WE DECLARE: ARCHITECTURE IS NOT ENOUGH

In the first of a new series of columns written by Architecture Foundation Supporters, Joe Morris (Morris+Company) and Elly Ward (Both/And) consider what life changes architects can make to help save the planet.

 

So we are faced with the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss as the most serious issue of our time. Consequently, there have been a sequence of declarations seeking to rally our industry; from 17 Stirling Prize winners, the RIBA, the schools of architectural education. These declarations follow the UN Council’s recent warning that we have just twelve years to avert irreversible climatic damage caused by a global increase in average temperature of just 1.5 degrees.

But what then are we to do beyond platitudes? How are we to enact the change that is required? What is anyone really doing about this? As Simon Sturgis (RIBA’s adviser on sustainability) has already said “this is not a simple bolt-on, but a fundamental rethink of the design process.” 

There is an obvious point to make here. Buildings in themselves, cannot be the solution to this crisis and therein lies the paradox. If we agree that buildings are necessary, we must also agree that by nature they are destructive and environmentally exploitative. They destabilise the balanced system of nature, both in construction and in use. The methods by which we design, construct and inhabit cannot react quickly enough to help resolve the crisis. Buildings, in fact, will only continue to exacerbate the problem. Put simply, we cannot rely on architecture alone to resolve this crisis.

For the declaration to achieve any amount of positive traction what is needed is both a systematic and societal reversal of attitude, and a method for action.

 

A FIVE POINT PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET (AS AN ARCHITECT)

 

1. GO VEGAN, NOW

The planet cannot simply be saved by the act of doing things and making things. It requires us to ‘not do’ things which are harmful. According to research by the University of Oxford, ‘going vegan‘ is the single biggest way of reducing your impact on the planet. So it follows that any declaration or acknowledgement of the climate crisis as an architect requires you to stop eating meat, stop consuming dairy, stop wearing leather and eradicate any animal product from your existence before you do anything else. And to do it now. 

2. GET EVERYONE YOU KNOW TO GO VEGAN

There are obvious parallels between the expansion of the construction industry and the transformation of the global food industry, both of which occurred simultaneously. Through the construction of our built environment and the industrialisation of our food systems, humanity has been distanced from the planet’s natural rhythms. Our profession is rife with societal paradox and hypocrisy. Supposed animal lovers eat meat farmed using cruel factory methods; architects declaring climate crisis travel by private jet and build air polluting airports. It is improbable that we can change the entire industry quickly enough. But if a critical mass were to change habits at consumer level, this would have a profoundly positive impact, buying us some critical time to make broader changes to the habits of the construction, transport and energy sectors.

3. BE RADICAL

There is no time left for gestures or half measures. This problem is massive and it requires each of us to be fundamentally transformative. Our actions directly affect others, locally and globally. We are each required to immediately reflect upon our everyday existence, seeking ways to eradicate any environmentally damaging habit, by whatever means; omit unnecessary air travel, walk or cycle everywhere, eliminate non-renewable materials and single use products from our lives, investigate the supply chain of our homes, our offices and our professional network, reuse everything. Don’t wait for others to take the lead, take responsibility for your own actions. Be innovative and demand innovation. Ask yourself if your personal tastes and preferences are more important than the planet. Give up the things you are used to. Go cold tofu.

4. CELEBRATE THE ORDINARY

Solutions can be found in innovation but this is also about going back to basics. There is no room to be niche. Revel in the generic and seek new thrills from what we already have and know. Shift the emphasis of your decision making process, elevate the environmental filter to prime position. Eradicate whimsical decision making and forgo fashion as an aesthetic dilemma. The culture and the image of practice needs to be one that is a representation of the society it serves, not one obsessed with its own self image. A future practice and architecture that actually engages with its own existence and represents its societal and environmental challenges.

5. TREAT CYNICISM AS OPPORTUNITY

Kill the naysayers and haters with success and delight. Treat clients, colleagues, contemporaries, consultants and collaborators with kindness and understanding even if they are resistant. Remember that once, you too, were part of the problem, not the solution. Show them that sustainable, ethical and ecological architecture doesn’t have to be hairy or ugly. Show them it can be cool, intelligent and more beautiful than ever before through a shared, spiritual connection with the planet and all those who inhabit it. Invite your competitors to join you, to do better. Together, rewrite the archaic virtues of firmitas, utilitas and venustas to mean something more conscious, empathetic and collective.

Joe Morris and Elly Ward