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The coronavirus crisis calls for a new moral and aesthetic code for architecture

Hastings Pier by dRMM ph4

Architects must stop following style or theory, writes Jonas Lencer

Three weeks ago, my team and I were gathering our thoughts for a lecture I was invited to give as part of the now-postponed AJ Summit. At that time, I already knew I wanted to talk about the ‘architecture of circumstance’, discussing the impacts of a rapidly changing climate on the way the industry will continue to design and build architecture as it progresses.

Since then the world has changed dramatically, with ours and all industries facing challenges we could have never foretold we would encounter in our lifetimes.

What has not changed is our obligation to progress as a profession. We are collectively faced with new obstacles in terms of working methodologies and patterns. Our default has been forcibly challenged and our circumstances drastically altered.

This scenario may be temporary, but it seems foolish to think that current adjustments will not have an impact on the way we work even after this crisis abates. Creating an architecture of circumstance has never been more relevant than now.

At the start of 2020, our collective directive as architects was to begin rethinking our design approach in response to the triple crises of climate emergency, biodiversity erosion, and social divide. These issues persist, and so must our determination to shift our profession’s mindset. Global health experts have outlined how a warming climate has made the world more hospitable to viruses and bacteria.

As humanity continues to encroach on our planet’s natural spaces, we create new circumstances and encounter new dangers that we are seemingly unprepared for. This pattern needs to change.

Our context both before and after Covid-19 unequivocally favours a culture of reduced carbon impact, minimised waste, and increased regenerative practice. Our buildings will need to reflect this context. If this period of obligatory isolation can teach us anything, it is how necessary it is for us to be nimble, not just in the way we work, but also in the way we make buildings.

We need to develop a new moral and aesthetic code – an architecture that is reliant on modular components and recycled materials

We must begin to embrace a consequence-aware approach to design. Accepted aesthetic expectations will need to adapt and rely on ‘process’, as opposed to finished product. Process, in turn, will need to rely on quick and evolutionary thinking. In short: we need to develop a new moral and aesthetic code – an architecture that is reliant on modular components and recycled materials, both of which dRMM as a practice has spent years developing and testing.

To do this, we will need to be ready to re-programme our visual expectations. If we work to create an architecture of circumstance as opposed to one led by style or theory, then buildings will inevitably look different to what we know today.

Different does not mean worse – we must work to create bold forms out of new regenerative building parameters. Authenticity will define our new visual language, breaking down preconceptions and weaning us off our unchallenged aesthetic upbringing.

Despite our successes to date and our ongoing efforts to create architecture that has a reduced impact on our planet, we still seem to be missing a few tricks. The entire construction industry is responsible for not sufficiently examining what happens to our buildings throughout their whole lifespan.

Furthermore, we are guilty of creating not just material waste, but enabling a consistent waste of potential that lies in our current urban fabric.

The new focus for the architecture industry needs to be on looking at our buildings, analysing them rigorously, and being honest about those findings. The key to re-imagining existing and future spaces lies in actively building in flexibility.

It also lies in a new reliance and dedication to assessment – to understanding what can be saved, what can be used, and how design can work to circumvent waste. This is not unlike the situation we are all facing on a domestic level in our homes during these trying times. We are all looking around our own new intimate worlds, our new set of circumstances, and striving to flourish with the resources we already have.

Jonas Lencer is a director at dRMM Architects


Readers' comments (6)

  • Oh dear, architects must ‘stop following style or theory’ and then ‘we must work to create bold forms’, what is this but the same old Hegelian theory turned into style. Well, maybe things will be different, maybe not. Is it just possible that old vernacular was an efficient use of locally available materials? Why can’t architects say something sensible without going over the tired old ‘we must look different’ mantra.

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  • I'm very sympathetic to the broad messages of this piece, but need to pick up on the "stop following style or theory". We can't choose not to follow theory, only whether it's bad or better theory. We can accept some form of what has been naturalised as "common sense" or we can critique that to improve theory. The article includes some useful contributions to this: thinking more about process and less about finished product, awareness of circumstance, responding creatively to "climate emergency, biodiversity erosion and social divide". There's plenty of places to look for relevant theoretical contributions. I'd give a special mention to Jeremy Till's "Architecture Depends", or the inspiring writings of Aldo van Eyck.

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  • I find this articles title distressing. Nobody would say other discipline need to discard their current morality and aesthetic code, essentially the basis of Architecture practice, due to outside pressures. Architecture should resist these calls and return to its foundations.

    I find the idea we will find salvation in compromising our basis of common communication and understanding as folly.

    Architecture is built essentially on historic precedents and a body of writing that has sustained it up until the present day.

    This core or basics of Architecture is embedded with the physical techniques or skills. It is an injustice and perhaps ignorance to undervalue the power of the plan, section, elevation, relationship;
    Orthographic to Isometric to Perspective representation is a mechanism to flick the mind into a rich 3D awareness. To convey and understand complex relationships in our physical world.

    Models, renders, and other means we also casually employ forgetting the wonderous nature of these communication tools as they
    become seen as merely representational rather than cutting edge exploratory technique available to few in society . Architects seem to forget how many skills we have learned and employ just to carry out our daily trade.

    Architecture is a means of understanding our environment (The world we find ourselves in) through spatial recording and experimentation.

    Architecture has wider impacts but should not seek these things out but impact them as a result of itself or put another way we employ Architecture to spatially understand our world and in doing so we impact the world through the positions we take during this process.

    Architecture fails at is core when it becomes simply a means to solve problems.

    Of course there is constant need to review and reform but the core skills and abilities and knowledge that underpins Architecture as a human endeavour should not be set to one side in any service no matter how pressing.

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  • Dale Fincham

    Whilst I sympathise with the premise of this article, I find it rather problematic as it has fallen into the classic architectural trap of equating 'morals with aesthetics' - which has been a recurring problem throughout 20th Century architectural practice and theory. I would suggest reading 'Architecture Depends' by Jeremy Till as he writes about this fraught relationship that architects constantly make.
    Architects and architecture cannot (and probably never will) separate itself from theory - as it is the foundations of our worldview and critical thinking, in fact the irony is that this article stems from various lines of already established theoretical thinking and research!
    Instead of developing 'aesthetic codes', I would suggest that architects and architecture focus on working with others towards becoming the collective voices and transformative agents for our society and the environment - particularly for those parts of our society that do not have much of a voice.

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  • Clare Richards

    ‘Moral’ is a slippery word. What does it mean in this context? Does it mean ‘do the right thing?’ And who says what the right thing is, particularly as regards addressing the ‘social divide’ that Jonas Lencer refers to (then omits to mention again)?

    A ‘moral code’ is a collective responsibility, something that only has meaning if we all buy into it. If you have any doubt, consider how difficult it’s been for the medical profession to ration the use of ventilators – even with the Hippocratic Oath which includes: ‘above all, I must not play at God’ and, also, “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings”.

    If we’re going to address the social divides - like health inequalities - that the pandemic has laid bare then let’s, as a profession, commit to two things:
    • a set of social design principles: that build on the potential for mutual support and community cohesion that's being revealed; that have at their root a collaborative way of working that responds to people’s needs and wishes; that commit to valuing and bringing value to communities
    • and to redefine the social role of the profession, through the education and training of all built environment practitioners

    So what’s my moral takeaway from coronavirus? That we need to find a new balance between purpose, theory and practice.

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  • Chris Roche

    Why address moral and aesthetic codes - if such exist? Why not address economic and legal codes - beginning with the chronic housing shortage and extending to Building Regulations and Planning Law? Banging on about aesthetics at this time of crisis is distasteful and unintelligent.

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