By Tracy A. Marciano, MS:
New terminology develops as modernity unfurls. In the 1970’s we never could have imagined coffee would be labeled as gourmet, computers could be carried in pockets or people would become obsessed with bottled water when tap water in the United States far surpasses potability of most countries on the planet.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s ideas of environmental protection were beginning to surface thanks to a generation of hippies who saw the potential in societal change, even if the premise was based on a large scale energy crisis and lack of financial resources. Fuel shortages erupted (lead image) and food deserts in urban areas and countries with erratic weather patterns were being recognized. Lack of financial resources, sources of fuel and food shortages are recurring themes in history and may support how ideas surrounding environmental protection and renewable energy have improved very little in 40 years. The ironic twist which appears to be lost on a new generation of environmental activists is the actual idea of sustainability has been recycled.
It is well known that Egyptians used solar power in architecture they erected thousands of years ago. Images of Ra, the Sun God in Egyptian mythology, frequently appear in hieroglyphics; the center of his cult was in Heliopolis, which translates to City of Sun.
Although dated as far back as Neolithic times, Romans used water as an integral component for heating in floors by strategically erecting buildings facing south to capture more sunlight.
The Dakota in New York City is an example of historic sustainability. The building was completed in 1884 – long before the city required new construction adhere to LEED guidelines. The architect was Henry J. Hardenburg, who also designed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. A talented architect, he was also infatuated with water. Metaphors for Neptune and/or Poseidon embedded in the elaborate building are often overlooked. The dry moat around the building is delineated with an elaborate iron fence encrusted with heads of seas gods entwined with sea urchins (#1 image below). Waves are also carved into exterior surfaces and a protruding guard house on the south side of the building (#2 image below). The most powerful manifestation of the building’s relationship with water is found in water collection basins in the basement and center courtyard. The collected water was then used to produce steam heat and electric illumination for the building and the several blocks surrounding it in anticipation of new development (#3 image below). The most recent iteration of this idea is referred to as grey water recycling and rain water harvesting.
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In the early 1890’s, Clarence Kemp, an American plumbing and heating manufacturer, developed residential solar water heating. Although the idea would later benefit from refinements, the general idea was to place a black-painted box on the roof of the building in order to absorb sunlight to heat water (Image #1 below). Completed in 1931, the architects of Buffalo City Hall designed the Art Deco masterpiece to utilize the prevailing winds from Lake Erie as natural air conditioning during the summer months. (Image #2 below))
In the 21st century sustainability has erupted into public awareness as a multi-strand premise to a better future. Even if they do not participate, most people have been exposed to words like sustainability, recycling, repurposing, LEED certification, organic food, green living and carbon footprints. We applaud companies who engage in social responsibility with organic agriculture and reduced waste products and construction companies that adhere to LEED certification in new buildings, albeit a reconfigured marketing tool. We also commend the innovative thinker who turns used cooking oil into bio-fuel and has the patience to convert their diesel vehicle into one that runs on the bio fuel.
It is important to understand singular actions will make a collective difference. Rather than waiting for others we need to make small changes in our personal behavior because the last 40 years hasn’t produced significant results in the Unites States. History may repeat itself but there comes a point in the timeline where ideologies of change will, in themselves, become a new trajectory of historical sustainability when people look back 40 years from now. Analyzing art, architecture and cultural development from the past has the potency to reveal important clues we need in order to tether the past to the future with finesse.
Image 1: Gas station in 1973
Photo credit: Unknown Photographer. (Author does not take credit for photo)
Image 2: This tomb painting depicts the Egyptian Sun God, Ra in his boat with a sun disk on his head.
Circa: approximate: 1200 BC
Image 3: The Dakota, New York City.
Iron fence surrounding dry moat with Neptune imagery
Image 4: The Dakota. Waves carved into ornamentation.
Photo credit: Tracy A. Marciano, 2006
Image 5: New York City. Looking south on Central Park West from the roof of The Dakota in 1887 Central Park is on the left of this image
Photo credit: New York Historical Society
Image 6: Historical ad for Clarence Kemp’s Solar water heater. Circa 1892
Image 7: City Hall in Buffalo, NY. Art Deco design, completed 1931 Lake Erie on left and behind the building used to cool building in summer months
Photo credit: Andrew Deci