Restorative City

A New Movement in Architecture for a Post-Climate Change World

This is an exciting moment for architects.  We are at a philosophical turning point between pre-climate change and post-climate change eras.  With Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ hitting the screens this autumn, the tide may finally turn from scepticism to acceptance – climate change caused by humans is a fact, and is likely to have a huge impact within our lifetimes.  We need solutions, and we need them fast.

Just as the industrial revolution brought modernism, so climate change will bring a new urban aesthetic.  I have always argued that sustainable architecture, far from being an architecture of constraint, opens up boundless possibilities for unbridled creativity – and an imperative to build more, not less.  Architects are uniquely placed to find solutions to climate change, for two reasons.

Firstly, a major barrier to engagement is complexity.  Sustainability issues such as climate change are vast and nebulous, there are few black-and-white answers.  But as architects, we are used to finding clarity in complexity.  We are used to thinking creatively and tangentially to overcome problems, and finding ways to make progress despite incomplete information and shifting contexts.

The second reason is that architects excel at visual communication.  The climate change movement lacks visible, seductive solutions, and it desperately needs them if it is to stop people jumping straight from doubt to despair, and inspire them to take action.  Al Gore quotes architect Daniel Burnham saying:  “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Architects can deliver the vision, but we need to change our thinking.  We don’t respond well to calls for ‘less of this’ and ‘restraint on that’.  It simply doesn’t fit our culture, our economy, the way our brains work.  It’s boring.  We want to be heroes (and heroines), we want to use our agency and our creativity to make things, to do more, not less.  No wonder the current policies of incremental restraint – Part L, BREEAM – leave us cold.  They remind me of the spoof chant for a rally of moderationists:

Speaker:        “What do we want?”

Crowd:           “Incremental change!”

Speaker:        “When do we want it?”

Crowd:           “In due course!”

Our current policies are too little, too late.  Look at the figures.  We need to reduce our emissions by 60% by 2020 as a minimum, to slow down global warming, let alone reverse it.  Clearly, a 10% improvement in new build efficiency or 20% onsite renewables are not enough.  What’s worse, they lull us into thinking we’re tackling the problem.

Even zero-energy buildings and cities don’t solve the problem – sorry Bill, Ken, and the Dongtan team – although they’re a leap in the right direction.  Rather than looking to ‘build the same as we did before but 10% less damaging’, or even ‘build something that will do no harm’, we actually need to build things that restore the environment.  We need every new building, every new road and public space and lamppost to be compensating for the existing stock.

 So I see your Zero-Emission City and I raise you Restorative City, a city which absorbs carbon dioxide and pollution as fast as the ‘old cities’ can churn it out.  It’s not pie-in-the-sky – we already have exterior wall paint that absorbs vehicle pollutants, and buildings with a larger area of green roof than their footprint (think folding).  Once building envelopes are net absorbers of carbon, we will design for maximum surface area, taking cues from lung capillaries and roots.  Our designs will be radically transformed.

Suppose the UK set out to achieve a carbon-neutral built environment in one year.  We replace about 5% of the building stock each year, so these new buildings would need to absorb the emissions of the other 95% – creating not 10%, not 20% or even 100% of their own energy needs through renewables, but 2000%.  Ludicrous?  Impossible?  Or a tempting challenge?

I invite you to suspend your disbelief and take a cue from  Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss inventor who beat Richard Branson around the world in his balloon.  Is he sitting at home whining about new regulations?  Is he hell, he’s out there designing a solar plane, due for its maiden flight in two years’ time.

In a decade we went from seeing eco-architecture as ugly and freakish, to BedZed, to zero-carbon cities.  And now, Restorative City.  So perhaps we can find and implement solutions to climate change before it’s too late.  We have to believe we can, and get busy designing, because the only other option is to give up, jump on the next sleazyjet flight to see the last remote corners of the earth before they are flooded or melt, and book a frontrow seat for the apocalypse.

Pascale Scheurer MA(Cantab) DipArch MSc RIBA

September 20th 2006

Pascale Scheurer is a Chartered Architect and Director of Seductive Sustainability, which she runs in collaboration with Holly Porter.  Seductive Sustainability creates and promotes pioneering seductive and sustainable architecture for 21st Century living.  We believe that sustainable design does not need to be dull, expensive, confusing or ugly – it can surprise and delight its users while not costing the earth.  We offer services in consultancy and design for individuals, companies and public institutions on all scales – from private houses to whole cities.

© Surface to Air ltd 2006.

Seductive Sustainability and Restorative City are trademarks of Surface to Air ltd.

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