Architecture after Architecture
ARCHITECTURE AFTER ARCHITECTURE
Transcript of talk given online on 22nd April as part of the Architecture Foundation’s 100 Day Studio initiative.
PART 1: SOME STORIES
Thank you so much for joining me this evening.
As a format for communication this zooming makes me anxious, not least because this is the first virtual talk I have given. Those who have seen me lecture before will know that it is quite a physical affair, as I pace around the stage extemporising against a backdrop of slides and transitions. So, sitting down will inevitably constrain the visceral nature of my normal talks; I just hope that it will not also constrain the content or your reception of it. I have also decided not to use many images, because I feel that on screen they might overwhelm rather than support the argument. So, I am afraid you have my face alone for the next thirty or so minutes, after which I hope we can open up the conversation.
I am also anxious in these anxious times because I think the last thing we need are prescriptions or pronouncements, and yet this format which foregrounds my talking head in a prominent manner tends to accentuate the power and authority of a single voice, just at the time when we need to develop collective ways forward.With those two anxieties shared with you, let’s start. I have called this short talk ‘Architecture after Architecture which is also the title of a research proposal that I have recently submitted with Tatjana Schneider, so many of the ideas have been developed jointly with Tatjana.
Let me quickly summarise the argument. The underlying hypothesis is that the climate emergency presents a threat to some of the principles on which architecture has been founded, and so any response to the emergency may affect reformulations of the role, practices and values of the profession. The title ‘Architecture after Architecture’, is knowingly provocative, suggesting as it does that the climate emergency makes current notions and values of architecture at best fragile, at worst unviable and so redundant. The provocation is meant to reflect the urgency of the environmental crisis, and with it the pressing need to consider radical alternatives to architectural practice as it is presently constituted. If, as many argue, the emergency demands systemic changes to dominant economic models, social structures and behaviours, then what are the implications of these changes for the architectural profession?
Before getting to some provisional answers to these questions, I want to start to develop the argument by starting with some anecdotes, as is my wont.
First, Sarah and I have just finished a major retrofit of our house, doing all the things we wished we could have done when we built it, and also preparing it for our older age. When we conceived the house 25 years ago, sustainable design was in its infancy. The kit available back then (boilers, solar things, whole house ventilation and so on) was incredibly primitive in relation to today’s technology. So, we have upgraded all that. But the main failing of the house – despite it being widely feted as a sustainable pioneer – was its airtightness, or rather lack of it. We designed it when a sealed box was not the norm in environmental design, before Passivhaus was a widely known term. Now our environmental engineers brought along a wind machine, sucking air out and blowing it in. We held our hands up against the gusts of air coming in and out, and looked at each other in despair. The retrofit has therefore involved ripping materials out and taping up all the joints. It feels very fragile to confront the future ravages of the climate emergency with lengths of sticky tape, however expensive it might be.
At the same time that our project was underway, all the architects who had won the Stirling Prize declared a climate emergency. This felt like a powerful move of solidarity and potential action. However, the whole initiative quickly unraveled as one after another these famous architects announced major new airport projects, in each case wrapping a major engine of carbon production in a soft eco-wrapping. First, Grimshaw’s Heathrow Terminal 5 declared itself to be ‘carbon neutral’, in an astonishing sleight of truth. Zaha Hadid Architects’ Sydney Airport did not match this false hubris, merely saying that they will integrate “extensive use of daylight, natural ventilation and water recycling” as part of their ‘sustainable’ approach. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, Foster and Partners raised the sustainability stakes by announcing for a new resort was going to be ‘eco-friendly’. As if! For an “ultra-luxury tourist destination”, a car crash of environmental rights? As I shouted down the phone to a bemused journalist the other day: “build their bloody airports if they must, but then don’t virtue signal. They can’t have it both ways.” The only good news is that Grimshaw’s project has now been deemed illegal.
Finally, I went to a lecture by the revered architectural historian, Kenneth Frampton. He opened with strong statements about capitalism, commodification and climate, and then (as in his seminal essay on critical regionalism) he finds resistance to these conditions in a very particular strain of architecture: poetic tectonics, Semper’s earthworks and roofworks, a thoughtful engagement with context. At the end he got all but a standing ovation. The audience had luxuriated in the belief that the continuation of a stylized canon of architecture is going to be enough to resist the environmental, political and economic ruptures that we face. The reality is that this version of architecture represents too comfortable an avoidance of the scale of challenges we face.
PART 2: CLIMATE EMERGENCY
These are but three small examples of the conflicted nature of architecture’s engagement with the climate emergency. First, the fragility of design, sticking tape over much larger societal cracks. Second, the duplicity of phony words and declarations which deny the reality of the environmental crisis. Third, the retreat from engaging with external issues to the perceived safety of internalized values.
In all, there is a clinging to the emollience of the term ‘sustainability’ in the face of a crisis that confronts the very basis of the word. We cannot sustain our current modes of consumption and growth, and so to continue to use the word ‘sustainability’ holds out a false promise, in that it suggests we can sustain our current modes of operation which are so embedded in the modern project or rather the project of modernity, defined as it is by a societal addiction to progress and growth.
It is not surprising that the twentieth century was a golden era for architecture. It was an era driven by the twinned paradigms of progress and growth. Within the current tenets of neo-liberal economics, progress is signaled by growth, and when one speaks of progress one assumes growth. As the extractive industry par excellence, architecture was the perfect vehicle for the announcement of growth, turning anonymous earth into pillars of constructed matter. These were then wrapped in various sheens to demonstrate progress, an endless advance of style, form, aesthetics and techniques that became ever more hysterical as the old century turned to the new. We should have called out the architectural writhing of this period for what it was - the spatialisation of an out-of-control capitalism - but too much money was being made, and the pictures were too good. Dezeen boomed.
The problem is that the endless production of buildings is also tied to all the traits that have led to the climate emergency: a reliance on a technocratic regime fuelled by the carbon state; extraction of raw materials and fossil fuels; growing consumption; dependency on the orthodoxies of neo-liberalism. To say that architecture is complicit in the climate emergency is not to apportion blame, it is a statement of fact.
The standard architectural response to crisis is too often framed as a technical fix, overseen by the norms of the various environmental regulations (e.g. BREEAM in the UK, HQE in France, LEED in the US, CASBEE in Japan, Green Star in Australia and DGNB in Germany). Of course we should strive in the production of new buildings and the retrofitting of existing ones to reduce the carbon load, but this is not enough; indeed these quasi-scientific approaches limit our vision as to how to deal with the emergency in other, more radical ways.
Treating architecture in purely technical or quantitative terms aligns architecture with the technocratic regimes that many argue have been a factor in the creation of the emergency. It also holds out a false hope that the emergency can in some way be solved. Unfortunately, much of what passes as architecture’s engagement with alternative futures relies on notions and images of utopian technologies: floating islands, hydroponic facades, self-flowering desert cities and so on. These approaches align with the techno-boosterish end of the ecology spectrum, those who persuade us that the solution lies somewhere in the future through technological intervention (such as spraying the skies with sun-reflecting sulfates), and in the meantime it can be business as usual. Too often these speculations repeat the mistake that created the emergency in the first place, namely an unfettered command of nature, splitting humans from the world we are part of. They suggest solutions, but the climate emergency is not a problem that can be solved, it is a predicament that we have to make best sense of.
It demands a much more complex and radical set of understandings and actions, ones that start with an unravelling of its cultural and economic constitution. In particular we need to understand the emergency, and its implications for architecture, in the context of capitalism. The reason for this is that architecture, as a profession in the service to capital, most clearly intersects with the climate emergency in terms of the economy. What architecture looks like is an irrelevance here. Much more important is to see as Naomi Klein, Jason Moore and many others do, the emergency as primarily a consequence of the machinations of neo-liberal capitalism. This is consistent with a reading of the production of the built environment as the spatialisation of capital. And so, if the climate emergency demands systemic change to current economic orthodoxies, then it demands systemic change to the way that architecture might operate. If progress and growth, as defined by the modern project, are no longer tenable in face of the emergency, then architecture as the handmaiden of progress and growth, needs to reinvent itself to avoid become redundant.
The climate crisis fundamentally disrupts the value system, and with it the cultures and identities, on which architecture has thus far been founded. The emergency demands we come to provisional answers, and soon; it forces the condition of architecture after architecture, in which previous assumptions and operations are replaced with new ones. This might sound like a negative scenario — the dismantling of a discipline — but I suggest otherwise. I suggest that the climate emergency presents not so much new opportunities, but a radically new set of demands and conditions, which bring with them radically new spatial conditions. As Rebecca Solnit notes: “inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibilities are sisters.” The danger of the crisis is twinned with potential. If the climate emergency demands systemic change to our economies, values, behaviours, and relationship to non-humans, then all of these changes bring with them new spatialities, and these need to be co-designed by expert citizens and citizen experts.
PART 3: COVID
To summarise this part of the lecture, then, with a set of questions. What happens, then, to architecture when we think seriously about the systemic change that the climate emergency demands? Can architecture in its current guise be either acceptable or viable? If architecture is so firmly identified with images of progress and growth, what happens when those conditions are no longer tolerable? And what happens to the identity of the architect when the continuing production of buildings is questioned? How might we reframe our value to be knowledge, rather than the production of novelty?’ And if these systemic changes are accompanied by new spatial formations, then what role may spatial agents play in the co-design of these new formations?
When Tatjana and I wrote these questions back in January, in another world, in another time, they had a rhetorical edge to them. We set them out to provoke collective debate, as speculative starters, but now in this new world they present as an urgency, because it is clear that COVID 19 is an ecological crisis and a crisis of global capital, and therefore the conditions it has thrown up are instructive as to how we might engage with the climate emergency. There is a danger, of course that attention to COVID and its aftershocks will distract from the climate emergency, but they have to be seen as intertwined.
COVID is an ecological crisis brought about the overwhelming demands of growing urban populations encroaching on nature and wildness, a story that starts with bats and then spreads like wildfire. And it is a crisis of globalization, as unprecedented flows of people drag the virus across the world – between January and March it is estimated 190,000 people came to Europe from Wuhan and the Chinese hotspots, with almost 2000 of them already infected. And finally, it is a crisis of capital because the market simply does not have answers, except in the exploitative moves of hedge funds shorting the system. Indeed, as the shocking speech made by Boris Johnson in January shows, in the face of the pandemic his addiction to the system meant he proposed putting the concerns of the market ahead of the concerns of our collective health.
It is telling that the right wing think tanks are almost silent on the COVID crisis: go to the websites of the Adam Smith Institute, the Legatum Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and one sees hardly anything, which given the excesses of commentary elsewhere suggests that these so-called institutes and their orthodoxies are helpless in the face of the pandemic. The foot soldiers of the libertarian right meanwhile resort to twitter to promote that a pure strain of liberty is the freedom of the individual to go out and get infected.
It may be that the right are biding their time, awaiting the moment when they can steamroller the fragments of society that have been left after COVID with the most extreme measures of disaster capitalism, finally crushing to ash any notions of equity and justice, and at the same time distracting from the climate emergency. I, however, have to assert a more optimistic view, namely that the COVID crisis will demand systemic economic and social shifts in its wake, and these shifts can align with those required by the climate emergency.
Against the silence of the right wing think tanks, the progressive ones such as NEF have been all over the COVID crisis, not in an opportunistic manner but because the conditions that the pandemic has magnified – of the precariat, of out of control globalization, of market failure, of ecological collapse – are exactly the conditions that the progressive thinkers have been addressing for some time. But where NEF and economists such as Ann Pettifor, Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato , have in the past been cast into the shadows by the complete dominance of the orthodoxies of neoliberalism, suddenly they are in the spotlight as the old model is found so dramatically to be wanting. Thus the city of Amsterdam has taking on Kate Raworth’s donught model in a post-COVID world and Mariana is taking to the airwaves unpicking the paucity of Tory thinking to devasting effect. And NEF with its three pillars – A New Social Settlement, A Green New Deal, and A Democratic Economy are more relevant and urgent than ever. All of these progressive approaches posit credible alternatives to the systems and values that are currently dominant.
PART 4: ARCHITECTURE AFTER ARCHITECTURE
So what, I hear you say, has this got to do with Architecture? Where is the Architecture after Architecture that you have promised us? The answer to the first question is – everything and to the second, I am not sure, but we can work on it together. But to get to the relevance of architecture to the post COVID world and the climate emergency we have to relinquish some of the fundaments on which the profession and institution of architecture have relied on for so long. First, aestheticisation as a trait of the modern, post-modern and late-modern project now looks futile at best, decadent at worse, as a transformative stance in the face of the twin crises. Or least, I thought this was pretty self-evident until I googled ‘Architecture Aesthetics COVID’ and cried into my screen with its images of retro futurism, curvy surfaces and modernist clichés of cleanliness. As if that is the solution.
Second, to break the hold of technocentric solutions. Yes do everything possible to reduce carbon load in any work you do, but don’t see this as the be all and end all. And no, don’t believe that a technical solution alone will find our way out of the complexities of the climate emergency.
Third, to redefine what the terms progress and growth might mean to architectural culture away from the norms of neo-classical economics. When we talk of progress, we need to resist being the unwitting champion of its uncritically boosterish tenets through its aestheticisation or technisation. And when we talk of growth, it has to be in a manner deeply critical of modern notions of endless growth as the only acceptable signal of moving forward.
As the work I did on scarcity with Jon Goodbun and others argued, to reject the current norms of progress and growth does not mean to move backwards (as architectural commentators from the right such as Paul Finch so crudely caricature in the calling out the environmental activists as tree-hugging cave dwellers) – but rather to look sideways to see other ways of fulfilling human potential and desires. If we shift the parameters by which we can understand progress and growth, then this also transfers architectural attention from its focus on the building as the sole location of spatial production. If the climate emergency and accompanying COVID crisis, so fundamentally disrupt the modern project, and its addiction to progress and growth, so they challenge the authority of the building as emblematic of those traits. As Tatjana, Nishat Awan and I argued ten years ago in Spatial Agency, we are now asked to displace our spatial intelligence on to processes and conditions before, after and beyond just the building.
Finally, and most importantly, is to recognise that the new conditions of climate and pandemic crisis require us develop new social and economic formations
· of the local over the dominance of the globalized economy
· of the distributed over the centralized
· of openness as a virtue against the increasing closing of discourse and control
· of communal cohesion over the social atomization of capital
· of the circular system over the linear
· of valuing people for what they do rather than what the market determines as their worth
· of the regenerative over extractive
· of multiple scales of operation over the bigness of economic titans
· of agile forms of social and technical innovation against the static hold of the centre
· of a return to the vernacular as the really progressive against the shininess of the desire-making machine
I could go on – but what is really interesting is how in the past four weeks these qualities have generally and incredibly quickly come to the forefront.
All of these social and economic conditions – and the many more yet to be speculated on – have spatial implications and consequences, and so the potential for architects as spatial agents to engage in their formation right from the start. But to do this we need to exercise our imagination in entirely new ways. As Amitav Ghosh argues in his brilliant book The Great Derangement “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” claiming that thus far the arts, literature and the creative sector have only just awoken to the need to deploy the imagination in a compelling and productive way against the “uncanniness” of the climate emergency. It is exactly this gap that ‘Architecture after Architecture’ is poised to address.
Finally, we need to reassert the central role of design and the new architecture to envision new futures, not in an ungrounded or merely speculative manner but in a way that materializes and It spatializes revised social conditions and relationships, in which alternative narratives might be imagined. The climate emergency demands that we discover new ways of living; designers and the new architects after architects can be the agents of envisioning them, always in partnership with others.