Tackling architecture’s apathy to the climate emergency
The recent climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests have pushed the vital issue of spiralling climate change once again to the forefront of discussion. Architecture has more to contribute to tackling this issue than most professions, but it continues to feature as a sidebar in many projects. Scott McAulay, coordinator of the Anthropocene Architecture School, believes that the education system can do much more.
How should you react when the profession your heart and soul is set upon contributing to does not publicly acknowledge nor actively address the greatest existential threat to humanity’s collective future?
Even more so, what should you do when the education system supporting that profession – that you have spent five years within – does not prepare anyone to work appropriately within the context of climatic breakdown, and perpetuates a culture that actively damages the mental health of thousands within it?
Do you join the rank and file of photogenic, photorealistic nonresponse or do you speak out, stand up and openly rebel, risking unemployability but safeguarding your ideological integrity, at peace in the knowledge that you passionately advocated for doing what is best for the wellbeing of both people and the planet we rely upon?
Even better, can we put a positive spin on the latter: to invert that disenchantment and that frustration and channel it into something radical? By parodying crowd-favourite Corbusier and penning a 5-point playful manifesto to proclaim on social media platforms, I set out on my endeavour to bring architectural education into the Anthropocene epoch – the first geological epoch in which human activity is the greatest influence on the planet – and to circumnavigate the topic’s unfortunate niche. School is out for climate emergency, and the Anthropocene Architecture School has been brought to life to collectively function until it is no longer necessary.
The climate crisis that affects us all does not stop as the next episode of Our Planet loads whilst you stream it in your home warmed to an ideal 21 degrees Celsius, and it did not take a sabbatical between your A Plastic Ocean epiphany and your Blue Planet 2 final awakening. It is omnipresent, it is truly terrifying, and it is worsening. Why else would 1.5 million young people have gone on strike on the 15th of March to protest governmental inaction on climate change?
But stop for one moment, breathe slowly. What concerns you amidst climate breakdown on a personal level? Significantly, when was the last time you actively gave yourself permission to reflect upon this?
I field tested this question in the least radical way possible: whilst the architectural education system was seemingly ignoring the IPCC Report, giving us less than 12 years to stave off runaway catastrophic climate change, I was crafting a survey to collect answers and reinforce my calls for action. This survey was issued to Scottish students of architecture and has now been refined into a published 20-page report. This research identified quantifiable knowledge gaps in our curriculum regarding the teaching of sustainable practice that constitutes fundamentally good design. It identified a colossal awareness gap among students about the groups already actively involved in conservation and sustainability, and a vast disconnect in engagement between students and the world of architecture outside of their design studios. So, why is this the case?
My provocation is simply this: the contemporary architectural education system – through both academia and CPD does not equip current practitioners nor the practitioners of the future to work within the ongoing climate emergency. This must be addressed urgently. The built environment has a huge impact on our natural environment – that need not be negative, just look at the Living Building Challenge – and the architectural profession is perfectly placed to be a powerful advocate for positive action in this built environment. Yet as things stand, this potential is not realised.
Despite this, I have chosen not to reinvent the wheel. So very many incredible figures have come before me in terms of championing a more sustainable built environment, and I have been a fortunate beneficiary of an incredible depth of knowledge from many of these individuals. Many of them have galvanised and supported me in my own endeavours in the face of an education system that did not embrace my take on compassionate nor ecologically appropriate design or research. There are many ways to push beyond the limits of the education system and learn about these issues; discussions at talk and events; lessons on building sites; meeting with architects, engineers, manufacturers, and campaigners who have a wealth of knowledge of these issues; and dipping into the wide range of excellent literature that already exists on the topic.
This year the Anthropocene Architecture School will bring passionate energy and urgency to act upon climate change – and to look after our collective wellbeing as we do – to Scotland’s Architecture Fringe. This will take the form of a one-day workshop of presentations and practical engagement, supplemented by a guerrilla “Climate Breakdown Reading List” and a rolling series of blog posts in line with the three pillars of this new school; Equality and Equity, Pedagogy and Practice, and Sustainability. So, to paraphrase my favourite introduction to a book of all time: shall we dance?