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‘The climate crisis demands a tougher stance from architects’

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Architects Declare has the potential to be an incredible force for change if its signatories are unified in refusing to work with anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their shared values, says Hari Phillips

Hari Phillips of Bell Phillips Architects

Hari Phillips of Bell Phillips Architects

Source: Bell Phillips Architects

Like many people within the architectural profession I came to it through a passion for the unconventional blend of science, humanities and the arts for which architecture is a natural fit.

It’s a similarly awkward, yet invigorating, reconciliation of conflicting positions: artist vs businessman, idealist vs pragmatist, individual vs society, prima donna vs team player. These dualities contribute to architecture’s stimulating dynamism but also establish many of the dilemmas that sit at its heart.

In the past weeks one of these inner conflicts has surfaced quite starkly: what type of projects should and shouldn’t architects undertake? Who are the clients we should and shouldn’t be working for? In particular, the discussion has focused on the apparent contradiction between the bold statements of Architects Declare and the airport projects being undertaken by some of the signatory practices.

The arguments on both sides have provoked considerable soul-searching and, often, heated discussions between colleagues, friends and Architects Declare signatories – who met for the first time this week.

Internally, we at Bell Phillips have been preparing our own ‘environmental manifesto’, which has prompted much debate amongst colleagues; What are our red lines? Are we prepared to turn down or walk away from, potentially lucrative or exciting projects if necessary? As practice principles, how do we balance our responsibilities as employers with our wider political, environmental and social responsibilities as citizens? In short, how far are we prepared to go?

At the inaugural Architects Declare meeting there was a palpable wave of positivity, a can-do spirit and impressive consensus about the need for bold action and a fundamental shift in behaviour. The consensus was much less clear when it came to the real challenge of achieving client buy-in to the bold new direction.

Some made the argument that it is acceptable to work with clients on projects that don’t embody the values of Architects Declare, on the basis that you might be able to turn these clients/projects around towards your way of thinking from the inside. ‘But if we don’t do it, there’ll always be another architect that will,’ goes the argument. I’d call this the ‘inside the tent pissing out’ approach.

It is fully within our power as architects to instigate a cultural paradigm shift across the construction industry

Could there be an alternative scenario though? Let’s imagine that every single one of the 750-plus practices that have now signed up to Architects Declare were absolutely consistent and steadfast in refusing to work with anyone that didn’t also subscribe to their shared values. Clients who did not meet the criteria would be declined, first by Architect A, then Architect B, then Architect C … and so on, until ultimately, the penny would drop. They would realise the need to reassess and realign their values, rather than for us to compromise ours. In this way, it is fully within our power as architects to instigate a cultural paradigm shift across the construction industry.

I know that these conversations aren’t easy. The red lines are blurry and constantly in flux. I know that by writing this, I hold myself and the work of my practice open to close scrutiny and critique; others will have drawn their red lines more aggressively and we all sit on a spectrum.

Here I return to the constant conflict; between the idealist and the pragmatist, between the citizen and the entrepreneur. Lofty ambitions must be balanced against the responsibility to win work and pay the bills.

That said, I feel that the time for compromise has passed. In my mind it is clear. Air travel is not a fundamental human right. It is not an essential need. The expansion of the airline industry is highly unsustainable, driven by a desire for perpetual economic growth fundamentally and intrinsically at odds with the existential climate crisis we now face.

Architects Declare has the potential to be an incredible force for change if its signatories are unified in their approach. If the largest and most eminent members don’t exhibit leadership commensurate with their status however, our message I fear, will become diluted and devalued.

The founding signatories of Architects Declare are brands, with serious cachet. Some of the founding members can quite reasonably call themselves global brands. They are in a position of strength, able to call the shots, and send out powerful messages that have the potential to resonate both within the construction industry and beyond.

These practices are in demand by cities, businesses and even countries desperate for the lustre of the latest starchitect bauble. As such, through their collective action, they are able to make a massive statement of intent and highlight the change in behaviour required, and ultimately, to make clear that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

Our ability as architects to be multi-faceted, and to look in multiple directions simultaneously, is precisely what binds us in this instance. We need to be consistent, resolute and absolutely clear in the message we send out. A paradigm shift is required. The old ways won’t wash. The profession needs to be united and crystal clear; sign up to our values, or jog on.

Hari Phillips is a founding director of Bell Phillips Architects

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  • Lots of meaningless rhetoric in this article. So what exactly are you trying to do? Reduce CO2?.... read professor Lindzen, atmospheric scientist before panicking !!

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