Forty years ago, a couple of enterprising and visionary architects on Prince Edward Island designed and built The Ark: a building that, in its design, structure and purpose, opened our eyes to the possibilities of living more harmoniously with the world around us.
A few weeks ago I was asked to present some remarks at the opening of a retrospective exhibit called "Living Lightly on the Earth" at the gallery of the Confederation Center Art Gallery in Charlottetown. This is what I said:
Human beings are amazing. For as long as we have inhabited this planet, we have dug up, smashed, burned, melted and combined bits of the Earth and fashioned them to our liking. From arrowheads to apple iPhones, we have converted raw stuff into other stuff that we find more useful.
And some of the most enduring remnants of our planetary scavenging are our dwellings. Once we moved out of caves, we used what we found to make our lives more comfortable and secure: stone in the most elaborate and intricate manner, from the Incas in South America, to the Picts in Northern Scotland; mortar to create plaster walls and floors in the Middle East; timber for pit houses in Mesa Verde and cathedrals in Europe; and animal bones and skins in the far North.
Slowly, insidiously, somewhere along that path, we lost our connection to the Earth from where all things come.
Some of our most enduring artefacts are our houses, and from those homes, we can deduce a lot about a culture. In architecture, size matters -- or it at least indicates rank: the grandeur of our buildings signalling the relative importance of those who use them.
At one time, church spires dominated skylines, then government buildings, then corporate office towers as power moved from religion to politics and onto business. If the various Trump Towers that infest our global cityscapes epitomize the height of hubris and vanity, the Ark, for me represents the far more palatable human characteristics of modesty and respect.
Each step of the way, the human instinct to grow has pushed the limits of engineering and architecture in building bigger and more awe-inspiring structures. And slowly, insidiously, somewhere along that path, we lost our connection to the Earth from where all things come. Living in a bear-skin tent strung taut on woolly mammoth tusks, it was quite clear what your house once was. Living in a high-rise apartment surrounded by concrete, Styrofoam and plastic, it is less clear that our built environment, and indeed our very bodies themselves, are of the Earth.
Confederation Centre for the Arts, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada (Photo: Klaus Lang via Getty Images)
It is not simply a cute phrase to say we are what we eat: it is an absolute truism. Every cell in each of our bodies gets replaced on a regular basis -- some within hours, some years. The bones that are my skeleton today were made of entirely different cells just a few years ago, and those new bone cells came from what I ate (and drank and breathed). We are of the Earth, and it is of us. The "environment" is not something out there, separate from us: it is a description of the continuum in which we exist.
The Ark was the architectural embodiment of that truth: it was an attempt to recouple ourselves to the natural world, to retrieve our intimate, inseparable connection with Mother Earth. It was a built structure that recognized and celebrated our human connection to our bigger, shared home, but it was also a symbol -- as the name suggests -- of a refuge in a turbulent and unpredictable world.
In 1976 there were a little over 3 billion people on planet Earth: today there are over 7 billion. The global economy is about six times bigger today than it was when David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund conceived the Ark. We have changed the world, and I'd like to suggest to you, that the world is about to change us. Back in the 1970s the idea of limits to growth was just being imagined. Today, with critical systems unravelling all around us (climate, water, energy, soil, food), it is clear that those limits have either been reached or are being pushed.
Continuous expansion on a finite planet is not the answer to our challenges.
Continuous expansion on a finite planet is not the answer to our challenges: Like our built environment, bigger is not necessarily better. Rather, we need better integration and a recognition of our proper place in the bigger scheme of things.
The Ark was, quite literally, an idea ahead of its time. I would argue that had the global population adopted the philosophies and technologies that were embedded in David and Ole's model, we would have perhaps avoided pushing ourselves to the brink of destruction. I would also argue that it is absolutely clear, having now arrived at this uncomfortable and chilling place, that we need the Ark infinitely more today than we did then.
The Ark is not some dusty relic from an obscure and irrelevant past, it is the embodiment of a new approach to being on this Earth which is at once a practical example of living gently and a beacon of hope for a troubled world.
Human beings are amazing -- not only because of our capacity to shape the world to our liking, but because of our boundless imagination, and our ability to look into the future and to imagine something different, something better.
I hope that in looking back to a time and a place not far from where we stand tonight, we are stirred to look into that future, and to tackle the great challenges of our time with the same creativity, determination and love which inspired and built the Ark.
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