Incessant bickering between advocates of classical and modernist architecture is an unhelpful distraction in the face of the climate emergency, which requires us to escape both, writes Barnabas Calder.
Last week, the century-old tussle between modernism and historicism reared its tired old head again after a British government minister backed a report advocating a more “tradition”-friendly new school of architecture. But in the bright light of climate emergency, it is clear that both sides in this venerable battle of the styles are equally wrong.
We all know that buildings account for 39 percent of anthropogenic carbon emissions worldwide, and that we must radically and urgently reduce both operational and embodied carbon if we are to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels.
There is only one crucial divide in architecture: architecture that depends on heavy fossil fuel inputs, and architecture that does not
So it is time to recognize that there is only one crucial divide in architecture: architecture that is dependent on heavy fossil fuel inputs, and architecture that is not. Georgian terraces and Brutalist towers, Victorian Gothic and Foster’s Bloomberg headquarters – all are part of the same architectural movement: Fossil Fuel. And we need to escape it quickly.
Fossil fuel – architecture dependent for its creation and operation on coal, oil or gas – is the strange exception in architectural history. For millennia, people have built with muscle power as the main input. Whenever possible, they avoided using heat from rare, slow-growing, expensive firewood. Heat-treated materials such as fired brick or metals were used when overwhelming technical reasons required it, or when a wealthy client such as the Shah of Iran really wanted to show off, as in the case of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque’s extravagant tiles.
More representative were the well-known carpentry traditions, whether Japanese, Chinese, Maori or Tudor, which developed extraordinary ingenuity and skill to avoid the heat costs of making metal nails. The use of glass for windows was an outrageous luxury reserved for the most powerful and wealthy.
People in areas without local building brick accepted the ongoing maintenance obligations of mud brick and thatched roofs rather than spend scarce heat on long-lasting fired brick and tiles.
In the absence of diesel trucks, almost all materials were sourced very locally. Roman emperors boasted of bringing beautiful stone long distances to decorate their most important projects, but even this was only a thin skin over a building made up of more local materials. Seventy-six percent of the baths of Caracalla’s volume of material came from within 20 kilometers of his site in the center of the world’s largest metropolis. Only 0.5 percent of the building was actually composed of the fancy marble in which it was covered.
London’s rebuilding after the Great Fire released around 300,000 tonnes of embodied carbon
In completed buildings, comfort was achieved by negotiating with the climate: in hot places siestas may be necessary, with social and work life in the cooler hours. In cold places, people wrapped themselves in warm clothes and warmed themselves by gathering around a precious fire, rather than heating all the air in the building to an unchanging “thermal beige”.
This all changed in 17th-century London, where increasing availability of cheap coal from Newcastle, and the Great Fire of 1666, led to the deliberate adoption of a new energy-hungry architecture: coal-fired brick, coal-calcined lime mortar and coal -glass windows. The resulting houses were heated through the long, cold winters by open fires that burned more coal, with 90 percent of the cheap heat disappearing down the chimney.
London’s rebuilding after the Great Fire released about 300,000 tonnes of embodied carbon from brick and lime production, and domestic coal consumption in the city produced about 600,000 tonnes of emissions per year by the 1670s for a population of half a million.
Over the next three and a half centuries, the range of things that fossil fuels can make our buildings do has increased, but the fundamentals remain the same. It is architecture built from materials that are made through the consumption of large amounts of energy, and which an increasingly narrow definition of “comfort” for those inside, through heavy operational energy input.
Even most of the architecture that scores high through our sustainability rating systems depends on heat-hungry production processes for concrete, steel, aluminum, plastic and excessive glazing, very often with HVAC systems that keep pumping away inside, albeit somewhat more efficiently than a few decades ago.
In this context, the British version of the battle between “tradition” and “modernism” seems absurd: Georgian architecture is not traditional at all, but the founding phase of modernism – the first generation of architecture completely and cheerfully dependent on heavy use. of cheap fossil fuels.
Georgian architecture is not traditional at all, but the founding phase of modernism
If we want to learn about traditional architecture, we must either look further back in the history of long-industrialized countries – Tudor and medieval English architecture, for example, was mostly truly circular, renewable, zero-carbon and low-energy – or look to areas of the world whose dependence on fossil fuels has arrived more recently, and whose traditions therefore survive.
The extraordinary work of Yasmeen Lari’s Heritage Foundation of Pakistan is leading the way: it helps rural people in Pakistan build new housing after natural disasters, using local funding and very low-carbon techniques and materials – earth, bamboo and a little lime
If some of the poorest people on earth, who have contributed the least to the climate emergency, can build very low-carbon housing in their time of greatest need, how much more should we in the rich world increase our efforts to legislate, design and build for radical carbon reduction?
We don’t need to go back to pre-fossil fuel discomforts, let alone dangers. Our material understanding is much greater – the options for what Michael Ramage describes as a “vegetarian diet” for architecture are growing every month through excellent research and experimentation.
And even if we switch off fossil fuels tomorrow, our renewable electricity sources will make us far more energy rich than our ancestors. But we must of all ask the fundamental question: “how can it be decarbonized?”, and be governed by the answer, whether it requires regulation, self-control, technical change or lifestyle adaptation.
We all have something to contribute to this great and exciting challenge. Fossil fuel enthusiasts have things to offer in learning how to adapt architecture to rapid shifts in energy systems, as Fossil fuels have repeatedly done over 450 years of ever-accelerating change. Experts in pre-fossil fuel traditions have lessons to teach us about the sustainable use of low-energy materials, and about achieving comfort without such heavy energy inputs.
This is no time to be distracted by arguments between modernists and neo-Georgians over whose inadequately shaded windows are prettier. There are bigger issues at stake.
Barnabas Calder is Head of the Architectural and Urban History Research Group at the University of Liverpool, and author of Architecture: From Prehistory To Climate Emergency and Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism. He is a trustee of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain.
The photography is by Siddhant Kumar via Unsplash.