Photograph of Jakarta, Indonesia, is courtesy of Shutterstock

"As environmental catastrophe unfolds, we need architecture that is more than just green"

We've woken up to the reality of the anthropocene era and realised the catastrophic damage we've inflicted on the planet. Now we must develop a new form of architecture that can adapt to major environmental changes, says Darran Anderson.


The Science Advisory Committee published a report in 1965, titled Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, for American president Lyndon B Johnson. It warned of the "possible effects of an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide", including melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, rise of sea level, warming of sea water and increased acidity of fresh waters.

We need not imagine the parallel world where these concerns were not comprehensively dealt with, because we are living in it. The environmental catastrophe they envisaged is now slowly unfolding around us.

Each day seems to bring new alarm. NASA reports that Antarctic glaciers are "waking up" and dramatically losing ice. The 2018 Arctic Report Card notes "unparalleled warmth" in the Arctic. Recent research published in Nature has suggested climate change is intensifying the rainfall in hurricanes, predicting this is just the beginning. Studies across the world have demonstrated the catastrophic impact of human activity on insect ecosystems with numbers plummeting, endangering the food chain. There are indications forest and bushfires, blazing from Alaska to Australia, are increasing due to climate change.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explored the likely global warming of 1.5 degrees, its effects and how it might be mitigated. But it warned that, without urgent change, the impact is likely to be far greater. Meanwhile the Emissions Gap Report 2018 has suggested we are already 10 years behind the targets set out in the Paris Agreement just three years earlier.

The dirges of doomsayers offer little in terms of design inspiration

How designers and architects, those who will envisage and build the future, face these complex issues matters deeply. There are two factors that might aid us in this regard and help us navigate certain recurring pitfalls – namely recognising the dangers of optimism and isolationism.

Faced with dire predictions of the future, the temptation for designers is to develop utopian proposals.

Certainly, the dirges of doomsayers offer little in terms of design inspiration. Optimism, by contrast, is pro-active – a quality we see in the solarpunk green sheen of Vincent Callebaut.

The problem with optimism is that it can be indulgent, exclusive or easily manipulated. Often, utopian proposals are libertarian escape pods or dubiously fanciful advertisements. Designing for the actual world, as it will unfold for the vast majority of people, is a task best approached with what philosopher Antonio Gramsci called "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".

Perhaps a technological development – maybe quantum computing, nanotechnology, atmospheric seeding or iron fertilisation –will be a deus ex machina that saves us from ourselves. But in the meantime, climate change will continue to develop exponentially. Given so many of our cities are located next to rising seas, the design of tidal barriers and sea walls will become increasingly important, with all the attendant risks and challenges. While vital in places, these measures are undertaken on the premise of turning cities into costly besieged fortresses.

Another more sustainable approach would be to incorporate the water, integrating landscape and architecture. The award-winning Soul of Nørr by SLA and Ramboll allows flooding to occur essentially through it while Sameep Padora's factory in Mumbai has a "concrete void" to contain the monsoon deluge.

To survive, cities will have to embrace their environmental aspect

These projects are important not just spatially but because they highlight a common false dichotomy. Traditionally, the city and the environment are seen as separate, and even as antagonists, with suburbs, liminal spaces and greenbelts as buffer zones between the two. Both however are inter-reliant.

Cities are environments and eco-systems in themselves – how animals have adapted to urban living is a vast and fascinating subject in itself. Cities reach out into the countryside, and overseas, for sustenance in the form of food, water, resources, power and waste removal.

Similarly, the environment near cities is rarely untouched by humanity. The rural, in many industrialised nations, has been effectively manmade for centuries; domesticated rather than truly wild.

To survive, cities will have to embrace their environmental aspect while the countryside will have to be increasingly engineered in concentrated spaces, in order to save the wider environment.

One problem with ecological urban development is that it is too often disjointed and tokenistic. Hipster equivalents of Dig for Victory, however commendable, will not save us. Development needs to be rolled out on city-wide scales; every possible street, rooftop, block utilised. Sustainable building and the use of recycling to move towards a zero-waste culture is admirable but arguably still insufficient.

Energy-positive buildings such as the Snøhetta-designed Powerhouse Brattørkaia offer a way forward however, generating more power than they use. With cement production being the third worst producer of manmade CO2 globally, it will be crucial not just to reduce carbon emissions but to capture it within buildings, reducing the titanic imprint architecture has made. While advances in carbon capture have been greeted with caution by the European Academies' Science Advisory Council, who fear the complacency promising technological solutions might bring, carbon neutrality alone will not deal with a process already spiralling out of control. The design of carbon capture and storage devices and structures, such as so-called "artificial trees", may be vital, once costs can be reduced.

Data-driven technology could be used to drive and support urban ecosystems

Symbolism has been an obstacle to meaningful progress. A great deal of headline-grabbing environmentally-friendly architecture has come in the form of pavilions at biennales – festivals that often boast large carbon footprints, while flying people and materials in from all over the world to raise awareness of carbon footprints. Many such projects are admirable but counter-productive and indistinguishable from vanity projects, art installations or follies. Where they are successful is when they act as prototypes or aim to establish new paradigms (cross-laminated timber, for example) that may be replicated and expanded upon beyond the festival gates.

For advances to have meaningful impact, they will need go beyond individual showcases and be implementable on a district-scale, as claimed, however questionably, by UNStudio's designs for a "central innovation district" in The Hague or metropolis-level as in the Forest Cities of China.

In other cases, a redirecting of current trends can produce results. Much of the focus on smart cities has been geared towards surveillance or sociological efficiencies, but data-driven technology could be used to drive and support urban ecosystems, minimising waste and energy and maximising growth.

The danger, and temptation, of greenwashing remains. To see coming disasters as opportunities is naive at best; our current generations may be cursed by future ones for what we do or fail to do today, however many awards we grant ourselves. Too often climate-conscious projects are an excuse to rebrand those who have contributed significant damage to the environment. This reached an absurdist nadir in the recent case of a UN climate summit at Katowice being sponsored by a Polish coal company.

Flagship projects can and have been used as ethical camouflage while corporations and states quietly carry on damaging policies.  It remains to be seen if Masdar City, for example, will prove to be a genuine environmental archetype of the future or another carefully-branded citadel, built to be insulated against the repercussions of the fossil fuels that brought wealth to Abu Dhabi in the first place.

An idealistic position to have would be to leave the rural environment alone as much as possible, given the damage that's already been done. Paradoxically, this deep into the anthropocene, this will require reimagining sections of it, in order to save the rest and support a burgeoning human population. For undisturbed habitats to exist, where biodiversity flourishes, farming will have to become increasingly intensive and diverse, with even the ocean being put to use. Huge projects like the Green Great Walls of China and Africa are battling against desertification. While the promise of aquifiers making the desert bloom in Arabia and elsewhere has largely been squandered, the vast sun-drenched expanses offer huge sources of potential energy via solar power towers and vast fields of desert solar panels, especially once the transmission and storage of such energy becomes economically viable.

The continued survival of cities will depend on their peripheries – the very areas now often disregarded. With the creation of manmade wetlands, coral reefs and forests, metropolitan centres could have buffer zones to absorb flooding as well as CO2. These areas could double as parks like Bjarke Ingels' Big U, designed to protect Manhattan from storm surges.

While parkland might not seem a radical proposition, it may force a profound reassessment of land value, and who or what it is for. While land has been reclaimed in Singapore to expand the city, it has had disastrous effects in cities like Phnom Penh, where profit is the aim, at the expense of the citizenry and environment.

The trials we face require colossal infrastructural efforts

The political dimension of building and design becomes unavoidable in times of instability. Atomised projects and approaches will grow less effective when faced with global issues like climate change, and when undermined by predatory delay, populist exceptionalism and corporate lobbying. While global warming will impact ill-equipped countries hardest, none will remain immune, given the impact on harvests, weather and the migration of peoples. We are seeing already, as cities run out of water or have begun to sink, that none are autarkies, and all are fatefully dependent on larger networks.

We need architecture that is not just green but modular and adaptive, that anticipates and responds to the changing environment. This will range from providing housing for the displaced, to the application of beauty and utility, to renewable energy, coastal defence and carbon capture structures.

The trials we face require the kind of colossal infrastructural efforts that were witnessed in the New Deal, the Marshall Plan and the Space Program, with more at stake. It will also require involvement in fields beyond the boundaries of each discipline.

A century ago, the Bauhaus was instituted with Walter Gropius declaring: "Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline". It is a challenge that remains for the cities and environment of the future, with the disciplines spanning the architectural, environmental, technological, scientific and political. Each singular approach is insufficient on its own, given they are all as interdependent as the urban is to the rural. Other futures are still possible, provided we can see past our boundaries.

Photograph of Jakarta, Indonesia, is courtesy of Shutterstock.