Harriet Harriss, a researcher at Pratt Institute, discusses the current state and the future(?) of architecture.
Same as it ever was.
Same as it ever was?
And you may find yourself living in
a shotgun shack climate migrant refugee camp
And you may find yourself in an
other uninhabitable part of the world
And you may find yourself no longer behind the
wheel idea of an electric large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful (self-identifying) wife poisoned by the materials off-gassing in your beautiful house, built to your own specifications
And you may ask yourself – and not blame your architecture school, your profession or your government – “Well, how did I get here?”
An adaptation of Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads (1980).
Lesley Lokko’s 2023 Venice Biennale theme, the “laboratory of the future” invites a contention with two flawed assumptions. Firstly, that human beings – having initiated global ecological collapse – have any “future” at all. And secondly, that proposing a 6-month long “laboratory” – the duration of the Biennale – could result in outcomes capable of mitigating what 300,000 years of human life earth has experimentally created – a climate emergency. Whatever the prefix – laboratory, think tank, policy, product or pedagogy – a future architecture is only possible if there is a future planet. Architecture for humans may have been doggedly monospecies-privileging thus far, however, its existence entirely depends upon the co-existence of millions of other species – and, their architectures, too. And, since humans have rendered less than 2-3% of the world’s ecosystems intact, human-made, enduring architectures will need to prioritise restoring, rehabilitating or reinforcing the architectures of the few species deemed likely to survive climate collapse, given humans are not anticipated to be among them. There will still be human-centred architectures needed in the meanwhile. But so far, the anthropogenic approach to the design, build and execution of the current ecological precipice throughout history could be pithily described as the architecture to end all architectures.
Utopian laconisms such as the “laboratory of the future” prove seductive because of their ability obfuscate anthropogenic egocentrism and provide a panacea to the reality of climate grief, loss and terror. One could also argue that a “laboratory environment” describes precisely how humans have behaved towards the earth and its inhabitants thus far, rather than what humans should aspire to, especially in light of the fact that all social and ecological experiments to date have evidently failed, and the die-rates are approaching 100%. Even if humans collectively enacted an immediate ceasefire of all anthropocene activity – which would by implication include acts of architectural “creation” – it might slow things down, but science affirms that a unilateral, all-systems “collapse” is closer to an inevitability than a possibility. And, since not one of 8 billion (and counting) humans have so far offered an even faintly plausible “solution” to the self-made, selfishly-made climate “problem”, learning from other less-destructive, more adaptive species for survival intelligence seems like a reasonable approach. Unlike humans, rats are anticipated to survive climate collapse. And, while a self-anointed “apex species” may display signs of egotistical resistance towards the idea of learning from species they dismiss as “vermin”, it’s worth remembering that humans share a common ancestor and 69% of their DNA with rodents. In contrast, the “average human” (mindful of the often unspoken bias caused by Western over-consumption) will generate 90,000 pounds (45 tons) of waste over the course of a lifetime, rats feed off of waste, effectively wasting nothing. Moreover, when laboratory rats are released into the wild, even those born in captivity, they soon rediscover their wild nature. It is time that humans, having architectured the ecological conditions that require an end to the laboratory environment, could rediscover their wild waste-neutral nature, too. Beyond the experiments in monetary, military, institutional, epistemological, professional, ideological, discriminatory, exploitative and deadly infrastructures – exists a “wild” world of better architectural ideals and actions, indeed.
While all anthropos are born equal, it is a statistical fact that the majority of the people who already have been or will be disproportionately affected by climate collapse are black and brown. It is not always a matter of where they are situated in the world, economically or geographically. If they live in the northern hemisphere, structural racism means their housing is less likely to protect them from overheating than that of the white population. If they are situated within the Global South, colonial and postcolonial policies ensure that the least polluting countries absorb waste from the most polluting countries. In 1991, Lawrence Summers, the then vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, described “the dumping of a load of toxic waste” produced within the USA, “on the poorest country” as “impeccable economic logic”. This became “The Lawrence Summers’ Principle” – a term coined by Martinez-Alier (1994) and has since been summarised by what economists call “formula” as, “the poor sell cheap”. The leaked memo goes on to question why the World Bank, “shouldn’t be… encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Least Developed Countries]? […] A given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.” Such examples of environmental racism make explicit the interoperability of climate injustice and social injustice. They also account for why any architect serious in their intention to address one injustice cannot do so without addressing the other.
Climate collapse is a direct consequence of necro-capitalism’s ability to create a constant sense of everyday crisis through its wealth-polarising conflicts, the fostering of social inequities and boom-and-bust economics. The world’s billionaires – necrocapitalism’s architects – are responsible for a million times more greenhouse gas emissions than the “average” person and who have plans in place to ensure they are the least affected. In a world where the only “currencies” worth anything will be food and water and not bitcoin, no amount of retrofitting old nuclear bunkers, interplanetary colonisations, or electrocution of security guards via cervical dog collars will sustain them for too long. But in the meantime, the baddy billionaires still need – and succeed – in appointing architects willing to exercise their own interpretation of the same “impeccable economic logic” – even if it destroys the planet, and with it their profession, too.
Planet earth has witnessed five mass extinctions prior to now, but none were triggered by human activity – perhaps only due to the fact that humans had yet to exist. The Ordovician extinction took place 444 million years ago and lost 86% of all species. The Late Devonian occurred 375 million years ago during which 75% of species were lost. The third was the End Permian that took place 251 million years ago and lost 96% of species. And, the fourth was the End Triassic some 200 million years ago during which 80% of the earth’s species vanished. The final (so far) and the fifth was the End Cretaceous 66 million years ago in which 76% of all species became extinct. Consequently, science suggests that anticipating a median all-species mass extinction rate of at least 75% seems likely, even without factoring in the efforts of one species to accelerate the prerequisite temperature increase. While science cannot precisely predetermine which species will be among the estimated 25% likely to survive the 6th mass extinction, there is broad consensus that post-collapse survival rates may be tied to two main factors; size and the ability to collaborate with other species. Large mammals (similar or greater in scale than humans) have poor odds. However, many large mammals are excellent interspecies collaborators, unlike humans, who can’t enact same species’ collaboration effectively. If any humans (besides billionaires) do survive, it will only be the most cooperative. Architects’ renowned struggle with teamwork suggests they might not be many among them.
While many architects insist that architecture is at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate collapse, the reality is that architecture’s long-standing, torrid affair with cool-skinned, naked concrete – trussed up in a BDSM corset of heavily manufactured textures and technologies – continues to spawn ethically-illegitimate, energy-guzzling offspring, that infinitely demand wet-nursing through maintenance costs and repair demands. Most of the buildings’ architecture awards its prizes to are built to specifications that read like climate-crime prosecution statements. Despite the plethora of personal, professional and planetary imperatives, climate crisis neologisms and new scientific terminologies needed to understand and respond to the pan-sectoral implications of the unfolding, ecological end-game remain absent from architecture’s accreditation criteria. As a consequence, curricula continue to lack the mandate to prioritise climate crisis-essential content and remain condemned to candy-coat credibility over the cracks in architecture’s increasingly irrelevant terms and traditions. The result is an (often expensive) degree certificate that risks being (functionally) dead-on-arrival. Moreover, the long hours culture, the ongoing issues with discrimination, the persistence of unpaid internships (akin to eating the young) and the collective willingness to prioritise material aesthetics over moral integrity makes architecture a self-annihilating profession within a self-annihilating species.
While the myth of the lone starchitect is often still considered an ideal, it is climate collapse that has proven itself the more expedient, neologically-expert and portfolio-prolific starchitect of all – merrily melting 750 billion tonnes of polar ice caps annually albeit directly facilitated by humans pouring 30 billion tons of concrete each year, too. In doing so, whether it is intended as karma or irony, climate collapse is working to ensure that the entire profession becomes ultimate unpaid intern, forced to work overtime detailing the marginal minutiae of an all-systems collapse architecture prescribed by a destruction framework agreement. This might seem like a bad joke. However, a worse joke concerns the fact that the world’s 3-4 million architects have only managed to build less than 2,500 zero carbon buildings accounting for less than 0.1% of the world’s total,, and yet continue to wrongly claim that architects are “playing an important role” in actively addressing climate change. Another example of what makes climate collapse the more prolific “starchitect” is its ability to colonise spatial typologies, such as the 2021 Pacific northwest “heat dome” that killed hundreds of people and roasted over a billion sea creatures in their shells. Arguably, this dome achieved more climate “impact” than any religious or administrative dome ever has, or Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic biospheres ever will. Reckoning with this reality inspires two questions – whether architecture is even capable of even leaving the laboratory – or frankly, whether it even should.
For architects disinclined to build escapist, extraterrestrial architectures for baddy billionaires, there remain some more ethical possibilities to explore, thanks to the ability of climate collapse to turncoat from prolific starchitect into generous client. While the former seeks to colonise typologies, the latter wants new ones, demanding an exponential proliferation of cooling centres and climate refugee camps. Whatever architectures may manifest, none will be capable of sustaining human life once the atmospheric temperature makes human survival impossible. Adaptive reuse will thereafter repurpose all architectures as mortuaries or mausoleums whether architects intend them as such or not. Beyond the more bleak end-typologies, other ethical and ecologically commissions will emerge, such as designing solastalgia centres or seed banks. It is also anticipated that halting construction will not be a choice, but an inevitability, as the anticipated collapse of systems ends established supply chains. And, as food supplies to cities start to dwindle, designs that enable edible environments composed of plants and their pollinators to envelop and permeate existing architectures and infrastructures could offer immediate relief to the burgeoning numbers of urban inhabitants already contending with food insecurity. “Permaculturing” architecture – by creating mimetic, integrated, evolving systems of self-perpetuating plant and animal species could be one way to retro-fit cities with agriculturally productive capabilities.
Emanating rodents’ relationship with waste will require an end to the very concept of anything ever becoming waste in the first place. Giving agency to other species will enable “nature” to re-ground and reroot. As less and less of the world’s land mass becomes inhabitable – for example, approximately 4 of the earth’s 510 million sq. km of land is degraded or lost to desertification each year – colliding ecosystems will increase multi-species densification, making cohabitation inevitable. When faced with deadly interspecies incompatibilities, architects will be presented with an opportunity – or rather, an unavoidable responsibility – to play a collaborative role in developing the hybrid scaffolds, systems and structures needed by the multispecies that the climate emergency is already forcing to live in unnaturally close proximity to each other. Designing for non-human clients, stakeholders and end users will require new skills in “inclusive” design. Long after humans have perished, the toxic materialities of their anthropocentric edifices will not. Designing for deliberate, organic decomposition will be one way that post-human architecture contaminants could be limited or eliminated, and may yet become the greatest act of decolonisation that humans ever prove capable of.
It seems safe to assume that human communities already contending with climate collapse-facilitated poverty, fear, hunger, displacement and loss – approximately 3.6 billion people at present – will not experience a reduction in their suffering by increasing the number of zero-carbon buildings. Moreover, any profession attempting to assert that the “solution” to a climate “problem” caused by making, consuming and/or then wasting too many objects is to make more of the same objects is not a “profession” but a cult, that by definition isolate their members from friends and family on the outside (or in this example, from grounded and informed climate science communities) punish doubts or questions (with architectural tautologies) and require inordinate sacrifices and money from followers, who are closely controlled – which sums up the high cost and low remuneration of education and professional practice perfectly. Freedom from any cult – even one worthy of the working title, the Latter day Church of Formalism Fetishists – is not impossible, however. Having been urged by the architect editors of this book to inspire “designers and architects to initiate change“, it seems symptomatic of some form of anthropogenic, narcissistic malaise that the impending extinction of 8.7 million species has not yet proven “inspiration enough” – but that the “opinion” of one fellow cult member might be. According to an aggregation of cult recovery recommendations issued by support groups, the first step is always acknowledging the problem, so it makes sense to start with my own. I hereby admit that as an architect and architectural educator, I have been complicit in climate collapse. I admit that I have dedicated my life towards upholding and advancing the practices and principles of a discipline and a profession that has stubbornly remained deferential to narco-capitalist power. I admit that in efforts to distract myself from this truth, I convinced myself that educating the next generation of architects was an act of passionate protagonism and not a form of unacknowledged narcissism. And, I admit that my efforts to inject and/or advance ethics, equities and ecological responsibilities into a destructive system via the arterial veins of architecture’s curricula, scholarship or institutional leadership did not put an end to the destructive system – but instead gave it a more credible veneer, a distracting disco mirrorball of fleeting fragments, hollow of any real impact.
In light of these admissions, and, as part of my rehabilitation, I accept that the most effective responses to climate collapse are currently being achieved by other disciplines or professions and not my own. I accept that I must no longer partake in techno-utopian or pro-topian design or in other similarly addictive, mind-altering substances in efforts to avoid reality. Instead, I recognise that any design-thinking led efforts at reduction, resistance, resilience, restoration, or even re-rewilding will not be able to fully recover what has already been lost. It is only by making these admissions that it becomes possible to see how architects’ exceptional, three-dimensional problem-solving skills, could play a positive role in developing effective responses – but only if the outcome is not always and automatically a building. To insist that it should be is demeaning – and damning – of the talents, capabilities and potential for compassion within the entire profession. While it might feel as though it is “too late” for many established, older architectural educators and architects such as myself to develop expertise in other more directly useful ecologically fields, it is not too late for humans to agree to put an end to pedagogies and professional practices that perpetuate planetary pain, indirectly or otherwise. Defibrillating design thinking requires architects to become as expert at inaction as they are at action. And while defibrillators are often wrongly assumed to be able to restart a stopped heart, they cannot. What they really do is detect unnatural rhythms and only then stop the heart, giving it the agency to return to its natural rhythm. If architects are willing to resist the design impulses and allow a moment to reimagine a sense of planetary purpose, there is every hope that thereafter, architects agency can achieve ecological efficacy. By not defaulting to design “thinking”, outcomes inspired by design “feeling” become possible. The question is not what kind of architect we want to be, but what kind of ancestor we want to be.
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle
(Nothing but) Flowers, A song by Talking Heads, Composed by David Byrne.
This chapter was written in Brooklyn, New York, within the unceded homeland of the Lenape people, Lenapehoking.
Harriet Harriss is a researcher at Pratt Institute and a former Dean of the Pratt School of Architecture in New York. She led the Architecture Research Programs at the Royal College of Art in London. Her teaching, research, and writing focus on pioneering new pedagogic models for design education, and for widening participation in architecture to ensure it remains as diverse as the society it seeks to serve. Harriss has won various awards including a Brookes Teaching Fellowship, a Higher Education Academy Internationalisation Award, a Churchill Fellowship, two Santander Fellowships, two Diawa awards, and a NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and Art) Pioneer Award. Harriss was awarded a Clore Fellowship for cultural leadership (2016–17) and elected to the European Association of Architectural Education Council in 2017.
 Carrington, D. (2021). Just 3% of world’s ecosystems remain intact, study suggests. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/15/just-3-of-worlds-ecosystems-remain-intact-study-suggests
 Bryce, E. (2023). Which animals are most likely to survive climate change? Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/which-animals-will-survive-climate-change
 Brucker, D. (2023). 40 Reasons to Think Differently About Your Trash: Facts, Statistics, & More. Rubicon. https://www.rubicon.com/blog/trash-reason-statistics-facts. By another metric, we produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items. That is nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. (Lindwall, C. (2020). Single-Use Plastics 101. NRDC. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101).
 Harvard Magazine (2001). Toxic Memo. https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2001/05/toxic-memo.html
 Lawrence Summers’ Principle. ejolt. http://www.ejolt.org/2013/02/lawrence-summers%E2%80%99-principle
 LeVine, M. (2020). From neoliberalism to necrocapitalism in 20 years. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/7/15/from-neoliberalism-to-necrocapitalism-in-20-years
Askew, J. (2022). Billionaires responsible for million times more emissions than average person, Oxfam report finds. Euronews Green. https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/11/08/billionaires-responsible-for-million-times-more-emissions-than-average-person-oxfam-report
 Rushkoff, D. (2022). The super-rich ‘preppers’ planning to save themselves from the apocalypse. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2022/sep/04/super-rich-prepper-bunkers-apocalypse-survival-richest-rushkoff
 Savedge, J. (2022). 10 Examples of Animal Species Working Together in the Wild. Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/animal-species-working-together-in-wild-1140809
 For example, the Latham Report (1994), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latham_Report and see also the Egan Report (1998), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egan_Report.
 Nelson Rosario, R. B. (2022). Impact of Architecture on Climate-Change and Global Warming. Rethinking The Future. https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/architectural-community/a7924-impact-of-architecture-on-climate-change-and-global-warming
 Ravenscroft, T. (2022). Stirling Prize shortlist “promotes architecture that pollutes the planet” claims ACAN. Dezeen. https://www.dezeen.com/2022/07/27/stirling-prize-unsustainable-architects-climate-action-network/
 A whopping 750 billion tons of ice is melting every year due to global warming. The World Counts. https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/climate-change/global-warming/the-melting-ice-caps
 Nature (2021). Concrete needs to lose its colossal carbon footprint. Nature 597 Editorial. Springer Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02612-5
 Brady, R. (2021). How Many Architects Are There in the World?. Architizer. https://architizer.com/blog/inspiration/industry/how-many-architects-are-in-the-world
 As captured in the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), there are currently 500 net zero commercial buildings and 2,000 net zero homes around the globe (well under 1 per cent of all buildings worldwide) (World Green Building Council (2017). Every building on the planet must be ‘net zero carbon’ by 2050 to keep global warming below 2°C – New report. https://worldgbc.org/article/every-building-on-the-planet-must-be-net-zero-carbon-by-2050-to-keep-global-warming-below-2c-new-report).
 Richardson, J. (2023). How Architects Are Supporting the Fight Against Climate Change. The Renewable Energy Hub. https://www.renewableenergyhub.co.uk/blog/how-architects-are-supporting-the-fight-against-climate-change
 This would have been “virtually impossible” if human activity had not heated the planet ( Milman, O., Witherspoon, A., Liu, R. and Chang, A. (2021). The climate disaster is here. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2021/oct/14/climate-change-happening-now-stats-graphs-maps-cop26).
 Squire, R., Adey, P. and Jensen, R.B. (2018). Dome, sweet home: climate shelters past, present and future. Springer Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07513-8
 Solastalgia is a neologism formed by the combination of the Latin words “sōlācium” and the Greek root “-algia” and describes a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solastalgia).
 Mollison, B. and Holmgren, D. (1978). Permaculture One, Corgi Press, p.1.
 A third of the world’s land surface is threatened by desertification. The World Counts. https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/planet-earth/forests-and-deserts/global-land-degradation
 Haines, A. (2022). Expert comment – Over 40% of the world’s population are “highly vulnerable” to climate. London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. https://www.lshtm.ac.uk/newsevents/news/2022/expert-comment-over-40-worlds-population-are-highly-vulnerable-climate
 Biodiversity. National Geographic Society. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/biodiversity