Daniel Barber reflects on the discussion surrounding architecture, climate and equity. He shares books, papers and resources that trace the slow but definitive decline of ‘sustainability’ and looks to the future for new forms of practice.

I’ve just moved into a new office and have been unpacking my books from a few different shipments: a container we sent from Philadelphia, where I taught for a decade until late 2020, with books I put into storage in 2020; and a smaller shipment from Berlin, where I was living for a few years ‘on the way’ to Sydney. A bit of a pandemic saga not worth revisiting, but which gave me some snapshots of a shift in the literature, or really literatures, concerned with architecture and the environment over the past five years or so.

A window, in other words, into some texts that evidence the ongoing collective struggle to understand the changing role for architects, designers and scholars of the built environment more broadly, as the crisis of equity has increased. A crisis placed in relief by Covid, but of course with much deeper roots, as we confront the entangled challenge of decarbonisation, decolonisation, and the searing inequities of housing affordability. Again, what is the role for architecture? Decades of insisting that capital has overwhelmed the design fields is no less potent, but increasingly inadequate.

So unpacking boxes of books, many harvested from library reject piles twenty years ago (and published decades before that), others straight off bespoke architecture bookstore shelves. They trace, more than anything, the slow but definitive demise of ‘sustainability’. It seems almost cute, today, to look back at Peter Buchanan’s Ten Shades of Green: Architecture and the Natural World (2006), or Catherine Slessor’s Eco-Tech: Sustainable Architecture and High Technology (1997). Brilliant and ground-breaking in their moment, flipping through them today one gets a sense that the dreams of techno-solutionism embedded in them have become our contemporary nightmare.

Sustainability, as many are now arguing, has not worked – the evidence is obvious, carbon emissions from the industry have increased, are still increasing. Buildings were going to save us, but they didn’t. So now we have to save ourselves.

So, what’s next? And how do the tense conditions of the present shift the way we see the recent and slightly more distant past? I’ve offered two collections below that consider these questions, or little slivers of them, pursuant both to my current historical and theoretical research, and also my new position as Head of School, Architecture at UTS – where the discussion of architecture, climate and equity has been, and where it might be going.

Two frameworks for now:

  1. sufficiency, instead of efficiency, a recent paradigm shift at the policy level, that I have read back a little in to the past;
  2. what are the new forms of practice suggested by the end of sustainability? Foremost, an expansion of ‘practice’ as a concept for architecture, not only what goes on in an office, but also how a building is occupied, lived in, transformed through use. So, practice as well in the sense of practising yoga or playing an instrument – we are trying to do better.

Also, keep your eyes open for a new series on e-flux architecture: “After Comfort: A User’s Guide”, which I am co-editing with Jeannette Kuo, Ola Uduku, Thomas Auer and Nick Axel. Should start appearing in your inbox (subscribe to e-flux!) in mid-October.

Daniel Barber – Professor and Head of School of Architecture, UTS

The sufficiency imperative

The IPCC Mitigation Report
M. Pathak, R. Slade, P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Pichs-Madruga, D. Ürge-Vorsatz, “Technical Summary” in: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)] (Cambridge University Press: 2022), 71

The Technical Summary of Chapter 6: the Building Industry. Required reading in the field! It includes three central points:

  1. that if a building specifies reliance on carbon energy it is a ‘lock-in’ building and is encouraging oil infrastructures and carbon-dependent paths;
  2. that architecture’s reliance on piecemeal gains through efficiency needs to shift to sufficiency measures; and
  3. that now is the time for industry upskilling on these terms.

Two calls for sufficiency in the building industry, with a thoughtful approach for thinking about the urgency of sufficiency measures in over-industrialised economies in particular. Both are engaged with the details of urban practices and policy, seeking to find workable means to alter business-as-usual approaches.

Towards Sufficiency and Solidarity: COP27 Implications for construction and property
David Ness, in Buildings and Cities 3:1 (2022): 912–919.

COP26: Sufficiency should be First
Yamina Saheb, in Buildings and Cities 2:2 (2021) online commentary.

Sufficiency and degrowth. A large body of literature dispels the notion that ‘degrowth’ equals scarcity, but rather involves creative distribution of resources. It’s a line we all need to cross.

The Overdeveloped Nations: Diseconomies of Scale
Leopold Kohr (Schocken, 1977)

Kohr was an Austrian economist based in Puerto Rico, interested in adding friction to post-war development narratives – why not encourage an island economy, for example, rather than encourage dependance? He loved architectural metaphors, especially derisive of the ‘skyscraper economy’ that always sought to go higher, with benefits only accruing to the few. Kohr was the mentor of E.F. Schumacher, author of the better known Small is Beautiful.

Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World
Jason Hickel (Penguin, 2020)

This accessible version of the degrowth debate can be good for those (there are many) who are startled at the premise.

Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism
Kate Soper (Verso 2020)

Soper does an amazing re-think of prosperity – what it means, why it is desirable, how it can be distributed, all rooted in a “disenchantment with consumerism”. Not the Bjarke Ingels version of hedonistic sustainability (can we call him an enchanter of consumerism?), rather a stark look at the contradictions in environmentalisms that don’t take the accumulation of stuff into account.

Further reading in suffiency, historically and more recently

Too much house? Thoreau, Le Corbusier and the Sustainable Cabin
Urs Peter Fluckinger (Birkhauser, 2016)

The book reviews, through extensive drawings and photographs, three houses: Thoreaus’s House on Walden Pond (1845), Le Corbusier’s Le Cabanon on the côte d’azur (1952), and a prefab sustainable house built by students and faculty (including the author) at Texas Tech University in 2008. The comparative analysis is compelling in laying out the changing valence of technology over these 150 years, while implicitly demonstrating a straightforward set of ‘needs’ that a house can address.

The Minimum Dwelling
Karl Teige (MIT Press, 2002)

Daniel A. Barber, “Architecture and Sufficiency: A Case Study in Applied History”, forthcoming in Art Papers 2023

New forms of practice

Elizabeth Shove is the global specialist on the sociology of practice, and she and her colleagues are focused on the issue from many dimensions of relevance to our field – including practices of occupation and building management, and nuanced analyses of how energy regulations are ‘put into practice’ or not. Just one of her many great texts: Elizabeth Shove, Matt Watson & Nicole Spurling, “Conceptualizing connections: Energy demand, infrastructures and social practices”, in European Journal of Social Theory 18:3.

“On Hypo-Real Models or Global Climate Change: A Challenge for the Humanities”
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in Critical Inquiry vol. 41, no. 3 (Spring 2015): 675–703

This essay explores the challenge of managing knowledge in the Anthropocene – does it matter if climate deniers are ‘wrong’ if they still have ‘facts’ and models that substantiate their position? And what is the role of situated knowledge, and of habits and practices, in reframing prospects for the future?

More on habits and practices

What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use
Sarah Ahmed (Duke UP, 2016)

Shared Habits: A Cultural Inquiry into Living Space and their Inhabitants
Ursula Damm and Mindaugas Gapševičius, editors (transcript verlag, 2021)

Life Indoors: How our Homes are Shaping our Bodies and our Planet
Rachael Wakefield-Rann (Palgrave MacMillan 2021)

A stark and engaging analysis of the toxicity of the materials we build with and the air we breathe, ending with a refreshing call for a relational approach to life indoors. The book turns on their heads many assumptions about environmental and air quality management – one of a number of examples of a text seemingly adjacent to architecture that nonetheless bears directly on daily concerns in the field.