Architects’ campaign to tackle climate change is to be welcomed, says Paul Finch
The recent commitment of former RIBA Stirling Prize-winners to address environmental design issues should be welcomed. It is not a case of virtue signalling, which is invariably a public relations exercise on behalf of an individual. In this case the group call to collective action is heartfelt, and has a sense of honesty about it, for example in the way the problem of global architects’ air miles is acknowledged.
How to harness the concerns expressed in a way which will make a difference on the ground is now the question. Architects have virtually no control over a key environmental challenge: population growth. Nor can architects control economies or borders. Architecture may be political, in the sense that the factors which go into creating a building or a city are not merely the province of designers or developers, but this does not mean that architects are politicians, unless as individuals they choose to get into the electoral game.
However, what the profession can certainly do is campaign. On energy, the RIBA has a good aspirational record and should surely continue to exploit the potential of its membership, hopefully with more results on the ground. That could be achieved by focusing on where architects can make a real difference as a result of their influence on what is going to be built – or retrofitted.
There is plenty of agreement about what we should now be doing, given the multiple reports, working parties and research efforts since 1973, when concerns about depletion of natural resources began, later morphing into alarm about the observed effect of carbon emissions. The latest report from the Environment Agency made for gloomy reading, especially for people living in coastal areas.
Norman Foster is one of the few architects in recent years to have consulted the Environment Agency in respect of a national-scale project with his infrastructure plan (pictured) for the UK, upgrading our key ports, adding to the railway network, and including an estuary airport and an additional Thames Barrier. He was alarmed at the agency’s observations about increases in catastrophic environmental events. Some have nothing to do with climate change (volcanic eruptions, for instance), but others certainly do. The fact that in 2011 Dublin was inches away from a flood which would have wiped out its city centre still hasn’t prompted City Hall to make any plan for a new Thames Barrier. Hello? Is anybody there?
Foster infrastructure plan
Environmentalism in one country won’t work
Whatever we may do to improve our own carbon performance as a country, the fact is that forces beyond our control mean that we will still face big problems in the UK, generated by global climate change, in the decades to come.
So what we could do with is a plan of the scale we have recently been remembering, with awe and astonishment, in respect of the final European phase of the Second World War. Who would be responsible for drawing up such a plan and who would contribute to it? There should surely be a role for architects to play in strategic issues related to water, for example (dearth, flood, distribution, consumption, sewerage and so on). Could this be the stage for the Stirling Prize winners to take?
The contribution of engineers will also be vital, but thus far we do not seem to have any generally accepted synthesised proposition about how to approach climate mitigation and adaptation in the round. This is terrain suited to our brightest architects.
Good ideas have a life of their own
It was back in the Blair era that Lord Falconer inspected a modular housing scheme in Islington by Cartwright Pickard. ‘This is the future,’ he declared. Recent announcements about big modular home contracts suggest that the future may, finally, have arrived.