As the world shudders in the face of the Trump Administration rejection of the Paris Climate Accords, other forms of expertise and professional engagement are, again, taking on increased relevance. Buildings have long been important mediators in the relationship between energy, politics, and culture. Today, in the face of policies of retreat, the architecture, engineering, and construction professions are increasingly compelled to take on energy efficiency, and the burden and opportunity of managing carbon emissions.
On the one hand, this is a very challenging prospect—a recent report from the World Green Building Council concludes that, in order to maintain the Paris-mandated target of holding to a 2° Celsius global temperature increase, every building in the world needs to be carbon-neutral by 2050. A daunting task, to be sure, and one that far exceeds, in its policy and social implications, the purview of architectural designers.
On the other hand, there is a long history of architectural innovations that bring together concerns over energy efficiency, government policy, and new cultural opportunities. In the years just after World War II, policy makers, scientists, and architects were interested in understanding the role of energy in the more intensely globalized economic and political world. One of the first projects of UNESCO was the convening of the 1949 UN Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources (UNCCUR) in Lake Success, New York, a three-week conference that looked at a range of materials and technologies. Solar energy was already playing an important, if largely symbolic role: then-Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug opened the conference, as the New York Times reported, by insisting that solar energy should be “high on the list of possibilities that might have a tremendous bearing on the resources of the country.” This was just one of many episodes and discussions that cultivated a culture of interest in alternative energy technologies—a 1953 article in Fortune decried the “strange socio-industrial lethargy” that prevented more focused research on alternative technologies.
Buildings and architects were at the center of these debates. A number of architects presented solar houses at UNSCCUR, including Maria Telkes’ innovative system of using chemical compounds for solar heat storage (now known as Phase-Change Materials); the Fortune article also included a solar ranch house that grew algae as a food source on its roof. Architecture—especially the design of houses—was seen as one of the most immediately applicable ways of taking advantage of energy from the sun: because of the synergy between solar design strategies and the received tenets of architectural modernism; the expansion into the open lots of the suburbs allowed for optimal solar orientation; and because new styles in architecture were seen to be symbolic of the “good life”—a brighter, more liberated social and economic future.
These histories suggest that cultural innovations can project us towards a workable future, even what that future is not yet attainable technologically. The difference today is that we have the technology we need but lack, to some extent, the cultural desire and, at least at the federal level, the cultural will.
This is not to say that we should expect too much from architects—if anything, the political rise of the developer class further challenges the ethical and political commitments of the field. Architects tend to follow the trajectories of capital. But the profession can aspire to (and citizens can encourage) offer new ideas about the built environment, its form and its systems, that bring us closer to a carbon-neutral future. And of course, after Trump’s withdrawal, there has been a surge of cities, states, and corporations anxious to renew and increase their own commitments to collaborative solutions for climate change mitigation. If there are lots of trajectories for architects to follow, there is also an opportunity for architects to lead – to insist on zero-carbon buildings even without policy incentives or regulatory support.
Or even better, to use the dynamic aesthetic and material skills of the field to imagine and build a post-carbon future. Many architects and many architecture schools are still caught up in debates about form-making, a sort of long postmodern hangover, rather than focused on new spatial and technological conditions of a climate threatened future. Perhaps this latest threat to global climate stability, and the dramatic economic and social changes it implies, will bring to light the cultural opportunity now available amongst designers and their potential clients. An opportunity to direct architectural thinking more resolutely towards facilitating a culture of environmental transformation, towards building a consensus around the necessity of directly addressing climate change.
Headline image credit: skyline by Adam Detrick. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.