Architecture Criticism against the Climate Clock
In December 2022, the UN Secretary-General referred to humanity as a ‘weapon of mass extinction’. In the most recent IPCC report, scientists are unequivocal about the impacts of global heating and the need to take immediate action. The direct consequences of global heating are palpable, with extreme weather events disrupting and taking lives on an increasingly regular basis. Since climate catastrophe is the most urgent issue facing civilisation, it should be central to everything we do as professionals and as citizens. But the evidence suggests something else. While society has, generally, moved on from outright climate denial, it is still in a state of climate delay – such is the power of the vested interests of the carbon state. Fossil fuel companies, aided by state subsidies and support from the financial sector, are suppressing scientific evidence, stringing out their extractivist regimes and continuing to generate obscene profits.
Meanwhile, the architectural profession considers it legitimate to claim that a winter sports centre in the Saudi Arabian deserts in some way ‘sustainable’, and acceptable to have only one building with a top energy rating on the 2022 RIBA House of the Year shortlist. These examples are indicative of an attitude in architectural culture which, in prioritising other values, at best addresses climate change in a very partial manner, and at worst ignores the consequences of breakdown. Looking back through the archives of architecture magazines, including some of the previous 1,499 editions of The Architectural Review, one can begin to understand how architectural culture turned a blind eye
to global heating and became complicit in the climate catastrophe.
From 1896 up to the 1970s, the AR, like other magazines of the same era, seems blissfully unaware of architecture’s environmental impacts. Considering that human‐induced global warming only really became part of scientific focus in the 1960s and entered wider public consciousness in the ’70s, this is in part understandable. Yet if you look at architecture media through different eyes, the motors for climate change are everywhere in the early 20th century: in architecture’s addiction to extraction, in its reliance on fossil fuels, in its materialisation of endless growth. As Barnabas Calder shows in his 2021 book Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency, the architecture of the modern movement was only made possible on the back of seemingly endless and very cheap energy. The heady early days of modernism cemented the profession’s dependency on fossil fuels and other forms of extraction. The formal and technical innovations that arose from new materials and cheap energy also provided a fresh visual stimulus for architecture media, with photography playing an ever more important editorial role, aestheticising – and so commodifying – architectural production.
Architectural culture’s apparent disregard of the causes of climate breakdown can be explained through its self‐absorbed obsessions, which are first established in the founding tenets of architecture magazines. The first issue of the AR stated it was a magazine ‘for the artist and the craftsman’; throughout its history, editors have regularly asserted that ‘architects must turn out, in the long run, to be artists or nothing’, and argued it is their purpose to ‘emphasise the problems and potentialities of visual design, to re‐create a visual culture which will help to re‐create civilisation’. This claim might now sound preposterous, yet the attachment to architecture‐as‐art remains steadfast.
Questions of aesthetics and taste, which architects are loath to discuss openly but which determine so much of what is privileged in awards and publications, are impotent to engage with, let alone disrupt, climate breakdown. Clinging to the efficacy of taste and celebrating architectural form and beauty is a retreat from the urgency of the crisis, and in turn a form of climate denial. By ignoring the background processes of architecture and their impact on the environment, the press turns a blind eye to single-glazing, cold bridges, and the profligacy of embodied carbon. Drawing– and publishing – pictures of trees on concrete skyscrapers in the name of combining beauty with biodiversity is egregious greenwash.
From the late 1960s, attempts were made to pull architecture out of its narcissistic retreat. In 1967, John McHale edited an edition of Architectural Design (AD) called 2000+, ‘a special number dealing with the future. In his editorial, he warned of the irrefutable impact of human actions on the natural world: ‘It should be apparent to all, that we now live in such close community, and within such delicate “life” margins, that all our actions are cast on a planetary scale and that our gross ecological errors may reverberate for centuries.’ Disappointingly, the promise of this position was quickly thrown away as the subsequent 18 pages celebrate space travel as a form of transferable technology. An overreliance on technology was – and continues to be – presented as an escape route from environmental collapse.
By the early 1970s there was little excuse not to be aware of the human impact on natural ecosystems. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm made clear the responsibility that governments and institutions had to the environment, setting out 26 principles including: ‘Principle 2: the natural resources of the Earth must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations’ and ‘Principle 3: the capacity of the Earth to produce vital renewable resources must be maintained and, wherever practicable, restored or improved.’ The Limits to Growth report, published in the same year, provided clear evidence of the need to suppress the extractivist urges on which the modern project had been founded and, a few months later, the 1973 oil crisis highlighted societies’ reliance on fossil fuels.
The modern project sees the world as a set of problems that reason and experts can solve. Architecture, in its alliance with technology, is part of the solution‐providing mission. In this worldview, climate breakdown is seen as an ‘emergency’ to be salved and patched by the hands of multiple experts. This is precisely the method and goal of so‐called sustainable architecture: to see design as a set of fixes that contribute, in their small way, to the sustaining of human lifestyles, therefore perpetuating current economic and cultural orthodoxies.
To move beyond sustainability means addressing the climate emergency holistically, understanding the root causes of the breakdown as well as the ecological relations at stake in any human intervention. This point was articulated in a pioneering 1972 edition of AD edited by Colin Moorcroft, entitled Designing for Survival. Anticipating the idea of the anthropocene, he wrote: ‘Man’s technological adventures have taken place in a minute period of geological time, have involved monstrous quantities of matter and energy and have run counter to natural systems.’ The section called ‘Earth’s Rape’ proceeds through subheadings such as ‘Extinction’, ‘Carbon dioxide debate’, ‘Global scale’ and ‘Consumption’. The issue also featured the research work of Alex Pike, whose Autarkic House was a pioneering project, interpreting architecture as an ecological system.
Unfortunately, the ecological focus of this issue was dispelled in the later development of AD, as it became a vehicle for the production and reproduction of postmodernist culture, while the AR continued to concern itself with buildings as the sole site of architectural production. In the 1980s and ’90s, the AR uncritically championed the techno‐boosterism of early high‐tech architecture, a very British strand of eco‐modernism that combined aesthetic display and ‘progressive’ technologies in a semblance of sustainability. This masking of the real crisis, and the ignoring of the intersection of climate justice with social justice, continues today with Foster + Partners’ 2018 Bloomberg building, feted in the press release as the ‘world’s most sustainable office building’, when it is in fact deeply compromised because of its very high embodied energy. The fact that the practice’s six‐runway Saudi airport project aspires to the highest of green gongs, LEED Platinum, only proves the meaninglessness of measures of sustainability.
Under the editorship of Peter Davey and onwards, climate and ecology started to assume a more vital role in the discussion of architecture in the AR. ‘All our actions as architects have relevance to the biosphere, and hence to the lives of the planet, particularly humankind,’ he wrote in a 1996 editorial. Yet, again, the rest of the issue does not fully deliver this important message; instead, it includes Rafael Viñoly’s massive Tokyo International Forum and Giancarlo De Carlo’s pleasant but inconsequential gateway to San Marino, neither of which meet Davey’s claim that hey ‘demonstrate in their very different ways the need to command the opportunities offered by the new technologies and systems, while not forgetting that our values must be based on ecology and humanity’. A gap has opened, and it is yet to be fully closed, between what an editorial position demands and what is delivered by architects.
The disregard for climate breakdown is consistent with a view that architecture is an autonomous and self‐defined discipline detached from external dependencies. This position was asserted in a strident AR editorial from 1947: ‘To dispose promptly of the self‐evident, The Architectural Review is an architecture magazine. It does not set out to lead a political or moral or even a social revolution, nor is it ever likely so to do.’ The logic of this argument plays out in wider architectural culture, shutting off engagement with external forces, including those of climate breakdown. This detachment led AR editor James Maude Richards to a state of complete exasperation in 1971: ‘Architects’ tendency to concern themselves with a limited private world – to work, in effect, for the approbation of other architects, or become satisfied by in‐language and plug‐in gimmicks – is what makes an editor despair.’ He insisted that architects ‘must play their part’ in solving ‘the vast environmental problems of the modern world’, otherwise they risk ‘becoming side‐tracked as serious members of society, of their clothes being stolen by others and of losing all public support’ (p18).
In the intervening half-century, Richards’ prescient warning has come to pass; architects have indeed been marginalised as others – project managers, developers and contractors – have taken control of the built environment. It is not as if these others have addressed the environmental problems of the modern world – quite the opposite – as the production of the built environment has become more insistently bound to the forces and tenets of global capital, and so more insistently destructive of the planet. Just look at the recent development of London as a bank‐deposit box for overseas investors, feeding the demands of growth while widening inequality, and with barely even a nod to the basics of low‐carbon design.
In the face of crisis, there might be a revived role for architects to play. Climate breakdown is not a straightforward emergency; it is not an issue that can be fixed through technical means alone. It is, in the formulation of US author and druid John Michael Greer, not a problem but a predicament that must be faced, with no expectation of a complete solution. While all new buildings must, of course, reduce carbon by every means possible, the profession needs to go much further than these technocratic standards.
In distinction to sustainable design, which dissociates architecture from its complicity with the causes of the crisis by treating climate as external to architecture, what if it was stated - as we do in the research collective MOULD - that ‘architecture is climate’? Instead of asking what architecture can do for climate breakdown, which suggests only a very partial salve, the question becomes: ‘What does climate breakdown do to architecture?’ This shift implies that architecture is part of the wider systemic change that climate conditions call for. Instead of picking off the symptoms of the breakdown one by one, a building at a time, it suggests the causes need to be delved into, and addressed. If architecture is climate, then climate breakdown is inherently accompanied by an architecture breakdown. This is not a call for a curmudgeonly dismantling of architectural culture, but a caring plea for its reorientation; with this redirection might come the realisation of architecture’s radical potential in reformulating social and spatial configurations to better serve climate justice.
To say that architecture, in its extractivist mode, is complicit with the forces of climate breakdown, is not to apportion blame; it is to state a fact. That the architecture media has for too long ignored this contribution to the crisis brings them, too, into the net of failed responsibilities. The influence of the media in shaping architectural culture is obvious, but so is its dependency on what is produced by the profession; architectural culture is generated by a chasing of each other’s tails. When this chase becomes a vicious circle, protecting and perpetuating internalised concerns, architecture loses its external relevance. In the face of climate breakdown, there is an urgent need for that circle to be broken; for the architecture media to hold the profession to account for its delay, ambivalence and apparent denial of the extent of the crisis.
Architecture publications attempt to define, either implicitly or explicitly, what is deemed ‘good’ architecture; the problem is the self‐absorbed and subjective assumption of ‘good’. The tides of taste might shift, but they always act as powerful indicators for determining the ‘good’, and an accompanying disproportionate focus on Eurocentric histories. Instead, the definition of ‘good’ should be based primarily on the way that architecture productively faces the predicament of climate breakdown. Such a definition should start with the basics of low‐carbon design, in terms of both energy use and embodied carbon, and a reduction
of reliance on technocratic fixes. It would continue by questioning the need for the new and for growth at all, and then imagining spatial formations that empower climate and social justice. As a consequence, architecture that was either wantonly or indolently complicit with the perpetuation of the breakdown would be dismissed.
A more interventionist architecture media would call out any project that ignores climate breakdown as a central issue or plays with greenwash, and contextualise and put architecture in dialogue with external forces, in a direct challenge to the AR editors’ 1947 eschewal of politics. Architecture media must celebrate an expanded field of architecture, beyond the building alone and into the multiple ways that spatial intelligence and agency might be deployed in the service of climate justice, and open up far beyond the Eurocentric canon, learning from the knowledges and actions of the Global South – because the Global North is to blame for the crisis we are all in and cannot be relied upon to get us out of it. Encouragingly, this repositioning is already underway.
Published as keynote article for Architectural Review’s 1500 edition.
Architectural Review: April 202, pp. 6-10.