Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I, l. 2038

‘All theory is grey, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.’ These words put by Goethe into the mouth of Mephistopheles have become a well-known line. Green is a metaphor of the life-giving forces of nature which man cannot fully master. Although human life is limited by nature, or perhaps because of it, man tries to stand up to it in many ways. Self-determination in relation to nature is one of the foundations of Western civilisation, whose attempts to create abstract systems, culminating in the modernity project[1], have been widely discussed[2]. In architecture respect for the natural environment and the need to comply with its demands have been obvious for a long time. Knowledge of how to build so that the construction could withstand the forces of nature and how to choose the most convenient spot to carry out a project was essential in the architect’s profession[3]. With the process of modernisation, however, the tendency to standardise construction technologies grew, and the natural environment was treated as something to be optimized: nature was to be subordinated to construction, and not vice versa[4]. After World War II the modernity project, with its characteristic technology-oriented (and technology-mediated) approach to the world showed some cracks through which some previously neglected aspects of reality penetrated into the society’s and specialists’ minds. One of those was environmental degradation resulting from modernisation processes. Respect for the environment and living in harmony with nature were some of the major postulates of liberal movements in the United States and Western Europe in the 1960s[5]. Initially, this attitude was treated by the majority of the society as a part of an alternative, ‘romantic’ way of life[6], but the oil crisis of 1973 made decision makers consider concrete political, economic and financial questions related to the natural environment. ‘Hard data’ of the influence of modern civilisation on the state of non-renewable natural resources had been published a year earlier in the text The Limits to Growth[7]. Since the 1970s there has been a gradual convergence of the ‘romantic’ and the ‘technical’ approaches to the natural environment. New objectives were expressed through the principles of the ‘sustainable development’ policy agreed in the programme document Agenda 21 at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro[8]. Currently, ecological issues are (at least in principle) an integral part of almost any project and investment, including architectural ones. Despite this fact, the terminology of these issues has not been standardised yet, and even in academic discourse we can come across the metaphorical expression ‘green architecture’ used for example in the catalogue of the first collective exhibition of ‘ecologically aware’, energy-efficient architecture in the Czech Republic compiled by Petr Kratochvíl[9].

In the Czech Republic it was only recently that issues related to ecology and the natural environment started to feature prominently in architects’ discussions. In this respect the year 2008 seems crucial as it was then that, apart from the catalogue and exhibition compiled by Petr Kratochvíl, other publications also came out[10]. That year the winner of the Grand Prix Obce architektů, a prize awarded by the most prestigious review of contemporary architecture in the Czech Republic, was the edifice of Centrum ekologické výchovy Sluňákov (Sluňákov Centre for Ecological Education, 2007) designed by Roman Brychta, Ondřej Hofmeister, Petr Lešek and Adam Halíř (Projektil architekti). The construction and technological solutions used in the building correspond to the purpose it is to serve. It uses largely energy-efficient solutions: heat recovery in the air conditioning system, solar hot water heating collectors, pellet stoves, cold collectors, a waste water recycling system and a rainwater collection system. Besides these active energy efficiency solutions in the building, there are also passive ones: a glazed southern façade and insulation with an earth bank in the north provide optimal thermoregulation inside the building[11]. Sluňákov was a kind of showcase for technologies which were soon adopted in housing, mainly owing to financial support under the government programme ‘Zelená úsporám’ agreed in 2009[12]. However, ecological aspects of architecture in it are restricted to energy efficiency, and when possible, obtaining it from renewable energy sources.

Non-governmental LEED (LEED Green Building Rating System, Green Building Council with the seat in Washington[13]) and BREEAM mandating agencies (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, a branch office of BRE Global with the seat in Great Britain[14]) are trying to popularise the idea of ‘Sustainable Building’ in a broader sense. They are current global systems of certification, used to assess public utility buildings. Assessment criteria are varied and not limited to the building’s energy balance but also take into account the project management process, users’ health and comfort (including temperature regulation, access to fresh air, workplace layout and anti-reflective glass windows), accessibility of the site, choice of recyclable and health risk free materials, quality of terrain, water consumption monitoring, waste-water treatment technologies etc. The first building in the Czech Republic that was LEED gold certified is the edifice of ČSOB (Československá obchodní banka) in Radlice, designed by Josef Pleskot and AP Ateliér, an office of one of the major Czech banks situated in a small town, employing over 2500 people. The design of the building whose forcefulness and function is symbolic of modern civilization may not be inconsistent with the principles of sustainable development. The designer, Josef Pleskot, refers to the ethics of ecology, which makes us careful, sensitive and conomic, and brings us also into harmony with nature[15]. The architect is optimistic about the possibility of combining ecology with technology; he believes that ‘ecology is in a close relationship to technology’[16].

Despite institutional attempts to standardize and establish clear qualification criteria, ‘green architecture’ is still characterized by a variety of designing strategies. The author of the first Czech publications on ecological architecture and many productions based on its principles, Petr Suske, observes that ‘from the point of view of ecology, globalisation of architecture and its universalisation may be a greater problem than rainforest logging’[17]. To Suske, an ecological house ‘must respect specific local features, including the climatic conditions in a given region, its cultural context and social needs’[18]. These views are reflected in his designs where he makes use of experimental technologies and local materials, such as raw brick in the Hliněná basta (Clay Turret) restaurant in Průhonice (1997) or bunches of straw to insulate Dům v kožichu s deštníkem (Sheepskin-Clad House with an Umbrella) in Mlada Boleslavi (2002). Oldřich Hozman[19], who is a follower of Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy and the so-called Baubiologie, the science of a holistic approach to relations between man and man-made environment which developed in Germany in the 1960s[20], pays particular attention to natural materials and their quality. Oldřich Hozman’s productions are mostly detached houses (House with an Atrium, Řičany, 2007, House in Lány, 2012) and reconstructions and adaptations of existing buildings (Maitrea House of Personal Development, Prague, 2008) to energy-efficiency standards of a ‘healthy house’ requiring a wide use of natural materials, such as raw bricks, wood, straw or reed. These materials are an enormous challenge for the present-day architecture. Modernist architectural concepts were apprehensive about using these materials due to their composite nature which made them difficult to standardise and to oversee the building process, and made it difficult to predict how the building will age. In recent years, however, with rising interest in ecological aspects of construction and energy efficiency (as well as equally important cost saving during construction), these materials have started to attract more and more attention. Wooden architecture is particularly notable in this respect[21]. In the Czech Republic wood has been used mainly in housing and detached houses construction. The scope of this technology is limited by fire regulations and other conditions. Due to availability and flexibility, wood is often used in alternative and experimental designs.

Architectural experiment is not traditionally embedded in the Czech culture, and architecture as a conceptual discipline practised side by side with utilitarian productions has practically no history there[22]. As a result, radical attempts to find the ‘zero point’ in architecture are the more conspicuous, for instance Martin Rajniš’s works completed since the beginning of the 21st century. Rajniš justifies his idea of a revolution in architectural culture by expressing his belief that modern design and building embedded in modernist concepts is by its very nature opposed to the idea of ‘sustainable development’. Rajniš’s designs, revealing how the revolution should be implemented, are often at the confluence of architecture and fine arts. Experience of travelling to places inhabited by communities that remain far apart from the achievements of modern, industrial civilisation, inspired Rajniš to radically reevaluate relations between nature and culture in architecture and to formulate Manifest přirozené architektury (A Manifesto for Natural Architecture)[23], which makes use of natural materials, simple technologies, and adapts to the local climatic conditions and topography. To Martin Rajniš a house is a mobile shelter for a human nomad who is just a visitor in any place, which can be understood both literally and metaphorically because the productions portfolio of ‘natural architecture’ contains both Scholzberg vantage towers in Horni Maxov (2006) and Bára in Chrudimi (2009), the New Post Office on Mt Sněžka (2007) and the building of the Municipal Forest Holding in Písek (2011).

The history of ecological trends in Czech architecture is short but extremely dynamic. What was considered by the majority of architects in the 1990s as a radical approach stemming from personal beliefs, has since become part of the mainstream, regardless of whether ecological awareness is manifested in a total approach to the natural environment or in the use of advanced technologies. Relations between architecture and ecology may vary in form, and ‘green architecture’ may have various meanings. Should we give priority to energy efficiency of the building itself or try to build it in an energy efficient way with energy efficient materials to begin with? Is it more important to develop new technologies to control building interiors, or rather do without them and return to traditional solutions dating back to the time before the industrial revolution? Should we radically change our lifestyles and our constructions, or merely adapt present-day buildings? This is how the future of ecological architecture is perceived by one of its makers, ‘It is also possible that architecture called «ecological» will not emerge at all, because its principles will become an intrinsic part of reflection on architecture in general’[24].

English translation by Anna Mirosławska-Olszewska