Architects cannot save the planet
Austin Williams | 13 July 2007
In a recent public statement by the chairman of BDP, the largest firm of architects in the UK, Tony McGuirk claims that architects long for a ‘far more positive social role.’ It all sounds very caring, until you realise that in today’s parlance, a ‘positive social role’ means that architects want to interfere more. It is really a shorthand for wanting to improve the behaviour, ethics and attitudes of the general public. But what the hell have public morals got to do with architects? All too often, architects pontificate about encouraging responsible behaviour, regenerating communities, protecting the environment and even eradicating obesity, but in their professional capacity it’s about time that architects got off their high horse, minded their own business and shut up about saving the world.
I hate to break it to a profession that prides itself on its social conscience, but architecture ain’t politics. Homelessness was never solved by an innovative prefab; poverty won’t be tackled by design quality indicators; and unemployment isn’t beaten by the aesthetics of a hi-tech factory. In fact there’s almost no causal link from urban design to social inequality. But architects are so full of self-doubt that they think that they’re morally culpable. Contractors aren’t much better.
In fact, almost everyone involved in the profession automatically assumes that construction activity will cause harm, in preference to the historic belief that is a social boon. For example, for the first time in human history, half the world’s population now lives in cities and yet, instead of a celebration of the new design and development opportunities that this brings across the world, the construction industry, and society at large, seems wracked with doubt as to whether such growth is a good thing. Instead, we assume the worst.
Similarly, the idea that architects should minimise their impact on the planet represents a pathetic inability to defend architecture in its own terms. Practically all architectural debate now centres on zero emissions, environmental impacts, green roofs and brownfields; no-car housing; solar panels; mud bricks or local labour. Architecture for its own sake barely gets a mention. Even tall buildings are defended in terms of the minimal amount of land area they take up. It is increasingly the case that if you can show that the building is ‘sustainable’ it is automatically deemed to be ‘good’. Artistically repugnant projects can be excused provided that they can prove that they have reduced, recycled and reused. As a result, architecture has become horribly small-minded, bureaucratic and lazy.
Frequently, this state of affairs is disguised by the fact that architects – and even construction companies – compensate for their inability to justify their core activity by inventing spurious measures of their ‘social role’. Millions are spent on sustainability strategies; energy assessments; carbon consultancies; benchmarking exercises; environmental indicators; green-certification projects and eco-audits. It’s all nonsense. It’s about time that sustainability auditors were told to take a flying leap, and the construction industry got on with building something interesting.