Cranes in mist

"Architects need to embrace radical change if we are to avoid a hellish future"

As yet another COP fails to put the world on a path to avert climate catastrophe, it's time for architects to fundamentally rethink the work they do, writes Michael Pawlyn.


The outcome of COP27, and Antonio Guterres' grim warning that "we are on a highway to climate hell", requires us as designers to do some serious thinking about what we do next. Aside from the breakthrough on "loss and damage" payments to the countries most affected (generally the poorest and least responsible for the problem) there was virtually no progress in getting the world on-track for a safe future. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, but the more courageous thing to do is to engage in an urgent debate about how change happens – and then to take radical action accordingly.

It may also be tempting to think that we can carry on broadly as normal and try a bit harder at sustainability, but that would be a disastrous course of action. We need to accept that the degree of change required is far greater than the industry has embraced to date.

There was virtually no progress in getting the world on-track for a safe future

We urgently need to transcend conventional sustainability approaches to pursue regenerative solutions that are net-positive rather than simply mitigating negatives. We need to move from mechanistic approaches towards more systemic approaches and to widen our perspectives from being solely human-focussed to recognising the whole web of life on which we depend. In short: architects need to embrace radical change if we are to avoid the hellish future predicted by Guterres.

Change needs to occur at the level of mindsets. This has been the focus for Architects Declare UK, in the way the declaration points were written, the events we have organised and the practice guide that was produced. The source of inspiration has been the systems thinker Donella Meadows, who asserted that the best way to change a system is by intervening at the level of the mindset, or paradigm that drives the system, and by shifting its goals.

If we ask ourselves "what drives the way architects work?" it's probably fair to say that it's a mixture of worthy aims, such as transforming the built environment to enhance people's lives, as well as less comfortable motivations, such as the glory gained from publicity or completing a project. Younger, and future, generations are likely to judge harshly those who are motivated by the latter and some of the big-name architects who would like to think of themselves as avant-garde are at risk of being on the wrong side of history.

If, as many have argued over the years, architecture is a celebration of the age in which it was created, then a good test of its relevance is to consider how a contemporary work will be considered in, say, 20 years. Buildings that are little more than gimmicky manipulations of form that help a developer make more money, or extravagant showpieces paid for by luxury brands are likely to be regarded by future generations as some of the most trivial and morally detached artifacts ever created.

Big-name architects who like to think of themselves as avant-garde are at risk of being on the wrong side of history

Societal norms like democracy and human rights are coming under increasing threat and it is worth contemplating how an informed teenager would regard architects who seem content to be photographed with genocidal leaders or those who design projects for murderous autocrats. If we want to be "Good Ancestors", to use Roman Krznaric's term (in turn, borrowed from Louis Kahn's client Jonas Salk), we need to think much more consciously about how we spend our limited lifespans and how we will be remembered over longer timescales.

An urge to create monuments or icons has been a significant driver for (mainly male) architects and that now needs to be challenged. Ever since the first skyscrapers, we have fetishised supertall buildings and continually competed to go ever taller. A growing body of evidence is showing that this is an extremely profligate way of building; both in terms of embodied and operational carbon.

Surely, in a planetary emergency we should be competing to design buildings that are best aligned with long-term planetary health? Earlier this year Architects Declare UK wrote an open letter to the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats (CTBUH) in which we proposed that it was time to transform its register of "The World's Tallest Building". We called on the CTBUH to shift its focus from a fixation on height to the other part of its mission: Urban Habitats. As an organisation they have done a lot to promote sustainability and now there is an opportunity for them to engage with regenerative thinking.

As a profession, we risk being left behind by other sectors that are embracing change more rapidly. Many large businesses are now accepting that the pursuit of profit is not a sufficiently inspiring purpose to attract the best staff and are defining bold new purposes. Similarly, many institutions are recognising that their original purposes are in need of updating. The 1828 Royal Charter for the Institute of Civil Engineers declared that civil engineering "is the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man".

We risk being left behind by other sectors that are embracing change more rapidly

Architects Declare UK has written to the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Simon Allford, proposing that its mission statement should be updated to align with the planetary emergency. Whether he chooses to make this part of his legacy remains to be seen.

It is encouraging to see that some awards such as the Pritzker Architecture Prize are moving with the times, choosing to celebrate architects who champion retrofit, those who work with low-energy materials and, recognising a more diverse range of architects than was conventionally the case. There are, however, plenty of awards systems that still reward highly damaging approaches, as Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) have argued in connection with the RIBA Stirling Prize.

Ideally, this mindset change would be shared by governments. After two years of requesting, and being refused, a meeting with the UK prime minister or former energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng (during which time it was revealed that ministers from his department held hundreds of meetings with fossil fuel companies), Architects Declare UK recently met with shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband and engaged in a constructive dialogue about systems change.

There are, of course, limits to our agency as architects and designers, but it's no longer acceptable to claim that our existing limits are the end of the story. Where change is necessary, and exceeds what's possible for an individual company, we need to collaborate to drive systems change. This means joining groups like Architects Declare, Design Declares, Architects Climate Action Network – wherever you feel most at home – and working together to drive change.

Michael Pawlyn is founder of Exploration Architecture. He is the co-author, with Sarah Ichioka, of Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergency published by Triarchy Press, and the co-host of the Flourish Systems Change podcast. He is a co-initiator and Steering Group member of UK Architects Declare.

The top image is by Verstappen Photography via Unsplash.