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Why did these architects become full-time climate change activists?

Thomas & salter

Will Hurst meets two Extinction Rebellion members who no longer feel the profession is an effective way to bring about the drastic action needed to combat climate change

Something big has taken place in British public life in recent weeks – and it’s nothing to do with Brexit.

Last month, the country witnessed one of the biggest acts of civil disobedience in recent years as Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists blocked roads and bridges in London in protest against humankind’s looming threat to the planet. David Attenborough reinforced the point with a powerful new BBC documentary on the climate crisis while teenage activist Greta Thunberg met with political leaders at Westminster to tell them that her generation’s future had been sold ‘so that a small number of people can make unimaginable amounts of money’.

Some of this activism is controversial. But it seems to be bearing fruit. The UK Parliament has declared a climate emergency, following the lead set by dozens of regional and local authorities, the Welsh government and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon. Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by Greenpeace found that two-thirds of people in the UK recognise there is an environmental emergency, while more than three-quarters say they would cast their vote differently in order to protect the planet.

Among those involved in this activism are some who have actually given up architecture in the belief that the profession can do little and that mass non-violent civil disobedience is the only way forward in 2019. The AJ met two of them – James Thomas and Jasmine Salter – at XR’s London HQ, located a floor above main contractor Wates in a nondescript office block near Euston. 

Thomas, who is in his mid-40s, worked as a sole practitioner for a decade following stints at Burrell Foley Fischer and PTE, but is now a full-time XR activist. He was arrested at Marble Arch last month after helping to design the famous pink boat that was used to blockade Oxford Circus.

‘I started off just by showing up to things such as the bridges protest in November,’ he says. ‘It would be great if architects could recover their agency generally. Architects don’t have the power to influence decisions driven by the economics of a client body.

‘I’ve not been directly involved with the architecture industry for a couple of years but one thing that made me want to move away from architecture was working on property development in London. The economics didn’t feel sustainable, let alone the buildings themselves, which were thrown up speculatively.

‘I like the way that XR focuses its energy on the state and on the electorate.’

One thing that made me want to move away from architecture was working on property development in London. The economics didn’t feel sustainable  

James Thomas

Salter, in her mid-20s, was studying architecture at the Glasgow School of Art before dropping out to focus on climate activism. During the XR protest in London she worked to improve the wellbeing of the protesters and on the management of camps and was also one of those arrested.

Salter says she likes the idea of community-building and helping to create a ‘regenerative culture’. She adds that she was influenced by people advising her not to finish her architectural studies if she truly wanted to ‘make a difference’.

‘Architects have lost the power to effect change,’ she adds. ‘There are regulations that they cannot get around.’ 

But for many architects, it appears to be business as usual. This is despite the chorus of voices calling for action, Parliament’s subsequent declaration and the AJ’s detailed coverage, including an issue in February dedicated to the climate threat. Little has been heard from leaders of the big practices and a number of hostile comments greeted a recent AJ article by Studio Bark’s Tom Bennett on his arrest by the police during XR’s blockade of Waterloo Bridge.

Reader ‘Murphy’, wrote: ‘Stopping people getting to work, hospital, school, and generally going about their business is not making Extinction Rebellion very popular. Wasting police time when they are already very short of resources puts people in danger.’

Another, Ian Cadell, agreed that ‘we should be good stewards of the earth,’ but added: ‘When a brainwashed snotbrat in the person of Greta Thunberg is lauded as a saviour of the planet and given obeisance far above her station by the great and the good then we are in deep trouble.’

Extinction rebellion 2

Extinction rebellion 2

Peter Oborn, a former deputy chair of Aedas Architects who headed up the RIBA’s recent Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission, is glad that climate change has moved to the top of the political agenda and believes architects ‘have a responsibility to capitalise on the momentum that’s been created.’

Yet he says he also understands why many in the industry have reacted defensively or have tried to avoid engaging with the issue, suggesting those who run practices are focused on day-to-day challenges such as paying salaries.

‘The profession as a whole hasn’t found a way to address this issue particularly well,’ he says. ‘That’s partly to do with the context we work in – the way in which markets and capitalism work – and partly to do with the size and scale of the shift that is required.’

A small minority, though, including Bennett, are bucking this trend. Some have set up practices devoted to cutting-edge environmental architecture. Others have chosen to engage directly in XR’s ongoing activism.

The science is clear and unequivocal. Yet the government is on track to miss its carbon emission targets, has effectively banned onshore wind and is supporting fracking

Julia Barfield

Julia Barfield, founding director of Marks Barfield and co-creator of the London Eye, has attended the group’s meetings and helped occupy Lambeth Bridge last November as part of what she called a ‘rational decision to do whatever I can do’.

‘The science is clear and unequivocal,’ Barfield says. ‘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.’

Interestingly it seems that the RIBA may have come to a similar conclusion and is now more focused on lobbying government than telling its members how to reduce their carbon and ecological footprints.

Outgoing RIBA president Ben Derbyshire was recently contacted by leading figures including Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn of the practice Exploration, who called on the institute to declare a climate emergency, something RIBA council will discuss at its next meeting in June, Derbyshire’s last.

‘This has been a preoccupation of mine since I took office,’ he says. ‘I personally support the initiative to declare a climate emergency and we will put this forward in a recommendation for RIBA Council to consider.

‘But we also need to lobby policymakers to improve the context in which architects work. The fiscal environment is crazily skewed against refurbishment, for example, and there is very little in the way of positive public policy directed towards refurb.’

Derbyshire believes the RIBA should try to bring about change around the world by working closely with international architecture organisations and its fellow membership bodies, given its ‘very good’ global network and brand. 

‘If we want the skills and knowledge of our profession to impact on this significantly then it has to be a global impact,’ he says.

What is clear is that a declaration of a climate emergency by the RIBA would be largely symbolic. The real challenge will be to devise a far-reaching yet practical plan of action which a divided architectural profession can unite behind.

What are Steve Tompkins and Michael Pawlyn calling on the RIBA to do? 

  1. Declare a climate emergency, stating what the IPCC Special Report has predicted for the 1.5°C and 2°C scenarios. 
  2. State that the RIBA requires the government to immediately reinstate zero carbon as a standard for all new buildings and major refurbishments. 
  3. Name a target date for when the UK needs to achieve zero carbon and confirm the profession’s willingness to work towards this. 
  4. Immediately establish a working group to identify the detailed actions that we as a profession need to take and, importantly, who else we need to bring into the discussions (clients, funders, etc) to deliver what is required. 

Readers' comments (10)

  • There are going to be some very big fault lines developing in the profession if some of it continues to participate in the tearing down of relatively new (and decent) architecture - particularly in London - at the whim of property market forces.

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  • Great piece, Will. Jasmine and James, massive respect; Julia too. Steve and Michael, I’d be pleased to help your initiative if I could be of use. Will you mention comments from ‘Murphy’. I suspect it’s a bot. Do a search and you’ll find daft and nasty comments all over the AJ website that don’t seem to come from any human being hiding behind the name ‘Murphy’.

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  • Great article actually confronting the elephant in the room rather than skirting around it. I'm in.

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  • I have been quoted out of context. Here is my full comment:

    'Stopping people getting to work, hospital, school, and generally going about their business is not making 'Extinction Rebellion' very popular. Wasting police time when they are already very short of resources puts people in danger. Stopping children getting to school prevents them from learning about the very thing the weirdy beards are all wittering about.

    Oh well - yet another group of middle class naive kids wanting their 15 minutes of fame. Seen it all before. Now go and get some work done like the rest of us are trying to do.

    Yes I know the climate is changing away from favourable conditions for one virus - like, destructive species, but it has done that in the past, which has given other species the chance to have their day. The planet won't care if we become extinct and every other living thing would be better off without us.'

    No, I don't think it is business as usual - picking part of my comment out is lazy journalism. I haven't flown for many years, I rarely eat meat or imported food, I don't have umpteen children and my work does not consist of erecting huge glass and steel excrescences are in no way 'green', nor modern housing estates which are being thrown up everywhere.

    The problem, which is caused by overpopulation, is already here and all we can do is to mitigate it. 'Green' energy is all very well, but it will generate nowhere near enough power even for the flood of electric cars the government wants us all to use, and that is without finding power for anything else. The only solution is more nuclear power, which of course the protestors don't like either.

    David Attenborough agrees that overpopulation is a major problem but this tends to be ignored.

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  • Don’t give up! There is a lot architects and the construction industry can do to help reduce global warming. Sitting on Waterloo Bridge and wasting police time isn’t really doing much, other than raise awareness.

    Great. Now for action. My company is calling on TfL to help us build a Cycle Superhighway along the South bank of the Thames, from Greenwich and Thamesmead to Hampton Ct. We will do this using Green Bonds and Carbon Credits.

    We are also calling on Ferrovial and the Dept of Transport to help build a new light railway round the M25 and out to Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, Northolt and City Airport to create London Airport. The runways at Heathrow will be closed, and the site redeveloped as a Carbon Neutral Garden City.

    We will need a lot of help! Sacking Chris Grayling is probably the first step. Getting the Mayors office onside is the next? Watch this space, get off the bridge, and start building some new ones over the Thames.

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  • Building more efficiently, architects could do a lot to limit climate change but first they must convince their clients.

    If architects refuse to convince their clients who will?

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  • ‘Murphy’ has made some good points about population, species and the excessive use of road vehicles I think, and has made responsible personal choices with no-flying and little-meat policies etc - but like most people doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the enormous energy cuts that can be achieved by wholesale efficiency improvements. Yes this still leaves food, population and biodiversity problems etc, and implementation of deep efficiency measures across all sectors is a gigantic task, but given the current human population level, it’s something we must do if we and most of life on Earth is to survive. Murphy I think you actually share a lot with the protesting youngsters so I wish you’d stop kicking out at them. If the older generations would only create the right conditions, I believe they’re ready to knuckle down and passionately do the job that oldies have generally failed to do!

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  • 'Win' and 'lose' lists of factors influencing climate change that are within our remit in this country should surely include in the plus column the rapid development of wind and solar power, the improving viability of electric vehicles and the revolutionary development of - and fast conversion to - LED lighting.
    In the minus column there's the shameful record of our democratically elected representatives in failing to legislate for refurb rather than demolish-and-build, the bungling (in England rather than Scotland) of the steady development of railway electrification, and worldwide the disappointing and worrying delay in developing effective large scale energy storage techniques to complement wind power, the slow development of hydrogen power technology, the continuing heavy pollution from aircraft and ships, and the failure to develop safe and economical nuclear power technology.

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  • Justin Were - I share some of their views certainly, but not the disruptive methods which do their cause no favours at all. At least I don't refer to them as 'bots' and accuse them of 'daft and nasty comments all over the AJ website' simply because I disagree with their methods.

    My mistake in the comment on the previous AJ article that the protesters are all 'kids' - these two are not actually that young, and some of them appear to be of retirement age.

    I would be interested to know how these ex architects (or one architect and one student) earn a living. Are they claiming benefits at the expense of the rest of us?

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  • I worked in Swansea last year; being incensed by the cancellation of the Swansea Barrage, I wrote to my MP asking if they only represented the Home Counties. My (young)Tory MP explained to me that the sums did not add up and they preferred to import gas.
    Elected politicians may not be the right people to solve anything unless their feet are held to the fire, and yes the Tories, only represent the Home counties. I applaud the protesters who are taking on the indolent electorate and their elected representatives.

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