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From the autonomous house to self-sufficient territories

The energy autonomy project defies a century-old system: that of the industrial model of large networks which, on the scale of cities or vast territories, comprised the dominant production mode of many utilities – water, sewage, energy – marginalizing decentralized solutions. Today, with the energy transition a vital issue, this unified large technical system is tottering. A new imaginary dimension of the infrastructure is being built within which the world of architecture has taken hold of the energy question, imagining autonomous inhabitable machines, self-sufficient cities, eco-infrastructures and micro-grids. Right from the beginning, these disconnection protagonists have fueled two ambitions: being emancipated from the hold of the large infrastructures and, through a utilities system incorporated into buildings, guaranteeing minimum comfort in water, electricity and heating. Among the figureheads are forgotten personalities and others who are famous, such as John Adolphus Etzler with his autonomous mechanical system of 1841, and Thomas Edison and his electrically autonomous house of 1912. The energy autonomy movement, however, did not reach maturity internationally until after the 1973 oil crisis. Propelled by American counterculture, autonomy spread geographically and became institutionalized, moving from the housing unit to the city and the territory. Alexander Pike’s autonomous house or Jeanne-Marie and Georges Alexandroff’s self-sufficient city attest to the power of this trend, which combined technical virtuosity and the economic, political, social and environmental project. All of them heralded today’s discussions, which this work sheds light on through its historical approach.