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.
The history of the creation of the major networks is a web in which technical, financial and political choices were entwined, not without certain ambiguities. It was a battle of technical models, scales, movements and governance modes, in which engineers and architects took part on several occasions. In 1920, mechanization invaded the home: kitchen, bathroom and laundry were equally affected. The habitation’s degree of modernity was henceforth measured by the number of electrical outlets and its household appliances. The network system remains the model to defend and improve. Connection wins. Disconnection is never mentioned as a project and rarely in terms of positive values. Disconnection is therefore seen as the negative of connection and is perceived as undesirable, marginal and even punishable. To be “disconnected” is to be marginalized or excluded, to be deprived of access to the essential utilities and services that are the norm in modern society.
At the very moment when the dream of connection was becoming a reality, transforming each city-dweller into a network-subscriber in a very short lapse of time, a new technical utopia emerged: disconnection. Whereas connection became a principle, its relevance was questioned. The criticism of the network’s accessibility for the largest number of people was based on economic but also environmental issues. Faced with the depletion of non-renewable reserves and the pollution of the industrial city, the self-management of energy derived from the natural milieu appeared as an alternative. Inventions intended to promote hydroelectric, wind and solar energies developed throughout the nineteenth century, and energy autonomy/autarky was emerging as a phenomenon and a full-fledged project. Starting in that century, discussions in the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom began in favor of energy decentralization and self-production, which could not only free the landscapes and ground from the web of flows, but users from the monopolies.
In the early 1950s, the “externalization” of pipes and conduits became widespread and made it difficult to distinguish what was mechanical or structural. The exaggeration of mechanical visibilities became a deliberate choice, a decorative or obvious element. What the Modern movement had generally removed from view would appear in the foreground and explode in a spectacular manner. And it was probably the megastructure projects in the 1960s that would take this technical rhetoric to its summit. The city was to be apprehended in terms of networks, energy or information connections. In the late 1960s, a wave of nihilism and dystopia triggered a mutation in prospective. In the context of a widespread crisis, the apprehension of a cataclysm favored the idea of nomadism. Mobility would query the possibilities of a change in the habitat on the vertical, horizontal or territorial energy grid. A first deterritorialization occurred – it was the famous “twilight of the sedentaries.” But this disappearance of architecture to the benefit of the enhancement of its network would make the question of the dependence on, and illusion of, disconnection rise to the surface. A few years before the 1973 oil crisis, its apprehension would lead to the disfavor of postwar technological optimism, promoting the scenario of an unprecedented boom in so-called alternative and renewable energies, bringing about a second deterritorialization: total energy autonomy.
Faced with intense energy concerns, autonomy would take over the myth of abundance. A self-sufficiency imaginary dimension corresponded to this reassuring space: a new technological system ensured vital necessities and their restocking from local resources. The energy autonomy movement offered several approaches that fragmented an architectural unity of principle and intent. The various ambitions concerned self-building techniques and archetypes as well as industrialization processes, the most sophisticated space technologies and pure prospective. Energy autonomy, however, gave rise to two major orientations: a first wave derived from the American counterculture’s self-building movement, radical and eminently political, and another more institutional and technical approach in line with a scientific and architectural tradition. Following the oil crisis, this energy approach would become widespread in the mid-1970s. The multiplication of projects established an institutionalization of the subject, an evolution in programs and scales. If most of the research initially concerned the inhabitable unit, these energy anticipations then spread to the city, the territory.
Before the first environmental crisis and the boom in alternative energies, the Autonomous Housing Project was recognized not only as a precursor – it was the first study on the subject – but also for its institutional and industrial support, its duration and influence as well as the quantity of documental and technical analyses produced. The adventure started in 1971 with Pike, wishing to continue Richard Buckminster Fuller’s work on energy autonomy, creating a technical research unit in England, in the Cambridge University Architecture Department. His objectives were clear: creating a theoretical and critical base to support the autonomy of energy services; developing the tools needed to build and test a prototype of the autonomous house; and last, promoting its marketing. If this project strongly influenced the 1970s, it still remains as little-known today as its architect.
Energy autonomy emerged from the ecological craft industry, and all these references give an account of its expansion. In the mid-1970s, its growing popularity was accompanied by a change in program: universities and public institutions, companies and private agencies mobilized to rethink the distribution system on every scale. If the self-builders were generally focused on the individual living space or a community group, the second wave would experiment with autonomy and would shift it from the family unit to the city-region. We will see how Sean Wellesley-Miller and Day Chahroudi, Georges and Jeanne-Marie Alexandroff and Yona Friedman took hold of this operating concept that re-examined scales and governance modes.
More than an immense unit that would comprise a phenomenon that homogeneously broke with the energy tradition inherited from the nineteenth century, what must be grasped, by untangling the many threads, is the imaginary and ideological complexities of the idea as well as the persistence of conflicts of interest and governance that made disconnection a contested architectural and urban practice. The analysis of the results, difficulties and internal positions in the movement facilitated the understanding of its ambiguous success. This analysis must not however overshadow the external factors. The distancing of the specter of the energy crisis increased the public administration’s lack of interest and the energy lobbies’ marginalization of disconnection advocates. As the causes of this problematic development were often associated with its image of “critical technology,” the relevance of this description would be discussed in view of its founding concepts: the self-guarantee of vital necessities and the reconstitution of an economy of everyday life.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, the recomposition of service networks has been questioning the emergence of a new hierarchy of electricity systems. The changes in scale in production, even in distribution, is modifying urban and regional energy futures. The share of decentralized renewable energy is being discussed on the international, national, regional and municipal scale and the micro-grid has appeared as a recurring reticular figure. There are many projects in the United States, in New York in particular, but also in London in the United Kingdom, whereas in France, these electricity micro-grids have been tightly restricted in the framework of the law on individual and collective self-consumption. The large historic distribution operators are attempting to keep their hands on this historic competence by developing smart grids whose principle is to envisage local micro-productions as an import–export reserve in the energy market to benefit the balance of the large distribution network. By analyzing energy decentralization through the angle of the micro-grid technical object incorporated into urban projects, this chapter queries the spatial effects of the infrastructural changes underway. The infrastructural transition presents a large diversity of technical, political and scalar responses today; there are new elements – additions, but also coexisting elements and hybridizations.