Far from learning the lessons of failed 1960s modernism, we are poised to make the same mistakes on a grander scale. What we need is a total rethink

It's a remarkable and rather alarming fact that England is about to embark on one of the largest waves of building in its history. Over the next two decades, the Department for Education and Skills will build hundreds of schools, the Ministry of Defence will build a generation of facilities, and the Department of Health will build scores of hospitals. All of this occurs as John Prescott has opened up four growth areas for a new generation of "sustainable communities".

Are we ready?

"Sustainability" is indeed the challenge of the day - although there is considerable disagreement about what the term means. What it surely means, at a minimum, is not having to pull down failed buildings a few years or decades after they're built, which we've had to do all too often in recent decades.

Some of us remember the thrilling days when many of those earlier projects were conceived. Our unbridled faith in a technological approach seems touching now. It did take us to the moon, after all, and soon enough - we thought - it would make infectious diseases obsolete, conquer social ills and create a world of leisure (ha!). Inspired by that fantasy, architects and planners used a heady mix of technology and art to fashion a thrilling world of mesmerising newness.

In hindsight, it seems obvious what would happen next to that newness: it would rapidly become pathetically dated. Almost as soon as it was built, the sleek technology began to look dingy, silly, even scary. Projects that won basketfuls of awards on opening would become grim dystopias, and many would be pulled down.

The naive optimism of that decade has given way to an ironic postmodernism that recognises the limits of linear technologies. Yet the imagery of that world still persists in our current designs, now as a "retro" fashion. We're still going through the motions because we don't seem to know what else to do.

Certainly, we know how to do more efficient buildings, incorporating renewable materials and green technologies. But is the gee-whiz technology blinding us to the poor durability of the human environment we are creating? For how long will these exotic technologies be maintainable? How much extra energy will be required, in an era of peak oil? How adaptable will these buildings be in 20 or 50 years?

The naive optimism of the 1960s has given way to an ironic postmodernism that recognises the limits of linear technologies. Yet the imagery of that world still persists as ‘retro’ fashion, because we don’t seem to know what else to do

Will the results really be fundamentally more sustainable? Or will we merely create yet another failed series of rusting fantasies?

Back in the 1960s, there were thoughtful voices who accurately predicted such unhappy results. American urbanist Jane Jacobs warned about the adverse effect of the megaprojects on the life (and death) of the cities around them. British architect, engineer and mathematician Christopher Alexander warned against top-down, "tree-like" hierarchical planning schemes in his classic paper A City is not a Tree.

Now Alexander is back in Britain after a career of building and writing around the world, and he is alarmed. His new Centre for Environmental Structure - Europe (where this author is an associate) is doing cutting-edge research into new approaches to urban codes using biological processes. The best model of real sustainability, he thinks, is provided by the adaptive processes of nature, and the exquisite forms they produce over time. But in this respect we're going backward, not forward.

So what can we do? Well, here are four suggestions …

  • Start with what we already have. Resist "blank slate" approaches that erase existing complexity with a rigidly simplistic scheme. Invest more in researching existing natural and human assets, and build on them.
  • Resist the tendency to overspecialise. Use a "team approach" bringing together experts with local stakeholders in an "emergent" process.
  • Use a "whole systems approach" to ensure that the design process adapts to the complexities of life, and not the reverse.
  • Reform the "culture of novelty" in which desperate reinvention is the only coin of the realm. Accept successful solutions from whatever source, and let their uniqueness emerge from their local conditions. Don't be afraid of traditional typological solutions - you don't need to slavishly copy them, but you should be willing to learn from them. You will be rewarded financially, socially and environmentally.
Some good things are happening. BRE has created useful sustainability checklists and other new design methodologies. Innovators such as Roger Ulrich, a consultant to the DoH, are pointing the way to an "evidence-based" approach to design. CABE is trying out new approaches to urban coding, and the RIBA is putting a new emphasis on urbanism. And Alexander's work points the way to a more sustainable way of generating form than the image-based methods of the old century.

The times do seem to call for a radically different approach - one less concerned about futuristic fantasies, and more genuinely rooted in complex human realities. For our money, this is the coming avant-garde.