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Special Issue

Architecture for sustainable happy human society (1)

Lyonchhen Jigmi Yoezer Thinley UIA2011 TOKYO Keynote
Lyonchhen Jigmi Yoezer Thinley
Prime Minister - Kingdom of Bhutan
Born 1952.
BA (Honours) St. Stephen’s College of Delhi University
Masters degree in Public Administration from Pennsylvania State University
The Honourable Lyonchhen Jigmi Yoezer Thinley is the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Bhutan.  He is a strong advocate of the philosophy of Gross National Happiness, which is an alternative development model conceived by His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, and he regularly speaks on the subject at both the national and international levels. Lyonchhen is presently the Chairman of the National Environment Commission, as also the Chairman of the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute of Conservation and Environment (UWICE). Amongst the various awards received by him, Lyonchhen Jigmi Yoezer Thinley was conferred the Druk Wangyel Medal which is the highest civilian decoration, by His Majesty the Fifth King of Bhutan in 2009.
Architects and our everyday life 

Mr. chairman, ladies and gentlemen,
I have always been fascinated by architecture and the creative world in which the architects live. Enjoying what I believe to be the most engaging profession, you determine how we live and will live in the spaces that you create and alter. You do so with grace and with audacity as well. Just as your ancient predecessors have created wonders with so little, you design and build with the facility of technology and with great edifices of the past to inspire you. You build dwelling places in cities, suburbia and rural areas. You build institutions, commercial centres and industrial structures. You employ your genius and exercise creative freedom and boldness to appease the egos of the rich and ostentatious on one hand while answering the call to meet the need for most basic and affordable shelter for the humble. You often satisfy your thirst for fame as well and there are monuments that celebrate your greatness. You create with natural materials; with concrete, steel and glass; and you have caused the development of new composites that lend themselves to the flexibility and durability that your imaginative structures must have and the customers demand.

It is almost always the grand structures and edifices that withstand the ravishes of time and the elements or their remnants that tell us the stories of great civilizations of the past. These are the works of great architects whose columns, cornices and walls are often embellished with artistic wonders. They seldom fail to cause awe and reverence. It is the architects who create living spaces, choose the materials and build the structures, arranging them in ways that enable access to services. Through their works, they define life, social systems, culture, destiny and how man relates to nature.

Architects are at the heart of what makes and interprets human experience. They are the ultimate narrators of human story.

And we know that man’s story is one of change, of hope, dreams, of destruction and of renewal. But of late, the changes that we are experiencing are more about the unfortunate result of our callous and foolish actions. Our dogged pursuit of change for the better through material wealth at any cost has brought the world to a state when its own survival has become as issue. By striving for continuous economic growth to satisfy our insatiable hunger for ever more, we have destroyed much of the natural life support system and what remains may not last very long at this pace.

Our relationship with ecosystem 

Ever so often we are setting off alarm bells that warn us of the finite and increasingly fragile nature of the world abuse. Natural resources are depleting rapidly. Climate is changing and impacting on the ecosystem in far more complex and irrevocable ways than we can exaggerate. Our snow crested mountains are losing their cover and the glaciers of the world are withdrawing and disappearing to alter, and gradually halt forever, the perennial flow of our river systems. Our hydrology is changing and we are experiencing freak weather behavior. Floods, hurricanes, storms and cyclones occur with increasing fury and frequency even in places where these were never heard of. Farmers can no longer rely on their ancient knowledge and suffer the consequences of drought, crop failure, loss of ancestral land to rising sea and salinization. Earth quakes, tsunamis, GLOFs, land & mud slides destroy lives and property in such horrific ways and to such extent that even where they are most unlikely, people are terrorized by their spectres.

Just as numbing are the scenes of emaciated cattle dying on grassless pastures and raging fires engulfing homes and expansive forests. And then, there is the fear of epidemics of new diseases before their cures are found. The ice continents are melting, sea level is rising, marine life diminishing, and the ozone depletion continues. The very air we breathe is turning poisonous. Biodiversity is on the decline and with the extinction of each specie, plant, insect or animal, man inches closer to its own extinction. We are heading for an ecological disaster from which none may recover.

Socially, we are disintegrating. We are failing to live together as family, friends and community and as one kind. Cities and buildings have become places that make strangers of even the closest neighbors; crime is on the rise, dependence on drugs and psychotropic substances is a common risk for the increasing proportion of people struggling against relational failures, job insecurity and the stresses of having to meet deadlines, production targets while forced to compete for tenure, reward and status. Prisons everywhere are overflowing and our legal systems clogged by the deluge of people who fail to live on the right side of law. People are unable to cope on their own in herds where selfishness, loss of decency and the zeal for individualism are tearing apart families and communities, and fraying the tattered fabric of society. Loneliness, depression and suicides are the price that we pay and longer lives for many are prolongation of indignity on the remote fringes of society.

On the political and security front, the world continues to fragment into dangerous entities with many holding destructive powers of the kind that even the largest of armies of the past would never dream possible. We have no idea who and how many possess nuclear weapons in this belligerent, divided world. The race for control of scarce resources is escalating and not only for control of scarce resources is escalating and not only for precious and strategic minerals and oil.

Communities, cities and nations will seek to gain control over sources and distribution of water. Upper riparian countries will exercise water power making interminable struggles and conflicts inevitable. Democracy is the watch-word today. But even as democracy flourishes in form and by declaration, more people are helpless against the brutality of tyrants and corrupt governments than in the recent past. What sadly flourishes in truth is inequality, deprivation and conflict. Even in so called mature democracies, one cannot find inspiration. Good governance is rare.

The true meaning of wealth… 

All these are happening because of our pursuit of material prosperity –because we think that development is all about GDP / GNP growth. The irony is that in the past seven decades that we have sought economic growth with little concern for ecological, social and other costs, little or no additional wealth has in fact, been created. Much of what we think we have is illusory –nothing durable and least dependable in troubled times. When the housing bubble burst and America spiraled into a recession, the American people realized how unreal their wealth was as they lost their homes, jobs, nest eggs and sanity. Likewise, even in Japan the nation that attained the highest of what is possible under the GDP model, many are experiencing unemployment, poverty and homelessness for the first time. And today, when this country is struck by the worst imaginable catastrophe, it is the old and real wealth of Japanese culture and social values that have come to the rescue.

Wealth is what you create for difficult times, to tide you over periods of want, to keep you dry and warm in times of cold and your stomach filled even when famine strikes. It is to provide for your needs during the winter of want, so that you can age and die in grace and dignity amid care and comfort. What otherwise is the function of wealth?

What makes for even greater irony is that society is no longer master of the means that it has created for the realization of its ill-conceived dream. The market is not within our control. Instead, it has enslaved us through the lure of consumerism –by taking control over greed, our biggest weakness. We are victims of the vagrant forces of the market. And as we become more subservient, it becomes more authoritarian.

We do not know on what foundations our financial or economic architecture stand. Nobody knows and nobody understands even though, of late, more and more of those who swore by it speak of its fundamental flaws. But nobody is in charge. We huddle every now and then and come out with the same old solution: add more fuel to cause even bigger flames of havoc.

We can only guess what the market forces hold for us. Witness the recession in the US from which they do not know whether they are exiting or into which they are sinking deeper. The Europeans can only guess helplessly about the possibility that the unseen forces are leading them into major financial and economic crises. Likewise, the same forces may be conspiring to slow the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil. As for the rest of the world, especially the developing countries, what seems quite certain is that many will not even achieve the eight millennium development goals (MDGs) that are essential to ensuring minimum survival standards essential for these countries to actually pursue serious development by rising out of extreme poverty.

What will the fortunes of Japan, the US or China be in ten years, five, one or even in the next quarter? What will be the fate of the Euro-zone? Nobody knows. Nobody dares explicitly to suggest a more predictable and manageable alternative. And nobody is to be trusted. It is scary at best and ludicrous in truth. It is a sorry state indeed in which we find ourselves at this time and age of great scientific achievements and intellectual wealth.

Where are we heading? What will become of us tomorrow when we know so little about today? How is it that we choose it to be so? Are we prepared to jeopardize not only the survival of future generations but our own now for the sake of having more of what we do not need today? We need to act now. We need to change. We need to change the architecture of human society and its economy. We desperately need to alter our way of life and rethink our values. But going backward is not an option while we cannot move forward along the same path. We need to take possession of our intelligence and use it to find a way out and forward rather than accept the doom that awaits us along with all else that the fragile earth holds and sustains.

To be continued.

Photo Credit
: UIA2011 TOKYO Japan Organizing Board
Photo 1-3
: Honorary Consulate of the Kingdom of Bhutan in Japan