Letter from London: COP26 – where do we go from here?

COP26 – where do we go from here?

8 November 2021, Paul Finch

As a prequel to COP26, and to coincide with the current architectural biennale, the US-based Design Intelligence group hosted a two-city event in Rome then Venice, discussing the sustainability and its implications for architecture and architects.

A broad spectrum of practitioners, teachers and observers talked and debated for a week, taking as one cue the 16 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). Some of these are so broad as to be beyond the scope of usual architectural activity – for example ‘no poverty’ or ‘zero hunger’. Others are clearly highly relevant, including ‘sustainable cities and communities’, while others most certainly include an architectural element: ‘good health and well-being’; ‘quality education’ or ‘industry innovation and infrastructure’.

Much of the subject matter of the SDGs covers the same territory as the WAFX Awards which we launched in 2017 to mark our tenth anniversary. The intention of the awards was and is to celebrate future projects which seem to us to represent an exemplary approach to the social and environment problems we face today and are likely to continue to face over the coming decades.

It is the contribution which architecture can make which is the important thing, not the kind of arrogant assumption that a single discipline or profession can or should take sole responsibility for resolving great problems. Well designed schools are of course a social good, but on their own cannot guarantee good education. What about the quality of teachers?

Similarly, even in respect of buildings and cities, architecture on its own is unlikely to address fully the scale of what is required. Planners, engineers, ecologists, landscape architects and a myriad other groups will need to make a contribution.

It is precisely the variety of people and institutions, including finance and government, which make the task of creating a sustainable world so complex – even if the biggest carbon producers were on board with the ideas broadly adopted in Glasgow, which they aren’t. Whatever individual countries may undertake or achieve over the next few decades, global temperatures look set to rise while those big polluters work at their own pace to join the rest of the world in commitment to low-carbon futures.

In these circumstances, it may be that one of the potential roles that architects and designers might play is that of synthesiser: that is to say playing an active role in designing the nature of the collaboration which will be required to achieve desired outcomes. Thus far this potential has neither been exploited nor proposed in any sort of vigorous way, but as fiver years of WAFX winning proposals have shown, it is the synthesis of old and new, generation and regeneration, and the pursuit of ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’ that demonstrates the ability of architects to thinking in the broadest way.

The title of the Venice biennale, ‘How will we live together’, is rather too predictive given the inevitable uncertainties which should properly inform any discussion about what is going to happen between now and 2050. The 2008 financial crash and the 2020 pandemic should surely have expelled any idea that we can predict the future with confidence; the biennale title would be better if it were how should we, or how might we live together.

Architecture’s potential role in this is the subject of the biennale, and is as varied in content and tone as might be expected. One could conclude that the big issues facing us will influence architecture and architects, but in turn the propositions from architects and other designers may have an effect on society at large – a story of both reception and transmission.

For practices and individuals, all this will be influenced by an attitude to values, ethics and morals, and what this might mean in respect of adopting, for example, one or several of those UN SDGs as part of practice mission. Design Intelligence has smart ideas about how practices might pursue this, and is currently in discussions with many US practices. Let’s see what emerges.

The precautionary principle is as important as ever

Given the likely increase in global temperatures resulting from a failure to decarbonise sufficiently quickly, in turn the result (partly) of major economies operating at difficult stages of an economic cycle, the smart move for all of us is to think about protection, as well as mitigation and adaptation.

It has puzzled me for many years that having built a barrier across the Thames to protect London from flooding, we have failed to make plans for the necessary second barrier. Judging by the speed at which the UK makes decisions about major infrastructure, it would probably take us 30 years to build a new barrier even if we decided tomorrow that it would be worth doing, as it surely is.

Similarly, and I accept this is a controversial subject, I find it baffling that the UK, which has ample shale resources, is not busy fracking (like the US), not least to fund the ‘levelling up’ agenda aimed at restoring the prosperity of the north of England, which became rich in the 19th century on the back of coal-mining and the industrial revolution. Energy independence is infinitely preferable to relying on Russian gas, French nuclear power or (the embarrassing elephant in the room) the importation of goods, including green products, from a China which has manufactured them using coal as its primary energy source.

Architects can do whatever they like, but they cannot control the ultimate energy source of production across the world. They can, however, argue for lower-carbon production and adopt that attitude in their specifications and, occasionally, in their decisions about whether to accept a commission. Complexity continues to rule.

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