Design for life

22 January 2020



Architecture has been synonymous with progress. But what if, with the threat of environmental catastrophe looming, architects need to fundamentally rethink their work? What if, as some claim, they need to stop building altogether? Andrea Valentino talks to figures across the profession to learn about how architects are coping with global warming – and how radical they may have to be if they want real change.


“The history of architecture,” said Le Corbusier, “is the history of the struggle for light.” It is a handsome phrase, and one that tidily encapsulates how the profession has seen itself over the past 100 years. From Gaudí and Gehry to Le Corbusier and his concrete cities in the clouds, 20th-century architects did not just want to create spots for clients to live or work; they aspired to tug people into the modern age, a place of optimism and cosmopolitanism where the prejudices and gabled roofs of their Victorian parents could be exiled forever.

Little has changed in recent years, even as climate change threatens to splinter the hopeful world that Le Corbusier and his contemporaries were busy building. Visit Dezeen or Archdaily and you’ll be presented with scenes of clean-shaven perfection. The digital renderings are almost always the same: couples wander manicured lawns, the sun shining and sleek glass towers clambering towards the sky. Just as Le Corbusier had hoped, much of contemporary architecture is still about progress, still about growth.

Yet some architects are profoundly unhappy with the status quo. ‘Sustainability’ might be on the lips of every big company from New York to Singapore, they concede, but that is not enough. If the profession really wants to save the planet from an environmental apocalypse, it needs to fundamentally reimagine its place in the world, both aesthetically and ideologically. The fiercest radicals even claim that architects should stop building altogether, and instead simply remodel existing spaces. That is obviously easier said than done. If architecture is light, who wants to sit about in the dark?

Anything to declare?

Earlier this year, 17 RIBA Stirling Prize-winners announced an ambitious new plan. Called Architects Declare, the scheme promises, among other things, to encourage the use of low-carbon materials in new builds and push for more regenerative design practices. With over 700 members, including some of the industry’s largest and most high-profile firms, the plan has powerful supporters. No wonder the founders feel able to suggest that Architects Declare can deliver a ‘paradigm shift’ in how architects conceive of their work.

In truth, of course, Architects Declare is just a resting post on a far longer trek. Over the past few decades, as construction and building has grown to represent 40% of energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions, the profession has become far more conscious of its environmental obligations. Experienced practitioners have been able to trace these changes first-hand. Unless you were a “biological, barefoot kind of architect”, remembers Monica von Schmalensee, environmentalism was normally the last item on the design agenda when she started her career in the 1980s.

Yet these days, explains the CEO of White Arkitekter, every project is shadowed by a flurry of green ratings, from LEED to the Stamped Living Environment Bill of her native Sweden. Maria Smith concurs. There’s been a “tremendous mainstreaming” of environmental practices, says Smith, co-head of Interrobang, a London-based architectural and engineering firm. These changes are reflected in the statistics: 94,000 commercial buildings across 167 countries now enjoy LEED status. In the US alone, certifications from the Green Building Council bring in $55 million a year, and green building internationally is now a $1 billion industry.

But even as Zaha Hadid Architects and the other doyens of British architecture launched Architects Declare, some corners of the profession were voicing their displeasure. “Where are the architects who will put the environment first?” grumbled The Observer’s Rowan Moore, noting that several founders had no qualms taking commissions for those “famously green establishments”, international airports.

Jeremy Till, head of the school of art and design at Central Saint Martins, agrees, accusing some signatories of “astonishing” cynicism. “Go and build a bloody airport to keep your profit margins up. Go and keep employing people. But don’t virtue signal by claiming that all of this is sustainable, because it isn’t,” he argues. “You can’t have it both ways.”

These spats are part of a broader debate. With scientists predicting that global temperatures could rise by 10°C by the end of the century – heralding catastrophic consequences for life on Earth – firebrands such as Till maintain that gnawing at the margins of architectural sustainability is simply not enough.

Even as a member of the Architects Declare steering group, Smith fully understands these arguments, suggesting that part of the problem is one of language. The term ‘sustainability’ has become trapped on the “euphemism treadmill”, she says, wondering whether the world’s “most sustainable airport” or “most sustainable power station” are not, ultimately, contradictions in terms.

Nonetheless, Smith suggests that the cautious approach of Architects Declare at least broadens the climate conversation beyond radicals such as the Architects Climate Action Network, activists who may otherwise frighten off more established practices. “We have to understand the systems that we’re working in to shift them forward,” she says. “You can’t just become nihilistic and depressed.”

Material conditions

But thoughts surrounding architectural permanence and building life cycles may need to change. After its lease ends in around a decade, it’ll be as if the Ilford Community Market never existed. It has no proper foundations, after all, the whole structure instead being pinned down by huge gabion baskets filled with rocks. The hardwood skis under the floor do a similar job. All of this supports a reconfigurable timber frame, meaning the building can be adapted to a new site with new topography.

If designers from Le Corbusier onwards saw their work as permanent symbols of human advancement – ‘truth to material’ monoliths that would outlast the architect or anyone they knew – the Ilford market speaks to more humble ambitions. By abandoning concrete, after all, Smith and her team at Interrobang hope that one day the lot will be just as vacant as when they found it. Which is just as well: building with concrete accounts for around 8% of all carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide.

Such a shift in outlook is far from unique. Even as the profession tussles with its commitments to wholesale environmental change, some architects are busy transforming building in the here and now. These shifts go far beyond sticking a few solar panels on top of a new terminal. A lively example is the work of Michael Pawlyn, a British architect who borrows the resources he needs from nature. In one project, for instance, he created sustainable ‘biorock’ by passing low electric currents through underwater armatures, attracting mineral deposition over time. The point, Pawlyn explains, is to “move beyond” simply mitigating the worst effects of climate change. “We need to devise solutions that have a positive impact.”

Yet even here, some suggest, fiddling with materials confuses the scale of the problem. As Till puts it, worrying about concrete or wood when we might all fry is akin to “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”. What does he recommend instead? Nothing less than the fundamental re-evaluation of what architects actually do. Rather than designing new structures – even elegantly frugal wooden markets – he says they should instead start the “rather unfashionable” process of retrofitting the buildings we already have.

To be fair, this is already happening in some quarters. For example, Dutch officials want to tweak 200,000 houses a year by 2050, while retrofitting flats in the Copenhagen suburb of Vejleåparken has cut energy consumption almost in half. All the same, Till admits, convincing architects to abandon their vocation will not be simple. “If climate emergency, and other forms of associated scarcity, challenge the whole notion of growth as something that is morally, economically and environmentally sustainable, then where do architects fit into the world?”

So you want a revolution?

In November 2016, as the planet adjusted to a Trump presidency, the CEO of the American Institute of Architects wasted no time ingratiating itself with the new leader of the free world. “We stand ready to work with him and with the incoming 115th Congress to ensure that investments in schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure continue to be a major priority,” proclaimed Robert Ivy, even as Trump called the idea of humanmade climate change a Chinese hoax.

Between fawning like that, and its continued fascination with urban mega-projects and transport hubs, you have to wonder whether the architectural establishment will ever be ready to embrace the kind of radicalism that Till suggests. Yet as global warming continues to grab our attention – in early November 2019, 11,000 prominent scientists warned that climate change would cause “untold suffering” – Smith is optimistic that her profession will eventually change for the better. She notes that architects are pivoting away from vague green commitments to more quantifiable targets that they’ll find harder “to hide behind”. Among other things, Smith highlights Architecture 2030, a scheme that expects architects to cut emissions in new builds by 90% in just six years. And even if the actual dangers of climate change pass the big firms by, Von Schmalensee believes that public pressure might ultimately force architects towards a greener future. “Over the next 10 years, there will be a new generation of young, angry people. If we don’t listen to them, and if we don’t challenge our normal way of behaviour, it’s going to be tough.”

To put it another way, architects may have to get used to being led by what the people want, and leave the grand visions and sunny optimism of the past century in the shade. 

Retrofitting buildings we have is being touted as a climate change solution.
Kulturhus, Skellefteå, Sweden: timber tower set to open in 2021.
Södra Skanstull, Stockholm, a multilevel city district by White Arkitekter.
Kulturhus, Skellefteå, Sweden: inside the cultural centre, opening in 2021.
Kiruna, Sweden: Arctic Circle town being relocated two miles away.
An overhead impression of the tower at Kulturhus.


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