Architects declared, when will designers? 18.03.20

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Emmet pexels scrap metal trash litter scrapyard 128421A scrapyard full of discarded metal. Image by Emmet, courtesy of Pexels

As architects and designers grapple with the climate emergency, the latter are being too individualistic in their approach. It’s time for collective action, argues Peter Smisek

Architects, it seems, are at last catching up with the fact that their profession is complicit in a construction industry responsible for 40 per cent of global carbon emissions. Last year, 17 major UK practices – including Alison Brooks Architects, AL_A, David Chipperfield Architects, Foster + Partners, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, WilkinsonEyre and Zaha Hadid Architects – signed up to Architects Declare, a charter demanding a paradigm shift to tackle the industry’s carbon footprint and its responsibility for the loss of biodiversity worldwide. 

Almost 900 other international practices have signed the call to arms so far, ranging from the global giants NBBJ and AECOM to more modest and modish small-scale practices such as PUP Architects and Assemble. The charter outlines concrete steps architects should be taking – such as upgrading existing structures, sharing knowledge, including life-cycle costing in their proposals and collaborating with clients and engineers to reduce construction waste. 

Sadly, these principles do not always chime with the architects’ actions. A number of the aforementioned firms are responsible for delivering new airports and airport expansions, for instance. But there is something impressive about the profession coming together and endorsing collective action.  

Similarly, the RetroFirst campaign, launched last September by the Architects’ Journal, has been gathering steam, and is now supported by over 100 British practices. Its scope is somewhat narrower, but all the more focused. The initiative calls on the government to cut VAT on refurbishments from 20% to 5% and promote reuse by adopting new building and planning regulation. It also insists that public projects should look to refurbishment before considering demolition. That the government might not be listening is sadly predictable. But the collective spirit of architectural endeavour is evident. 

Quang Nguyen Vinh Pexels building canes 2138126Construction and the built environment is responsible for 40 per cent of the world's carbon emmissions. Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh, courtesy of Pexels

This is not so when it comes to design. Which is not to say that designers don’t care about environment or sustainable practice. In our last issue, Icon 199, we highlighted the work of Marjan van Aubel, a pioneer of combing aesthetics and photovoltaics, or Klarebneek & Dros, a material research studio working on new circular economies. In fact, Icon devoted a whole issue to circular economy last year (Icon 195). These efforts are not just a fad either.  

In 2015, Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouweburg launched Beyond the New, an all-encompassing manifesto that aims to look beyond novelty for novelty’s sake and asks for renewed rigour and commitment to functionality and social and environmental causes. But it seems to have no signatories other than Jongerius and Schouweburg. Dieter Rams may be famous for his ‘Weniger, aber besser’ (less but better) approach, but this is the title of a Gestalten coffee table book devoted to his work, rather than an active, collective campaign that other practitioners have enthusiastically and publicly subscribed to. 

The Design Council’s Head of Programmes, Sarah Mann, points out that designers are individually contributing to efforts to tackle the climate emergency, whether as part of their practice or by lending their skills to organisations such as the Extinction Rebellion. ‘But there is no coordinated response right now,’ she admits.

‘The existence of independent institutions such as the RIBA and the Architects’ Journal put [architects] in a good position to take strong positions on these matters,’ says Brendan Cormier, Senior Design Curator at the V&A. Like Mann, he is unaware of an ongoing collective action by designers.  

But there is more to taking collective action than just relying on bonds forged by existing institutions. ‘Given the diversity of disciplines across design, from service and systems, graphic and UX to furniture and product (and everything in between) and its application and representation across huge sectors such as academia, business, public sector and culture I think a collective response and action is more difficult than it might be for architecture,’ Mann points out.  

Alex Fu Pexels garbage lot 2967770Complexity of design profession and globalisation make coordinated action on common sustainable standards difficult. Photo by Alex Fu, courtesy of Pexels

It is true that there is a complexity and breadth within the design profession which cannot be easily held to a single ethical standard. This is further complicated – at least when it comes to furniture design – by ‘globalisation, increasingly Byzantine supply chains, and e-commerce which often obscures the company, manufacturer, and source of the goods you’re buying,’ Cormier adds. Once again, individual initiatives tackling these very issues, such as the Fairphone – a repairable smartphone which uses ethically sourced materials – come to mind. 

The good news is that designers’ individual approaches have already produced a rich toolbox. Yes, the level of complexity – which must encompass the diversity of disciplines, while allowing for the most appropriate response from each – is immense. ‘However – complexity is not an excuse,’ says Mann. ‘We should be mobilising as a sector, the question is how!’

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Sarah Mann’s statement in full: 

Organisations such as Julie’s Bicycle have successfully bought together the arts sector to address the climate crisis and we know that many designers are lending their skills to Extinction Rebellion. But there is no coordinated response right now.

If we designed our way into a climate crisis through a system of mass consumption and production, the question is how we work together to design new systems, products and services which support the planet. Design’s diverse approaches and skills could be at the forefront of developing new materials, services and systems to be restorative and regenerative but its strength will be in working together.

Given the diversity of disciplines across design, from service and systems, graphic and UX to furniture and product (and everything in between) and its application and representation across huge sectors such as academia, business, public sector and culture I think a collective response and action is more difficult than it might be for architecture. However – complexity is not an excuse. We should be mobilising as a sector, the question is how! 

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