Which Way is Up? The Carbon-Junky Cities That Don’t Know Where The Sun Is.

The Legacy of Carbon: Cities are made of buildings in streets. In the distant past the plans of whole cities were oriented to take maximum advantage of solar radiation. But humans have lost touch with the sun on many levels because of carbon.

Coal, oil and gas have made architects and city planners lazy with regard to energy in buildings and this has led to a world of buildings that are virtually uninhabitable without carbon inputs. In other words architects and planners have led us up the garden path and the result is cities and buildings with a drug dependency – carbon. Our cities are the lost cities of the epoch of carbon. Lost to the future and lost to the past which they didn’t learn from. 

The cities we live in today are cities of the dead and dying because the city and most of its buildings cannot exist but for a life-support system which itself is killing us – Big Carbon. We urgently need to relearn how to use the sun to take the major part of heating and powering our cities and our buildings.

Coventry. A lost city. Which way is the sun? Who knows. Its buildings and streets facing every which way, meaning many buildings will not be availed of the solar energy that could help heat, cool and power them. Coventry is just a random example – every UK city is of the epoch of carbon, severely limiting the ability of architects to derive sufficient solar energy to heat and power the city’s buildings. 

But architects have also fallen under the spell of carbon and 99% of all buildings cannot function without it. In short, we have lost sight of the sun in both architecture and settlement planning.

Lille. Like almost every city on the planet it is a city lost to the future. It doesn’t know where the sun shines from and its streets and therefore buildings are arbitrarily oriented, often deriving little energy from the sun on account of carbon-derived city planning and architecture which powered buildings with carbon based fuels. And therefore orientation was effectively irrelevant.

One has to look far back in human history – before the ‘advent’ of coal, oil and gas – to find settlements that were planned to derive heat from the sun.

The City of Priene, 500-200BC. A Greek city located in present day Turkey. Hippodamus was it’s architect. Here is a city which used the sun to heat itself. At that time in human history there were only two sources of heat: wood/fire, and the sun. Wood will have been scarce, or would become so rapidly around settlements as it was chopped down and burned. The sun, however, was, as it is today, entirely free, and it did not have to be chopped down and transported. It was therefore a valued source of heat, and both architecture and settlement planning was bent to maximize it. 

The axis of the squared grid plan – an ordering device common to ‘new’ Greek cities – could place the sun on any of its four axes. But the slope of the land is crucial – the land slopes down to the South, and the grid is aligned exactly with solar South in that direction.

Priene is an archaeological ruin nowadays, it’s lessons clearly lost on modern humans. But in the not too distant future a visitor to Earth might look on all of the carbon cities that have led us towards climate change and extinction and see these as the archaeological follies of a species that lost touch with the sun. They would marvel at cities like Priene and wonder why it’s lessons weren’t applied.

Priene would have been a beautiful place to live in. A relatively small settlement of about 5000 persons. It’s public buildings integrated into the residential streets and not separated from the people. It’s residential buildings a homogeneous and harmonious grouping of non-competing elements. Lots of exercise going up and down that slope – there will have been few overweight people in Priene. The sun would reach into most parts of the city and into most buildings, warming them. Sea breezes and cross ventilation through the stone buildings would help cool them during the day. and the deep purple of the Mediterranean sea always in view, or just around the corner, orienting and centering one. The only thing missing – sufficient greenery.

For any solar settlement two things are important as demonstrated by the planning of Priene. To face the sun, and to be located on a slope facing the sun. The same goes for solar architecture.

An artists reconstruction sketch of houses in Priene. 

It would have huge ramifications on planning if it was recognized that human settlements needed to be conducive to solar inputs. New development would need to be rezoned from the fringes of existing settlements to south-facing hillsides as close to transport infrastructures as possible. Currently proposed developments would need to be reviewed and weight given to solar orientation. Architect’s plans would need to be vetted for solar passive qualities and appropriate changes encouraged. Planning/Architecture schools would need to add solar passive design to heir curricula – courses which are entirely missing currently. 

It may be, however, that the pace of climate change will not allow humanity the luxury of rethinking our approach to the sun in our buildings and cities. Soon enough we will see..

Below is another settlement whose orientation is clear from above – the modern day settlement of Arcosante

Arcosante, a nascent city located in the Arizona desert that exposes most of its buildings to the maximum solar energy available. The drawings of its founder, architect Paolo Soleri, are often overtly megalomaniacal in character. Soleri drew the megastructures of the future as his imagination saw them, and Arcosante as it exists today is, thankfully, only a tiny part of the grand scheme Soleri drew for it. Nevertheless, it is a planned settlement that acknowledges the sun in its planning. For many of us Soleri’s work is problematic because it does not admit the imagination of any architect’s work except Soleri. Soleri gave himself the role of both Planner and Architect, and there is no room for anybody else, whereas at Priene one can imagine many architect’s at work (if they could only put a lid on their egos). 

Buildings and cities should resemble flowers and trees, which Nature designed to gather solar energy over millions of years. and again in this sense Arcosante is a good example of learning from Nature – if only in the aspect of facing the right way. Our lumbering heavy buildings still don’t even track the sun as the humble buttercup does. 

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