Susannah Hagan's new book Revolution? Architecture and the Anthropocene is a compelling call to action, supported by insights from architects, clients and educators. In this blog, Susannah explains her motivations for writing this book at this particular juncture, and reveals how architects of today might learn from the revolution of the Modern Movement in architecture and design.
Thomas Heatherwick, Vessel (TKA), New York City, 2019. Photograph: Susannah Hagan.
Starting a book requires an external or internal stimulus. With Revolution? Architecture and the Anthropocene, I had both. Externally, I was in the middle of the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown, which imposed on me the time internally to try and answer a question that has always plagued me during my working life in schools of architecture: architects are trained to think ahead (for what is design but future intention?), so how is it that they have failed for fifty years to respond in any meaningful numbers to the environmental abuse that now threatens both culture and nature?
That’s why there is a question mark in the title after Revolution: even now, it’s not clear that we can engage deeply or quickly enough in the root and branch change needed to control change. And if we can’t, then another kind of revolution, entirely out of our control, will prevail instead.
Architecture has responded to change before, brilliantly. In fact, architectural Modernism’s response to modernity has been too successful, managing to perpetuate itself when it’s now obsolete. The Modern Movement struck me as a good place to begin asking why, at one point in its history, architecture faced great upheaval and created upheaval of its own, and at another point in its history, i.e. now, it hasn’t.
Kengo Kuma, Nezu Museum, Tokyo, 2010. Photograph: Susannah Hagan.
The first section of the book, ‘Overthrowing’, examines the causes of this disjuncture: the relationships between built culture and nature. The second part of the book, ‘Converting’, looks at the way members of the Modern Movement persuaded others to join them, through text and design, and the obstacles in the way of an environmental movement doing the same. The third part, ‘Making’, looks at the material consequences of the environmental movement’s slow progress in winning us over, and the revolutionary material and conceptual opportunities now before us.
The fourth part, ‘Education’, examines our training of architects, which is as obsolete as the Modern Movement, yet clings to its ideas and values as to a life raft. It isn’t a life raft, and change is happening, often driven by students rather than educators, though at too small a scale to yet have much impact. The book’s conclusion, 'Revolution', loses the question mark, and gives examples of emerging change from a very disparate range of places and actions, albeit none of it yet a critical mass.
In this, Revolution? Architecture and the Anthropocene has a rather different brief from the one that informed my three earlier books on architecture and the environment. It takes a step back to analyse the resistance to the suggestions made in its three predecessors. These sought to convince designers of the value of integrating an environmental feedback loop into the design process right from the start, and the importance of this as a stimulus to innovative design rather than a straightjacket. The earlier books also sought to remind readers of the extraordinarily interesting and highly contested relationship between nature and built culture throughout architecture’s long history. It is, to put it mildly, unfortunate that there is still so little interest in this relationship when it matters the most.
By hand. Photograph: Susannah Hagan.
Keen to avoid the hectoring of some environmental writing, I politely ignored the fact that too many readers viewed these books as if they were discussing some remote people in some remote part of the world and weren’t suggesting any reassessment of our own thinking or practice. Such readers also ignored those who have been advancing environmental knowledge and practice for over fifty years. After, in my case, twenty-five years of this ignoring, I’ve become rather less polite, and Revolution? could justifiably be described as quite bad-tempered. The first signs of fraying patience were pointed out to me by a reader of my 2015 book, Ecological Urbanism: the Nature of the City. This set out the design possibilities available to architects who consider the metabolic as well as social and formal dimensions of their work in cities. There was a muted response. In 2022, my patience, and that of many others who’ve been beating their heads against walls for decades, is altogether more tattered.
Anthropogenic mass, New York City. Photograph: Susannah Hagan.
Having said that, at the start of my research for Revolution? I thought my exasperation was out of date, as many more architects and architecture students, especially of younger generations, finally appreciate the urgency of the situation and are acting on it. But architecture is a minority interest, and the environmentally literate are still a minority within a minority, which leaves plenty of room for impatience. Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement, still pertains: we suffer from an imaginative failure in the face of climate change. Apart from Hollywood, no one seems much inclined to entertain the consequences of the continued placing of heads in sand.
Added to this general human problem are the particularities of architecture’s problem, which lie in its 20th century history and its self-perpetuating self-aggrandisement. What use is a profession of self-styled leaders who in the main have been, and still are, loitering at the back?
~ Susannah Hagan, 2022