In a recent tweet, one of our members expressed their exasperation with being stereotyped as in some way provocative:
“I'm sooo fed up being introduced as 'provocative' when I give lectures on architecture & climate. I tell you what is provocative: just talking about form / style / technique when the world is burning.”1
The exasperation came from the reaction to lectures that members of MOULD have given when talking about our project Architecture is Climate—reactions that have ranged from dismissive shrugs to barely-disguised fury—both of which seem to say that alternative perspectives on architecture and climate are in some way extreme and belong to the fringes.
Someone who positions themselves critically in relation to the norms of the status quo is labelled as marginal.
It is common, across all disciplines and fields, that someone who positions themselves critically in relation to the norms of the status quo is labelled as marginal. With this comes the opportunity for the dismissal of the position. The history of the struggles of marginalised groups—in terms of race, gender, sexuality and class—is a history of shifting those margins so that they become acceptable to the centre. But with this acceptance often comes a degree of resentment that the core values of the centre are in some way being adjusted, a resentment clearly manifested in the current crop of culture wars.
Being labelled as provocative, as agents provocateurs, can sometimes be worn as a badge of honour, allowing a degree of freedom in picking off and escaping from the structures of the centre. However, in the case of climate breakdown and its implications for the status quo, the characterisation of someone as provocative is of real concern because it comes tantamount to a form of climate denial. The dismissal of the critic is at the same time a dismissal of the object of critique. Overt climate denial is not accepted in most architectural circles, but forms of disavowal lurk based on “finding ways to remain blind to reality” by dismissing certain forms of critique and action as unrealistic.2 It is an attitude that Sally Weintrobe characterises as a “culture of uncare.”
Architecture, as we know it, is bound to the modern project as both handmaiden and symbol.
The argument that MOULD makes is straightforward; its very directness is maybe what leads to any expressions of ire from others. First, climate breakdown presents a fundamental threat to the tenets and operations of the modern project. The project’s reliance on notions of progress, growth, reason and order, and in its separation of humans from nature, are all irrevocably challenged by ecological collapse. Second, that architecture, as we know it, is bound to the modern project as both handmaiden and symbol, in that it is an endless treadmill of materialising and celebrating those very tenets. So, if climate breakdown threatens the modern project, at the same time it threatens architecture in its extractivist and exploitative modes.
If climate breakdown threatens the modern project, at the same time it threatens architecture in its extractivist and exploitative modes.
The threat presented by climate is so profound that it demands a complete reconsideration of all systems and institutions, including how architecture might operate in the face of the crisis. The standard response has relied on principles of sustainability. However, this very word is problematic, since it suggests that, with various fixes, it is possible to sustain current structures, values and lifestyles. Sustainability thus goes hand in hand with so-called green capitalism, a contradiction in terms in that capitalism remains founded on principles of growth and exploitation. Greening capitalism can only marginally adjust its trajectory—it cannot introduce the fundamental economic rethinking that is required.3 In this sense, sustainability effectively becomes a tool of capitalism rather than a disruption of it.
Sustainability effectively becomes a tool of capitalism rather than a disruption of it.
In architecture, sustainability is played out through a series of technical fixes, focussing on carbon reduction in terms of embodied energy and emissions in use. Such fixes are of course necessary as long as buildings continue to be built, and need to go much further than they presently do, but they are little more than band-aids on the gaping wounds inflicted by climate breakdown. Sustainability positions architecture as outside of the crisis, applying salves to the symptoms but not disturbing the underlying causes, allowing architects to salve their consciences but not to acknowledge any complicity in the crisis. As Barnabas Calder has so brilliantly shown, the trajectory of architecture in the twentieth century was driven by a reliance on cheap and abundant fossil-fuelled energy.4 This addiction continues today, only partially mollified by the wash of sustainability.
Sustainability positions architecture as outside of the crisis, applying salves to the symptoms but not disturbing the underlying causes.
What if, instead of asking what architecture can do for climate breakdown, one reverses the question and asks: what does climate breakdown do to architecture? MOULD’s response is to argue that Architecture IS Climate, a formulation that shifts architecture away from an external relationship with climate to one in which the two are inevitably entangled, in such a way that climate breakdown is accompanied by a breakdown in architecture. This is a challenging proposition but one that is necessary if architecture is to have any agency in facing the crisis.
What does climate breakdown do to architecture? MOULD’s response is to argue that Architecture IS Climate.
The starting point is to move from skimming off the symptoms to understanding the causes, as described in the diagram Architecture is Climate (Fig. 1). This depicts on the left a mountain formed by the inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and on the right a slice through the mountain. The sediments of the mountain are constructed through a set of verbs (ignoring – separating – accumulating – exploiting – band-aiding – violating) that describe the various ways in which the operations of the modern project have contributed to climate breakdown. It is only through taking a critical stance towards these verbs that one can effectively intervene and so disturb the structures that have caused ecological collapse. The current work of MOULD is operating in the white gaps, in the sediments of the mountain of emissions, finding openings for possible futures. The speculations here are not ungrounded fantasies but a joining of hands with pioneers who have in their own way, and with hope, confronted the causes of climate breakdown, leveraging apart the stultifying weight of the sediments.
A provocation should not be seen as an irritant but as a necessary form of awakening.
To argue that architecture is complicit with climate breakdown is not to be wilfully annoying or to point a finger, it is to affirm a fact. This is consistent with the etymology of the word provoke as to “call forth”, or in Middle English to “summon up”. In this light, a provocation should not be seen as an irritant but as a necessary form of awakening. If climate breakdown entails systemic change, then it should bring with it new social and ecological relations, which in turn will be accompanied by new spatial conditions. Space is understood here not as a Cartesian construct formed by the fixed relationship between objects, but as a vibrant set of human and beyond human associations.
If architecture IS climate, then architecture is shifted away from its obsession with objects and into a more productive territory which helps actualise these new spatial potentials.
If architecture IS climate, then architecture is shifted away from its obsession with objects and into a more productive territory which helps actualise these new spatial potentials. The production of objects perpetuates the systems of growth at precisely the moment that ecological collapse demands, a post-growth world which would shunt extractivist architecture into a cul-de-sac.5
In contrast, opportunities open up for architecture as a form of spatial practice to imagine and empower the spatial conditions of a post-growth scenario, which escapes the fiddling with form while the planet burns. Thinking speculatively about the "possible" can provoke "political and ethical imagination in the present.”6 Architecture should become relational and interconnected; both planetarily bound and supported; inclusive beyond the human; caring, curious, and brave.
Architecture should become relational and interconnected; both planetarily bound and supported; inclusive beyond the human; caring, curious, and brave.
Such a provocation, a summoning, is a provocation of care. To provoke, openly and publicly, is thus an important part of contributing to a culture of care, in distinction to the more insidiously silent operations of the cultures of uncare.