Architecture after Architecture
ARCHITECTURE AFTER ARCHITECTURE
Transcript of talk given online on 22nd April 2020 as part of the Architecture Foundation’s 100-Day Studio initiative. This text was slightly revised in September 2022 to fill out some of the provisional ideas.
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 that 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 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 the best sense of.
ARCHITECTURE AND THE MODERN PROJECT
I have so far used the term architecture – but what I really mean is architecture of the modern project. Let me take the five terms that I use to outline the modern project – progress, growth, order, reason, nature – and apply them to architecture and design to show they may be related.
Progress: If the modern project is underpinned by the need to maintain progress on all fronts, then design is used as a messenger for that urge. This is why words like 'innovative', 'fresh', 'pioneering' are used to signal 'good' design, particularly in the corporate sector. In the clutches of progress, design is never allowed to rest. It must continually reinvent itself, which in turn fuels both the market for design (because the market requires the production of endless novelty in order to sustain desire, and with it consumption) and also the marketplace of designers (because they are needed to compete against each other in the production of novelty).
If one scratches beneath the shiny surface of these 'innovative' designs, one often finds that the underlying design has not shifted much or, in the case of housing design, has often regressed into a botched pre-modern version of the world. Here technology is to persuade us that progress is being made – smart cars, smart homes, another app – and even if the gains are marginal, design is used as the signal of progress.
The second term is growth, the twin sibling of progress, because the modern project is only deemed credibly progressive on the back of markers of growth, most pervasively those of the economy such as GDP. The trouble with growth in relation to design is threefold. First, it is predicated on extraction: more stuff means more extraction (through methods such as upcycling and circular design are now challenging this). Second, growth means the invention of new products to keep increasing demand, and with this the pushing of things that we just did not know we needed, many of which then become redundant when we discover that we did not really need them. Third, in the shadow of growth lies obsolescence. Often the only way to maintain the sale of the products is to design in obsolescence – to extent that we are now meant to feel grateful that mobile phone manufacturers guarantee three years of upgrades. All three by-products of the design for growth – extraction, redundancy, obsolescence – lead to waste. All three, in turn, magnify the conditions that have led to the climate emergency.
The third term of the modern project is order. As my intellectual mentor Zygmunt Bauman notes, the unruliness of the pre-moderns was seen as a threat to the modern mind: "the response to the shock was a dream and an effort to make order solid, obligatory and reliably founded." The modern project was, and still is, a project of ordering and categorising, and with it a project of excluding and privileging. In terms of design, this most obviously reflected in a dominant aesthetic but, more importantly, to achieve this the other of order has to be suppressed. Design is consequently overseen by canons of taste, and these are constructed by particular Eurocentric world views that in so many ways exclude difference – of race, of class, of place, of gender.
The fourth term is that of reason: the application of rational thought to a given context in order to better it. The world is viewed as a set of problems, which only the expert, rational, mind is in the position to 'solve'. It is from here that the commonplace definition of design as a 'problem-solving' activity comes, one which brings with it assumptions of clear and systematic thought. Although these assumptions are challenged by some contemporary design scholars, the paradigm of problem-solving retains an attractive aura.
The final term is nature. Ever since Francis Bacon, in the1603 “The Masculine Birth of Time” 1603, announced that: "I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave", nature has been seen as separated from the culture and society of modern man. It is there to be enslaved, extracted, and appropriated as quarry of the modern project. Architecture is the discipline par excellence that separates itself from the natural world. It celebrates it artificiality, no more so that when it entraps trees and plants on its surfaces in a futile gesture of greening.
CLIMATE AND THE END OF THE MODERN PROJECT
The modern project, with architecture and design as its handmaiden, is so entrenched and so powerful that it presents itself as the natural order, one that accepts the exploitations and inequalities that accompany it as an inevitable part of the system. The self-determined rationality of the project smothers any attempts to confront its injustices on ethical grounds; and the contingent claims of ethics do not present an obstacle to the march of progress, growth, order and reason; these must continue whatever the consequences. The only option, therefore, is to confront the modern project with the irrefutable evidence of its own catastrophe, its future demise. The only way to do this is to expose it to the hard facts of the climate emergency, and the multiple implications of these facts on the future of the planet. The conditions of the climate emergency present fatal challenges to my four terms of the modern project, and with this unravel the stability of design within it.
First, the emergency brings to a shuddering halt the very principle of progress. Hold up the mirror of shattering ice shelves, failed crops, species extinction, mass migration, extreme weather events, and much more, to any notion of progress as defined by modernity, and it shatters under the reflection. With this goes design's association of progress with certain aesthetic, formal or technical innovations, because these are exposed as impotent in the face of the storm of the emergency. I feel this redundancy, and so decadence, of formal innovation most keenly as an architect, where for too many years 'progressive' architecture has been celebrated on the grounds of fresh forms, most of which fly in the face of even the most basic climate mitigation measures.
Second, the climate emergency demands we reconsider all notions and definitions of growth. As framed by the modern project, growth compels more consumption and with it more extraction, particularly of fossil fuels, and more disruption of the natural world. As Isabelle Stengers asks, will the future define growth as irresponsible, even criminal?
Third, the climate emergency cannot be subjected to order. It is by its very nature an unruled, unruly, disruption of climatic cycles, bringing with it terrible destruction. Trump's lying claim that one could stop the West Coast wildfires through a bit of tidying up of forest paths and undergrowth is an indication of the futility of order in the face of such violence.
Fourth, reason. The technocrats of the modern era still hold out false hope that the climate emergency is a problem that can be solved through scientific methods. More and more extreme technological solutions are proposed, from carbon capture to spraying the sky with 'sun-reflective' particles of sulphur dioxide (which just shifts and magnifies the problem elsewhere.) Yes, we need to eliminate carbon, but that brings with it a stream of interconnected complexities that need different modes of ecological thinking and empathetic acting if any sense is to be made of them.
Finally, nature. Climate breakdown is accompanied by biodiversity breakdown, and it is arguably the latter that presents the most dangerous threat to human survival. We have to return to a condition where the human and beyond human are seen together and not apart. This may be less difficult than envisaged if we follow Bruno Latour's formulation that We Have Never Been Modern, and understand that the attempted separation of nature/society was never possible let alone achieved.
Dealing with the climate emergency 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?
What we see is a radical shift from design being attached and addicted to the production of the new, and into practices that pay attention to what comes before the object and what comes after it.
Before the object we see designers alert to whether an object is needed at all, thinking first to redesign social systems that obviate the need for more stuff. This entails engaging with collaborative techniques which displace design from the domain of the expert and into a shared venture, and thus one that has more meaning to those who will use it. Here we move away from received notions of design as ordering and with it the perpetuation of an established canon of taste and culture, into a world that is accommodating of difference. Also, design is not seen as a problem-solving exercise, in which only the expert has the solutions, but rather as a collective enterprise of sense-making.
Design before the object is also necessarily sensitive to systems of production, both material and human. Materially, it looks to eliminate the extractive processes on which previous design has been founded, through the use of tactics including circular design, upcycling, and retrofitting. In human terms, design before the object engages with forms of labour that avoid the violent exploitations of late capitalism, many of which also wreak environmental damage.
Design after the object looks to the consequences of design in terms of its environmental and social impact. Most obviously this is concerned with reduction in carbon use, but also with the designing out of obsolescence, of designing for flexibility and adaptation, and so on – much of which is covered in the work I did with others on the design of scarcity.
What I want to finish with now is a reflection on how the current conditions that we are living under have accelerated the need for design after design, architecture after architecture, and also give clear indicators as to the spaces that design and architecture could move into.
The pandemic 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. 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. In all of these ways, the pandemic is closely related to the conditions of the climate emergency, acting as a window into what might be coming, and with it an opportunity to rethink the way we live.
The modern project, at least in its ghoulish manifestation under Dominic Cummings, has attempted to deal with the COVID crisis and is palpably failing. Disaster capitalism is in overdrive, throwing open the miseries of human life to be exploited by the free market, and allowing billionaires to increase their wealth as food banks collapse under the pressure. We only have to look at track and trace – for example the fiasco of Serco and the other privateers versus the successes of localised, human, systems such as seen in Kerala in India – to understand that the methods of the modern project are bereft in the face of the systemic change thrown up by COVID and climate. And we look on in despair as technocratic 'solutions', such as the hubris of the "moonshot" in the UK, are dismissed by experts from all sides.
Instead of these ideologically driven approaches to the COVID crisis, which are also appearing in the neo-liberal rhetoric around climate, it is more productive to look at some of the models and situations that COVID is throwing up or else implying as necessary. A provisional list might include conditions:
- 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 truly progressive against the shininess of the desire-making machine
Taken together, this list begins to suggest a radical shift in societal relations, most of which can be also be understood as new models within the climate emergency. In all cases, these models demand design, not in the traditional sense of the proliferation of objects, but design understood as making sense of and then intervening in societal formations. If one basic definition of design is that it takes a chunk of the world - be it material, societal, natural or a combination - and transforms it productively for the better, then the new societal conditions of COVID and the climate emergency need design to assist in their formation. This, then, becomes the location of design after design. And if one definition of architecture is that it combines social relations with spatial relations, then these new social formations have spatial implications.
PART 4: ARCHITECTURE AFTER ARCHITECTURE
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 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.
All of the emerging 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 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.