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Sustainability Paralysis A practical manifesto to help heal the city

Xavier Smales Word Count: 3285


Fig 1. Californian golfers play near to a forest fire


Information Dump “The ways in which we talk to ourselves about ecology are stuck in horror mode: disgust shame and guilt”1 The anthropologist Alexei Yurchak coined the term ‘hypernormalisation’ - the paradox between the acceptance and false belief of a clearly broken state of affairs and the myths that surround it. Adam Curtis presents this in his 2016 film, suggesting the West has reached a similar state of delusion, ‘as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it because the simplicity was reassuring’.2 We live in a time of confusion and contradiction and nothing exemplifies this better than the environmental crisis. Despite shocking truths - we are now burning 80% more coal than in the year 20003 - such fear mongering does not appear to be averting the crisis. We prioritise news headlines over action, and this information dump can create a sort of paralysis; leaving people feeling overwhelmed and helpless. It seems as our awareness of the environmental crisis grows, our global actions tell a different story.


The Paralysed City The city is a body suffering from the condition of paralysis. Whilst enablers of the built environment appear to champion sustainability, most major developments undermine any prospect of mitigating the environmental crisis. We live within a system of unsustainable growth that allows the free market to preside over common sense, at the expense of people and the planet. Environmental problems are deep-rooted in Western - now global consumerist culture and growth economics. Moreover, architecture has become an instrument for neoliberalism, enabling the physical world to be ‘suppressed or turned into fuel for further systematic optimization’.4

Architects striving for originality is not only exhausting but counterproductive. The aspiration to be a lone genius is still a part of education and professional culture, while the media celebrates the icon. Much current thinking is too fragmentary, unimaginative and uninspiring, and so many involved are not serious about sustainability. People are well aware of the severity of the crisis exemplified by Extinction Rebellion, but In the words of Greta Thunberg, “you can’t be a bit sustainable”.7

The construction, operation and demolition of buildings account for nearly half of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.5 The lack of accountability, integrity and transparency in the city is staggering. A Sainsbury’s store that scored the highest ever BREEAM rating in 1999 was demolished and replaced by an IKEA claiming to be ‘the most store sustainable ever’.6 The fact planners allow the demolition of a well functioning, efficient building like this highlights that the impact of demolition is not taken seriously. City makers claim to support the UN sustainability goals, yet do little to help realise them.

Fig 2. Sainsbury’s Store, London,Chetwood Architects, 1999 - was demolished just 17 years after opening, despite achieving the highest ever BREEAM rating for sustainibility


“Dissatisfaction with the contemporary city has not led to the development of a credible alternative; it has, on the contrary, inspired only more refined ways of articulating dissatisfaction”8

“The challenge for architects is to anticipate the new tasks that require their unique talents and to develop the skills that will, therefore, be required in years to come”9

- Rem Koolhaas

- Daniel Susskind

Cities accommodate a huge plethora of points of view, so architecture should never be singular and dogmatic. We should be openended and empathic to accommodate these differences. However, sustainable design isn’t about choice, it is the only way we can help avert a global crisis. There have been brilliant one-off projects, but for the paradigm shift required to live in harmony with our planet, integrated thinking amongst all sections of society must occur. To succeed in having a wide influence in the city, sustainable architecture must be more encompassing of subjective and cultural values and improve the quality of our lives.

Technology is changing the professions, and architects are finding new ways to use their skill sets. Whilst specialist skills are still relevant, architects can pursue new modes of practice that utilise soft, contextual skills that cannot be automated.This manifesto attempts to show how architects can work on the peripheries of the profession to help debunk the confusion around sustainability, and offer practical action towards a healthier city.


The Therapist “Mental health and ecological health are interlinked... Humans are traumatized having severed their connection with nonhuman beings, connections that exist deep inside our bodies” 10

one that values the objective, but only when intersecting with the domains of self, culture and nature.13 The city cannot be healed using technology alone, but also requires cultural and psychological transformation. Britain has become a deeply divided, confused island. We struggle to accept our dark colonial past or embrace our cultural diversity. Brexit has exposed a polarisation, with people trying to defend values that they are unsure of. There has never been a more pertinent time to discover our deepest beliefs. Who do we want to be and who does the planet want us to be?

- Tim Morton Unsustainability is not just a consequence of what we do but, more profoundly, who modernity has made of us. Peter Buchanan argues that modernist architecture has elevated the objective as the reality, leading to a fragmented city of mute freestanding buildings, communities and psyches, ‘deadening the severance of our empathic and sensual connections with the world’.11 Reduction and separation of the city have caused a devaluation of the subjective, which severs our understanding of the natural world we belong to. Mark Dekay claims that most contemporary sustainable design eliminates the subjective, ignoring ‘centuries of cultural meanings associated with architectural symbols’. 12 High-performance buildings, whilst credible, can also be devoid of any feeling - emotionally and sensually. An integrated approach to sustainable design is

A fossil record places human origins in Africa some 150,000 years ago.14 The good thing about having 150,000 years of practice is that we have already run a lot of experiments on different parts of the planet, gathering a wealth of local knowledge. It is meaningful for an architect to study the local culture, ecology and vernacular architecture of the region. We must understand how a particular population found ways to respond to the local climate and context in ways which make that part of the world enjoyable. We must use this as a source of inspiration in creating architecture that appeals to our human nature.


Fig 3. Halawa House, Agamy, Egypt, Adbel-Wahed El-Wakil, 1975 - takes inspiration from the local vernacular, climatically and culturally rooted in place


One might question the integrity of sound bites about sustainability because this buzzword is now a part of all architects vocabulary. However, an architects ability to create a clear vision, commit to a narrative, craft the visuals and deliver the message is powerful. Such a vision must not only focus on the constraints of sustainable living, but ‘emphasise huge qualitative leaps in satisfaction, physical and mental health and so on that would bring its enthusiastic embrace.’18 In a time of urgency, we cannot rely on our political leaders to create appealing visions of the future. Architects can help shift psyches by painting a picture of a sustainable world that integrates beauty, culture and science.

Top-down change takes a long time to implement and is preceded by grassroots campaigning and behavioural change. In a world where knowledge is increasingly open source, an architect’s potential to communicate their vision has never been greater. Our strength can come from helping build movements around shared purpose and mission. 15 We can help visualise a sustainable future through clearly communicated narratives that non-architects can understand. Strong communication is a skill an architect can develop - both visually and orally demonstrated by the rise of Bjarke Ingels. Whether you agree with him or not, Ingels’ agency is greater than a traditional architect through a commitment to sharing ideas online using a variety of media. Rem Koolhaas described him as completely different from the architect of the past, an ‘embodiment of a fully fledged new typology, which respond perfectly to the current zeitgeist’.16 BIG utilise the power of free content sharing, communicating their narratives using renders, diagrams, film, animation, publications, interviews and more. Ingels’ early philosophy of “hedonistic sustainability” is wide-reaching. He recognised that we must transform the sustainability movement into something youthful, dynamic and egalitarian to inspire the masses.17


Fig 4. Copenhill, Bjarke Ingels Group, 2019 - a clean waste- to-energy power plant with a ski slope on the roof - ‘Hedonistic Sustainability’ is an attempt to make the movement appeal to the masses.


The Midwife Architects are like midwives who deliver buildings for the city, and the practice of architecture is the art and science of accommodation. We work in an industry with a business model that encourages building cheaply to maximise profit. We have limited power in the creation of the city, and serious thinking around sustainability becomes fragmented when other forces come into play. Claire Bennie claims that the developer has a far greater influence on a project than the architect19, and other actors with similar power include clients, builders and planners. Engaging with a serious sustainability agenda is challenging when constraining briefs are developed long before an architect is involved in a project.

of commercial floor space is a literal diagram of quite how much value the investors must claw back’. 20The 87.5 meter wide commercial floors are marketed as ‘high specification office space’ and a ‘vertical village’ for 12,000 employees.21 Yet it is hard to imagine a fulfilled village life on the 50th floor, at a desk tens of meters away from a hermetically sealed window. This type of architecture may perform efficiently, but detaches us from nature, cultural meaning and any feeling of being grounded in the world. It creates a clean, rigid distinction between humans and nature, promoting a view of the world based on greater efficiency and control of the ecological world. We need to climb down from the top of the tree and become more aware of our surroundings.22 With limited influence in these types of developments, how can architects hope to engage with the sustainability agenda in a way that makes a difference?

London’s emerging skyline of glass blobs and reductionist extrusions are doomed to be unsustainable before an architect is appointed. Developers call the shots, prioritising the amount of floor space over the quality of floor space. 22 Bishopsgate - the latest 278-meter tower in city’s cluster of glass lumps - is a scheme developed by property giant Roger Lipton and accommodated by architects PLP. The initial £300m investment for the troubled site was a gamble which has now spawned what Oliver Wainright describes as the ‘inevitable consequence: the proposed stack


Fig 5. 22 Bishopsgate, PLP, 2019 - The 87.5m floor plates maximise the quantity of floor space over the quality of floor space. This type of architecture creates rigid distinction between humans and nature.


“We must find a better way of measuring human welfare than perpetual growth”23

architecture in new ways. 00 collaborated with the Ethical Property Company to deliver ‘The Foundry’, an office with real impact and soul. The building is a refurbished shoe polish factory that achieved an ‘excellent’ BREEAM rating and is home to 25 different social justice and human rights organisations paying cheap rent.26 Through crowdfunding and collaboration with developers who share similar values, 00 were able to deliver a low cost building that excels on environmental and social levels.

- George Monbiot It is important to recognise architects alone cannot change the economic model that shapes our built environment, as Norman Foster once claimed that advocacy is the architects only power.24 But with technology on our side, we must make our voices heard. It is time for accountability and integrity, time to refuse to work on projects we deem unsustainable. Instead of feeling marginalised by developers, we can find alternative ways to deliver the projects we believe in. Advocacy not only means campaigning for new policy and value systems but also collectively organising to deliver the future we want to see.

Alastair Parvin is another architect advocating change to our corrupt systems. Fighting back against the stifling effect of inflating land prices on the quality of housing, ‘community land’ is an ‘innovative form of leasehold that precludes speculation, and so allows councils to licence land as a low-cost platform for society and the economy’.27 This can work within our current land value system but has the potential to unlock affordable plots for individuals, families or groups to develop themselves. Removing the constraint of overvalued land gives clients a better chance of producing homes which are more beautiful, sustainable, socially resilient and loved by the people who live there. The systematic change will occur when society recognises the quality of sustainable housing built on community

Architecture 00 have shown how using alternative economic models and collaboration can result in work with real value. Indy Johar advocates for architect’s business models to shift from a percentage of construction costs to being priced on the environmental and social performance of architecture.25 Such a model would force the city to measure the success


land compared with standard developments. Integrating advocacy and entrepreneurship can allow us to reboot our traditional model of delivering architecture. Roger Zogolovitch argues that when architects expand their traditional remit and commission their own projects, they can take more responsibility for the quality of the built environment.28 If architects show business acumen and are willing to take financial risks, developing your own projects allows you more autonomy to engage with integral sustainable design. John Smart claims that ‘the possibilities of ethical architecture lie through patronage’, and becoming an architect- developer is a ‘way of making that offers far greater autonomy and authorship’. Property developing is a risky business that requires proficiency with numbers and economics, but If architects are confident enough assume this role, the chances of delivering architecture without compromising are greater.

Fig 6. The Foundry, Architecture 00, 2015

Fig 7. Community Land, Open Systems Lab, 2019


The Undertaker We must engage in conversations about death in the city. The construction industry is the world’s largest consumer of raw materials and as global demographics continue to grow, natural resource depletion is occurring at twice the rate of production.29 It is clear the construction sector cannot continue to exhaust natural resources, fleetingly allowing products to reach end-of-use and then disposing of them. The idea of green construction is not new, but the extensive use of recycled construction material has not yet been widely adopted. There must be a change to the public perception, awareness and acceptance of construction waste for reuse.30 We must shift towards a circular economy where resource input, waste, emissions and energy leakage is minimised by reducing, slowing and narrowing material loops. This can be achieved through resilient design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling of architecture.












Fig 8. Circular Economy System Diagrams


Deep retrofit and refurbishment of existing buildings is the most effective way to reduce construction waste. Deborah House Studios by Sarah Wigglesworth shows how creatively transforming a former warehouse can not only prevent demolition but also provide a buildings loved by its occupants. By improving the thermal efficiency and weather protection, delivering additional artists’ studios in an new green roof extension and transforming the building’s image with an embossed metallic skin, the architects added real value to the occupants and the wider community. Stewart Brand argues that to increase the lifespan of a building, we should ‘propose flexible constructions that can adapt over time’.31 Architects should design structures that accommodates future change and deconstruction. Furthermore, if a building is loved by its users, it will have a far greater lifespan as it will both shape and adapt to a fast-changing world. The challenge for truly sustainable practice is to build places with great care, endowing them with the character and qualities to endure and become loved over time. Fig 9. Deborah House Studios, Sarah Wigglesworth, 2015 - before and after retrofit and refurbishment


The Nutritionist Architects must design nourishing environments that stretch us into the expanded potential we know we possess. We cannot continue to live high-energy, high-waste, outof-sight, out-of-mind-lifestyles. In our design think tank ‘New Knowledge’, we proposed a new typology for sustainable neighbourhoods. Our research concluded 3 guiding principles - living with less, sharing with more and closer to nature - each equally important for a community to grow in harmony with the planet. There is no need to fear dense urban cities as compact places make more liveable, efficient urbanism. In contrast to the low density, suburban conditions of much of the UK’s new homes, mixed-use neighbourhoods with abundant greenery are not only inherently sustainable but provide the vibrancy and connection people desire. Housing should be designed to promote shared living and intentionality, where people are enabled to support one another in living well.


Fig 10.‘New Knowledge’ Design Think Tank, 2019


Fig 11. City block with a central ‘Hofjes’, Jordaan, Amsterdam, 18th Century - This historic neighbourhood has many inherently sustainable qualities


An 18th-century Dutch city block is a fine example of a communal housing typology which we can take inspiration from. Tall townhouses are compacted together and divided into a mix of tenures from one bedroom apartments to grand family houses, enriching the social mix. Micro-community spaces for infant play, communal kitchens, workshops, laundry, bike parking, composting and recycling not only reduce the amount a resident possesses but encourage social interactions. Each block has a ‘Hofjes’ (courtyard) which is shared amongst the residents, containing a space for growing vegetables and a landscaped garden, sheltered from the wind. It is considered safe for children to play alone in the Hofjes, and adults - particularly elderly - relax and socialise in this tranquil, green environment. This contrasts with the lively public frontage of the street, with ground floors inhabited by businesses and nurseries. The block is a direct extension of its neighbourhood, engaging in its surroundings whilst protecting and fostering the community within. Each building has a unique personality with varying roof levels, windows size and depth, materiality and decorative features. Such variety creates a rich experience from the street, full of life and interest. Varying house styles within the order of the block could be interpreted as a metaphor for the harmonious

community of the residents living within the houses - unique in character but collectively inhabiting the world. One might suggest it is archaic to look this far back for inspiration for contemporary urban neighbourhoods, but this historic city block is a proven piece of sustainable architecture that has stood resiliently for hundreds of years. Peter Buchanan argues that a neighbourhood is ‘appropriate place to initiate the broad range of changes necessary to progress to sustainability’, as ‘much of human life takes place here, and the scale is sufficient to shape an environment in which people may enjoy richly varied lives’.32 If the shift towards living in real harmony with the planet appears too overwhelming, redefining the neighbourhood provides a strong foundation for initiating change. We can make real progress by hybridising proven typologies like the Dutch city block. Taking this example, we could improve the active and passive environmental performance in new ecological and social contexts. The block could be built using timber, meet efficient thermal standards, generate energy and produce food. We could reimagine the block as a habitat for multiple species, and part of a wider ecosystem of buildings in nature.


Conclusion This essay has shed light on the limited power of architect should they assume a traditional role within our corrupt systems. It seems that we will not make real progress until the financial system is radically reworked, replacing our destructive economy based on growth, debt and interest with systems driven by environmental and social value. Everyday activism and creativity can lead to systematic change, especially when driven by collective movements of shared intent. The paralysed city is so complex that the profession must not work in isolation. The role of the architect is to orchestrate, collaborate and educate enablers of the city to improve the agency of the sustainability movement. Architects must help by formulating a positive vision the a truly sustainable, healthy city.

In these dramatic times and with this compelling agenda we will rediscover the purpose and the integrity of architecture, urbanism, landscape and planning. How we design places has always mattered, but a new imperative of the existential threat to human life is compelling us to rethink the relationship between the built environment and the natural world. We must design cities that allow all species - from mould to mice - an opportunity to compete and continue to evolve in their habitat, creating architecture which places people in symbiotic relationships with ecosystems. With imagination, wit and verve, we can give form to these rich relationships. The challenge is not only about ecological restoration and reducing waste, we now face a time where we must evolve the social, cultural and psychological aspects of the city.



Endnotes 1 Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (MIT Press, 2018), P. 74 2 Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation (BBC, 2016) 3 The Uninhabitable Earth, (Random House US, 2019) 4 Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) 5 Ben Stubbs, Plain English guide to Sustainable Construction 6 Tom Ravenscroft, There’s something seriously wrong with IKEA’s most sustainable store (Dezeen, 2019) Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/02/28/ikea-most-sustainable-store-greenwich- 7 Greta Thunberg, Interview (Guardian 2019) Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_ continue=30&v=UJM4R01OuXw 8 Rem Koolhaas, S,M,L,XL, OMA, (The Monicelli Press, New York, 1995), P. 959/971 9 Daniel Susskind, The future of the professions: how technology will transform the work of human (Oxford University Press, 2017), P.94 10 Being Ecological, P.89 11 Peter Buchanan, Architecture and the city in the emergent era (Architektura-murator, 2019) 12 Mark DeKay, Integral Sustainable Design (Routledge, 2012), P.79 13 Integral Sustainable Design, Preface xxiii 14 Human genome project, accessed at: https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/ 15 Indy Johar, 10 provocations for the next 10 years, accessed at: https://provocations.darkmatterlabs.org/financing-civic-futures-a3a6075f31c4) 16 Rem Koolhaas (Time magazine, 2017), accessed at: dezeen.com/2016/04/22/bjarke-ingelsnamed-time-100-most-influential-people-2016-rem-koolhaas-citation/. 17 Designing a Hedonistic and Sustainable Future (Big Think 2018), accessed at: https://bigthink. com/endless-innovation/designing-a-hedonistic-and-sustainable- 18 Architecture and the city in the emergent era 19 Claire Bennie, Alternative Careers in Architecture: Architects in Development (Museum of Architecture, 2016) 20 Oliver Wainwright (Guardian 2015), accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/30/22-bishopgate-skyscraper-london-skyline-development


21 Twenty Two, accessed at: twentytwolondon.com/insidetwentytwo. 22 Being Ecological, P,203 23 George Monbiot, Frankie Boyle’s New World Order (BBC 2019), accessed at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wGscFxs6RY 24 Norman Foster interviewed by Rowan Moore (The Guardian 2015), accessed at: https://www. theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/22/norman-foster-i-have-no-power-as-an-architect-sustainability 25 Indy Johar, Towards a Future Architecture (2015), accessed at: https://medium.com/architecture-00/redesigning-architecture-7e8aeccb7dc3 26 Shoe polish factory with a conscience wins London building of the year (Guardian 2015), accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2015/may/28/foundry-riba-london-building-of-the-year 27 Alastair Parvin (Open Systems Lab, 2019), accessed at: https://www.opensystemslab.io/affordableland 28 Roger Zogolovitch, Shouldn’t We all be Developers (Artifice, London 2015), p.87 29 A.Moncaster and F. Pomponi, Circular economy for the built environment: A research framework. (Journal of Cleaner Production, 2017) P. 143, Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/ journal-of-cleaner-production 30 EU Construction & Demolition Waste Management Protocol (European Commission 2016), Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/docsroom/documents/20509/attachments/1/translations/en/renditions/ native 31 Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn (Penguin, 1995) 32 Peter Buchanan, The Big Rethink Part 3: Integral Theory (Architectural Review 2012), accessed at: architectural-review.com/essays/campaigns/the-big-rethink/the-big-rethink-part-3-integral-theory/8626996.article.


Images Fig 1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/27/the-uninhabitable-earth-review-david-wallace-wells Fig 2. https://www.dezeen.com/2019/02/28/ikea-most-sustainable-store-greenwich-sainsburys-chetwoods-opinion/ Fig 3. http://www.archidatum.com/projects/halawa-house-abdel-wahed-el-wakil/ Fig 4. https://big.dk/#projects-arc Fig 5. https://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=375557&page=856 Fig 6. https://www.dezeen.com/2015/03/09/architecture-00-office-building-social-justice-centre-vauxhall-london-pitched-roof-pavilion/ Fig 7. https://files.cargocollective.com/c186433/AffordableLand_2_2019.pdf Fig 8. New Knowledge Publication, LSA, 2019 Fig 9. https://www.swarch.co.uk/work/deborah-house-studios/ Fig 10. New Knowledge Publication, LSA, 2019 Fig 11. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/Amsterdam_-_Egelantiersgracht_14.jpg



Profile for Xavier Smales

Xavier Smales |Manifesto | Sustainability Paralysis | 2019  

Sustainability Paralysis: A practical manifesto to help heal the city

Xavier Smales |Manifesto | Sustainability Paralysis | 2019  

Sustainability Paralysis: A practical manifesto to help heal the city

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