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London Eye creator: ‘Why I’m supporting Extinction Rebellion’

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Julia Barfield is among the architects backing the radical climate change protest movement as its epic London demonstration takes a pause

They’ve disrupted large parts of the capital over the course of 10 days, seen 1,130 people arrested and generated headlines around the world. London’s Extinction Rebellion protests on the climate emergency are now pausing, following last-minute demos at the London Stock Exchange and HM Treasury yesterday (Thursday). But how many architects are participating in the group’s direct action in London and other UK cities? And why are they lending their support to this radical new movement? Here, the AJ speaks to four architectural participants in the burgeoning XR movement.

Julia Barfield, founding director, Marks Barfield Architects

Julia barfield at extinction rebellion april 2019 crop

Julia Barfield (right) with friend on Lambeth Bridge - Extinction Rebellion

Julia Barfield (right) with friend on Waterloo Bridge - Extinction Rebellion

2018 was the year the urgency of the climate crisis really hit home to me. We had the Met Office report, the reports of dramatic species depletion, ‘insectagedon’ the loss of insects need to pollinate our food, and the big one – the IPCC report that said we have 12 (now 11) years to limit climate change catastrophe (the New Yorker described it as a ‘collective scream sieved through the stern, strained language of bureaucratese’).

In addition, we saw what David Attenborough had to say in his BBC documentary last week: ‘We are facing our greatest threat in thousands of years’.

The science is clear and unequivocal. Yet the government is on track to miss its carbon emission targets, has effectively banned onshore wind, is supporting fracking and, as Greta Thunberg pointed out, is peddling ‘creative carbon accountancy’. Women didn’t get the vote 100 years ago by asking politely – as my great grandmother understood as a suffragist.

The other major event of 2018 was the birth of my first grandchild.

So, in the face of this existential threat and general complacency, it seemed to me entirely rational to do whatever I can do, including supporting Extinction Rebellion.

I’ve been to their meetings and sat on Lambeth Bridge last November as part of the occupation of five Thames bridges.

Any disruption now will pale into insignificance compared with the disruption if we don’t take urgent action

Any disruption now will pale into insignificance compared to the disruption to come if we don’t all take urgent action personally and politically.

Barbara McFarlane, founding director, The McFarlane Partnership

Barbara McFarlane on Waterloo Bridge

Barbara McFarlane on Waterloo Bridge

Barbara McFarlane on Waterloo Bridge

I was personally supporting the rebellion last weekend on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Myself and my 17-year-old daughter did the induction training that was being offered. Firstly, I support the principle of non-violent direction action – the focus on empathy with all humanity, including those who may not come from the same perspective as yourself. For me, it is a refreshing change from the politics of division. While I am not currently in a position to put myself in a place to be arrested there are many other supporting roles that anyone can take on.

As architects we are in a position to influence change in attitudes and to speak the truth about the catastrophic effect of climate change, the collapse of ecosystems, the extinction of biodiversity already well underway as well as the disastrous effects of air quality, usually on the world’s most vulnerable. Burning fossil fuels has to stop as soon as possible and huge resources need to be put into renewable energy.

As architects we are in a position to influence change and to speak the truth 

I started my career as a founder member of Matrix Women’s Architect’s Co-operative and our practice has been members of the Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB) and Green Register for many years, two organisations which are committed to change.

‘Greenwash’ is no longer acceptable and we need to be frugal in all things. Extinction Rebellion is giving voice to the reality and as professional engineers and architects, we too should be stating the truth. All architects and all professional architecture bodies should declare a ‘climate emergency’ immediately.

Michael Pawlyn, director, Exploration Architecture

Extinction rebellion london april 2019

Michael Pawlyn with fellow protestors at Extinction Rebellion in London, April 2019

Michael Pawlyn with fellow protestors at Extinction Rebellion in London, April 2019

I joined the Extinction Rebellion protests outside the BBC before Christmas and in the last week in the various locations around London. I may well get more involved in some of its working groups.

In 2006, the Stern Report concluded that climate change was ‘the biggest market failure of all time’ and what we have seen since has been the biggest political failure of all time – facilitated by a business world that seems largely happy to continue with business as usual.

The IPCC report in October 2018 was even more alarming than previous ones and I was surprised that there was so little response from architects.

When I set up Exploration Architecture in 2007, I thought the main problem was a shortage of transformative solutions, so this was our main focus. We have developed detailed proposals for a zero-carbon/zero-waste textiles factory, and ultra-low energy data centre, a biomimetic office building and a large-scale regenerative agriculture project. Some of these have been implemented but, more often than not, we have been told ‘the market is not ready for these ideas yet’.

I met a number of senior figures in the UK construction industry at the end of last year to discuss how to bring about the change required and one, who has been a government adviser, surprised me with his directness. His view was that the planet is in deep trouble (he used more blunt language than that) and that the only solution now is large-scale non-violent disobedience.

The only solution now is large-scale non-violent disobedience

I am sympathetic with the conclusions that the Extinction Rebellion founders came to. We have tried all the normal things – going on climate marches, writing to our MPs, trying to implement solutions – and they have all failed. We are now on the brink of civilisational collapse and, while some might dismiss this as alarmism, I challenge anyone to read the IPCC report and not come to the same conclusion.

Scott McAulay is a masters of architecture student and student representative on the Glasgow Institute of Architects Sustainability Committee

Scott McAulay protesting in Edinburgh (second from right)

Scott McAulay protesting in Edinburgh (second from right)

Scott McAulay protesting in Edinburgh (second from right)

I have been involved in some of the Extinction Rebellion actions in Edinburgh and Glasgow and have been asked to speak at events. I recently took part in a seminar at Glasgow School of Art after it asked for creative responses to climate change. I support Extinction Rebellion because they are telling the truth, telling it how it is. The IPCC report explained how this is an emergency that we’re failing to tackle and how we need a regenerative culture. It’s not just a tweaking of the system that is required.

The people that you meet at the demonstrations are incredibly passionate. Everyone wants the same positive change and you’re getting engineers, doctors, lawyers, psychologists and architects at these protests.

In Edinburgh, we had 700 people on the street and you saw people having their faces painted, giant puppets, art being done. There was such a positive atmosphere that even the police were smiling.

It’s been so energising to see so many people get on board. In Glasgow, we recently had a meeting and 40 extra people turned up – we’ve seen a quadrupling of numbers.

In architecture, we need to see an acknowledgement of this crisis in how we practise and how we teach and that needs to be embedded in codes of conduct. The RIBA’s recent ethics and sustainable development commission report didn’t even talk about conservation of buildings, the performance gap or embodied carbon. To ignore embodied carbon in architecture is insanity yet in my five years of lectures at architecture school, it hasn’t come up. 

  • 7 Comments

Readers' comments (7)

  • My full support.

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  • Great to see the AJ covering this - so so important!

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  • Julia seeing your stand in an AJ email was the prompt I needed to renew my subscription to the AJ so I can post a message of support for this piece on you, Barbara, Michael and Scott. The clock is ticking... every day we are leaving behind the climate we could have had.

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  • Together we could solve this problem - cooperation, not division!

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  • The RIBA should declare a climate emergency.

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  • I was greatly moved when I visited too. We need to stand up together and we can change things. Thank you for writing this piece and standing up.
    Next time lets all take the whole office!
    The RIBA should indeed declare an emergency.

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  • Instead of designing 8 metre extensions, how about voluntarily having a 2 metre limit; and foregoing the commission if the client insists on 2m? Would this help reduce excessive climate change?

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