I just recently received my copy of the very first -ism magazine! I was invited to write a piece by their Glasgow based team as their magazine seeks to begin a new dialogue that can disrupt and allow us to question the educational paradigm we find ourselves in. Below are some images of the publication with the piece I submitted, enjoy!
I have had endless conversations — both in practice and education — which reveal an uneasy relationship between architecture and power. Many on both sides of the fence are of the opinion that the architect’s role has been compartmentalised. We have watched the evolution of our role from the back-seat, as technological, financial and political changes have all fundamentally altered how we work. The protected title of ‘professional’ has turned from a symbol of wider obligation to society into a protectionist ploy to rationalise the continuing high fees we charge for our work. This has allowed the architect to become just another professional in a stagnant pool of professionals-turned-competitors, fighting for a bigger piece of the pie.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of sustainability, an area where we most owe our expertise to society. Despite the dire state of sustainability in our built environment, the architectural profession continues to measure success on ‘rubber stamp’ indicators designed as marketing ploys to ‘clients with a conscience’. Systems such as BREAAM in the UK and LEED in the US are exercises in creating a strand of architecture that — through the use of as many plug-in systems as possible — concocts an architectural collage of the banal.
The conversation has stalled and will continue to move backward as the profession becomes increasingly complacent with how we measure sustainability. The metrics we use to determine what is sustainable are identical to when they were initially conceived, and this needs to change. In order to deal with the plethora of new challenges our built environment faces we have to diversify our modes of thinking to make a more sustainable future possible.
In order to make this change, architects need to think across disciplines and become more proactive in understanding the economic drivers at play. While we are very interested in the face value of each project, less consideration is given to the financial paradigm we operate in and the metrics involved. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist aims to reframe the way we think about economics, proposing a new set of metrics to which we as architects shouldn’t ignore.
In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth reminds us that codifying of ‘economic growth’ as a metric did not intend it to map directly to gains in citizen well-being. In fact, economics in the 20th century was a science of human behaviour derived from a deeply flawed portrait of humanity. The dominant model of the “rational economic man” was seen to be self-interested, isolated, and calculating — which possibly says more about the nature of economists than it does about most humans. Economics in this era had “lost the desire to articulate its goals” which allowed the discipline to be captured by a proxy goal: endless growth. Instead, Raworth argues that the real aim of economic activity should be “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet.” She asserts that, rather than pushing economies to grow for the sake of growth, we need economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow”.
Thus, Raworth begins by redrawing the economy. She embeds within it the Earth’s systems we currently take for granted and replants the model in society which it has long ignored. In demonstrating how the world depends on the flow of materials and energy she reminds us that we are more than just workers, consumers and owners of capital. By recognising and addressing inconvenient realities, Raworth discovers a breakthrough: a graphic representation of the world we, as architects and citizens, want to create.
The diagram consists of two rings. The inner ring of the doughnut represents a sufficiency of the resources we need to lead a good life: food, clean water, housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, democracy. Anyone living within that ring, in the hole in the middle of the doughnut, is in a state of deprivation. The outer ring of the doughnut consists of the Earth’s environmental limits, beyond which we inflict dangerous levels of climate change, ozone depletion, water pollution, loss of species and other assaults on our unique world. The area between the two rings — the doughnut itself — is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which humanity should strive to live. The purpose of economics should be to help us enter that space and stay there.
As well as describing a better world, this model allows us to see, in immediate and comprehensible terms, the state in which we now find ourselves. For myself, that state is difficult to reckon with. In the year 2016/17, the UK recycled less waste than in 2013. A prime example of a system that has remained unchanged since its conception, recycling our waste has become a cumbersome, dinosaur of our time. This is partly due to wastes image problem, and our need to build office/residential mixes in every conceivable portion of land. Over the last 50 years industrial land has seen a dramatic displacement to the outer periphery of our cities. As they claim larger portions of our countryside, the activity industrial spaces bring to a city ceases to exist. Through intensive research at the London School of Architecture, my work has looked to find ways in which we can both retain industry in our cities and subvert how we recycle. This has found a manifestation in a new form of recycling infrastructure, a super-tall, super-slim recycling tower. In London where economy is king, this building leverages a small footprint to provide all the necessary recycling facilities needed to deal with waste on an industrial scale through its super-tall envelope. Standing as a new civic icon for a city that wants to recycle and be seen doing so, placing a facility like this forces us to reckon with the waste we produce on a monumental scale. We can reframe the systems of production and recycling to infinitum, but now is the time to provoke new conversations and progress the conversation about what sustainability is and who it is truly for.
Billions of people still live in the hole in the middle of Raworth’s doughnut whilst many others have simultaneously breached the outer boundary. Therefore, it is important for both students and professionals to start questioning the basis from which we build to evolve this conversation. We must stop accepting the methods of the past in the assessment of our futures. We must create relevant metrics for designing sustainably. We must stop add-on sustainable architecture in pop colours. We must stop praising billion pound ‘sustainable’ projects and we must press for a new way of building that keeps us in the nice fluffy centre of the doughnut instead of falling off the edge.