Architecture writer Will Jennings questions whether the well-meaning Architects Declare environmental pledge will deliver the change it bravely promises
How brilliant it is that leading architects have joined in the growing chorus declaring a climate emergency. With Architects Declare, 17 Stirling Prize-winning firms, along with about 400 other practices, have joined a number of global political bodies, including the UK Parliament, in making this move. However, it’s not clear how this proud announcement will change anything.
I don’t work for an architect firm, let alone have the challenging responsibility of keeping a company profitable during the current precarious climate. And I am the first to admit it’s easier to be a critic on the outside than having to implement change from within, not least when so many pay cheques and livelihoods are directly and indirectly dependent upon these decisions.
Yet I read the Architects Declare letter as one primarily directed towards us on the outside looking in: a request that we – the public, critics, educators, journalists – hold them to account. Because, without instant action the paper promise is meaningless and may simply be a footnote in the final chapter of humanity’s biography.
I know the AJ will be doing just this, having already nailed their colours to the mast with the recent Wake Up issue on climate change and making the subject a primary source of ongoing news. Hopefully mainstream writers who cover design will dissect the ecological credentials of projects as much as the aesthetic. This could help raise the level of public understanding about what needs to be built, what it looks like, that it’s a bit more complicated than simply putting a few trees on top of huge concrete things; and when not to build.
This is why one of the pledges leaps out at me: ’Evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach.’ It is hoped this will lead to the architect questioning whether a proposal should even progress if a client’s wishes clash with a future sustainable climate.
This will, no doubt, lead to some complicated conversations between architecture firms and their clients, perhaps even giving designers the bravery to walk away from potential projects or advise clients to move in a new direction, which may even involve less architecture. It’s great that Foster + Partners and the Berkeley Group are committed to zero-carbon buildings by 2030, but when these buildings are too often luxury-flat-as-investment-built-to-remain-empty, suggestions of genuine sustainability are further away than ever.
So, if we live in an age where statements and slogans garner more reaction than the action itself, perhaps now is the time for some of the larger firms to make some headline-grabbing statements of intent and extricate themselves from iconic but unsustainable projects and modes of work.
What better statement of action could there be than Fosters withdrawing from The Tulip?
What better statement of action could there be than if Foster + Partners withdrew its involvement from that most grotesque fuck-you to a sustainable future, The Tulip?
Or, perhaps if Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners stated that the current Taoyuan Airport terminal will be its last ever air-travel work. Maybe if Zaha Hadid Architects immediately state they will now only use concrete for critical structure and not aestheticism. Or if all signatories refuse to construct unsustainable luxury villas and country homes for clients who consider themselves an exception to the global crisis.
This is not to try to catch these industry-leading firms out, but to suggest how they can make immediate statements of action to public, clients, and employees.
It’s sexier to proudly make a visible stand than to address systematic change within. It’s genuinely fantastic that local authorities, political parties and now architects are declaring a climate emergency, but if it remains as a slogan instead of an immediate and fundamental change in direction then it’s not only meaningless but could cause more damage by acting as a PR mask concealing inaction and propping up the status quo.
I have huge respect for the hundreds of architect firms who have signed up to Architects Declare, and especially to the 17 leaders. Some big statements of following through could now increase that momentum and show us on the outside that you mean what you say.