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‘Without instant action the Architects Declare paper promise is meaningless’

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Architecture writer Will Jennings questions whether the well-meaning Architects Declare environmental pledge will deliver the change it bravely promises

Will jennings crop

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.

Foster tulip index

‘What better statement of action could there be than if Foster and Partners withdrew involvement from that most grotesque fuck-you to a sustainable future, The Tulip?’

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Good article that hits the nail on the head as given all the evidence - words without significant new actions are meaningless & also regressive. As a signatory I now encourage the profession to urgent review and agreement of collective action forward.

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  • Notwithstanding I agree with Walter Menteth, this is a typical AJ virtue signalling campaign, missing rather than hitting head on the really big issues. As usual its China. So although setting an example by "little acorns" in the UK may be good, why not campaign for a carbon tax on all Chinese imports and investments, to bring them in line with the carbon tax targets of the west? This graph shows how UK CO2 emissions are but a pimple on the elephantine CO2 output of China.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions#/media/File:Total_CO2_emissions_by_country_in_2017_vs_per_capita_emissions_(top_40_countries).svg
    Go stand in Tiananmen square and protest, or at least do it in front of the Chinese Embassy, rather than virtue signalling by blocking Regents Street. Or at least rally a pressure group to get our government to do that.

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  • Unfortunately the author misunderstands both the commitments made, and some of the solutions to the climate debate. There is a worrying lack of knowledge on sustainability throughout the whole of the construction industry.

    Fosters have signed up to their portfolio of property being carbon neutral, essentially meaningless as I think they own one building, and they have only signed up to this being carbon neutral by 2050 (when Norman will be 115). The UKGBC's Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment is designed for developers, which is why they were the first architects to sign up, and the architects involved in writing the commitment didn't sign up! As an industry we deserve better than this green wash, we need real leadership from those at the top of our profession.

    Really the only statement holding architects to account is this one:

    "Include life cycle costing, whole life carbon modelling and post occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use"

    The problem materials are really glass, plastics and metal sheeting. Especially when these materials are anodised or laminated together and cant be recycled. As many people have also pointed out there are many benefits to the use of concrete, and it is one of the lowest embodied carbon options.

    If we properly educate ourselves about Whole Life Carbon then it will provide a route to solving all the problems mentioned above. The UK is hosting the next climate summit in 2020, now is the chance for British architecture firms to show leadership to the rest of the world and profit from the inevitable change sin the global economy.

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