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Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)
The late Nobel Peace Prize winning environmental activist and human rights campaigner, Wangari Maathai, was a vividly engaging and articulate scientist. Prof Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in 1977, was responsible - among many other things - for initiating the UN-backed Billion Tree Campaign, which has so far planted some 12 billion trees around the globe.
Having got to know Prof Maathai as a friend, I was impressed by her ability to inspire those around her into self-help actions concerning the environment. Her death throws the architectural profession's ability to motivate itself on environmental issues into a questioning perspective.  What is it about the words "environmental" and "ecological" that seems so urgent, and yet so difficult to face up to?  Why, when architects talk about environmental measures, do we tend to default to technological solutions? And whilst environmental performance technology is often required to support carbon-reduction and renewable energy, it often seems rather laboured when compared with Wangari's direct and effective action.
 
Most of world's six-plus billion people spend at least three-quarters of their lives in, or near, buildings. Buildings are as much a part of our sense, and physical experience, of the environment as trees, water, land and sky. And yet, most architects tend to think of the building-environment relationship as a series of technical issues to be solved.  There must therefore be something missing from our approach to environmental design - something deeper and more fundamentally challenging. If we can "solve" techno-environmental issues in projects, does that mean we actually feel a profound responsibility for the furtherance of our environments? Or has that responsibility been corporatized?
The Bauhaus raised the idea of architecture as both a symbol and a formal action that could produce buildings that would bring distinct improvement in living and working environments - even if visionary projects such as Le Corbusier's astonishingly scaled Plan Obus for Algiers were a warning of the reverse: formal virtuosity as an environmental destroyer.
I wonder, having been prompted by the death of Wangari Maathai, if the profession's approach to environmental design is trapped between admirable aims and the conflicts of architectural ambition and expedience.  Like many practices, we always try to design to achieve the very best environmental ratings. However, compared to Prof Maathai's ability to mobilise and educate people to deal personally and directly with environmental conditions, these "gongs" seem ever so incidental.
John McAslan
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