p. 52-3.
39. Summerson, op. cit., p. 144.
40. Nikolaus Pevsner, “Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Englishness and Frenchness in the Appreciation of Gothic Architecture” in Architectural Design Profile: Viollet-le-Duc, 1980. London: Rizzoli. Introduction, p. 51
41. Ibid.
42. Summerson, Ibid., p. 11.
43. Ibid., p. 153.
44. Ibid., p. 154.
45. Ibid.
46. Ibid., p. 179.
47. Ibid., p. 185.
48. Ibid., p. 156.
49. Ibid., p. 158.
50. Pevsner, loc. cit.
51. Ibid.
52. Ibid., p. 52.
53. OMA: Coronocaos Preservation Tour, Design Boom [Online], 3rd September 2010. [First accessed: 2nd November 2013] Available at:
54. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p.20
55. Pevsner, op. cit., p. 50.
56. Ibid., p. 48.
57. Ibid.
58. Ibid., p. 51.
59. Ibid., p. 49.
60. Ibid., p. 52
61. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p.32
62. Pevsner, op. cit., p. 49.
63. Architectural Design Profile: Viollet-le-Duc, 1980. London: Rizzoli. Introduction, p. 5
64. Pevsner, op. cit., p. 52.
65. Summerson, op. cit., p. 183.
66. Ibid.
67. Ibid.
68., Ibid.
69. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p. 27-8.
70. John Summerson, op. cit., p. 23.
71. Ibid., p. 27.
72. Ibid., p. 150.
73. Ibid., p. 149.
74. Ibid., p. 152.
75. Viollet-le-Duc., Lecture I, op. cit., p. 13.
76. Architectural Design Profile, loc. cit.                              
77. John Summerson, Ibid., p. 184.
78. Ibid., p. 188.
79. Ibid.
80. Ibid., p. 196.
81. Architectural Design Profile, op. cit., p. 1.