Column authored by James Features In Architecture Foundation Newsletter
26 September 2019
AF SUPPORTERS' COLUMN
I GET SO EMOTIONAL, BABY
Is it OK to feel anxiety: about the climate, about our politics, the state of democracy, about the way we practice? As the architecture of our planet accelerates into a state of environmental degradation and unprecedented change we are likely to experience a complex emotional response. We prefer to believe that our own contributions to the discourse and profession of architecture have been hard fought and that our practices adjust to keep pace. However it is disquieting when we take notice of our inner voices; the ones telling us that everything is not OK, that we fear the future and that we need to act now. Everything we have learned has to be unlearned and much of what we value we will have to let go.
At the LSA (London School of Architecture) we are framing the two year diploma around the question of how to react in a world of climate emergency. This necessarily means taking stock and figuring out what, if any, influence we may have as architects in the next few decades. One of the truly most disturbing interpretations of the climate science comes from Professor Jem Bendall, a Professor of Sustainability Leadership, whose previous career spanned twenty years working in sustainable business and finance. In 2018 he published a paper titled Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy in which he discusses the inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. He argues that we, as a global connected society, are still in denial over the scale and nature of the problem and that we hang onto a belief that it can be ‘solved’. As architects we have learned to respond to technical and aesthetic innovations. Yet the issue at stake here is the minimal evidence to suggest any country or system meaningfully reducing CO2 outputs, but there is a great deal of evidence to show that tipping points have already been exceeded and that climate chaos has been triggered. It is therefore critical that we allow ourselves space to discover and accept the stark scientific data in order to move into a process Bendall terms ‘deep adaption’. Here questions of how we become resilient, both as individuals and communities, as well as comprehend the scale of societal transformation that will happen need to be framed.
If all this sounds Biblical, that it is because it is. We have been sharing stories of catastrophe and end-of-days for millennia and yet in the generally temperate global north we have come to believe we have mastered our own destiny though designing our own future. We call this progress. But what if we have reached the end of progress and the necessary trajectory is degrowth? It is time to figure out which story we believe and in so doing share the sense of loss, grief and pain.
Yet we can begin to write radical new stories. Young people who have taken to the streets this year are showing it is possible to influence the dominant political and economic narratives. Just like our weather, they are disrupting the civic climate. Students at architecture schools are in a unique position to explore, test and share radical ideas about futurity. An alternative understanding of our global ecology is already being born, one in which human kind are no longer solely in charge. As a result our cultural strategies and our architecture will necessarily be very different; our cities will not function in the way they do now and our practices will transform out of all recognition.
There is no doubt that this is a moral and ethical emergency asking each and every one of us to reflect on our values, our way of living and how we choose the pathways ahead. It is a time to empathise, re-connect and show solidarity with our global citizens. It is a hugely emotional time.