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
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
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, 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?
- Declare a climate emergency, stating what the IPCC Special Report has predicted for the 1.5°C and 2°C scenarios.
- State that the RIBA requires the government to immediately reinstate zero carbon as a standard for all new buildings and major refurbishments.
- Name a target date for when the UK needs to achieve zero carbon and confirm the profession’s willingness to work towards this.
- 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.