Make It Less Bad

Two approaches to weighing carbon form.

For those longing to know why we’re in this mess called the climate crisis, there’s no shortage of places to look. In the United States alone, the causes branch out in all directions: blame the Federal Highway Act or the Army Corps of Engineers, FHA loans or the Fordist wage, coal miners or Ronald Reagan, the open road or “petro-masculinity,” political liberalism or flat-pack shipping, or federal subsidies that impel all manner of material and energetic waste and suburban sprawl.

To this litany we might add modern architecture. Confronting Carbon Form, a recent exhibition at the Cooper Union, argued that the formal lexicon of modern architecture is also the vocabulary of the carbon-reliant world. The show—slick, cerebral, and at times obtuse—consisted primarily of highly abstracted drawings of canonical buildings and urban planning projects, although there was a sprinkling of video and mixed-media installations, architectural models made by Cooper students, and a small library of key design texts categorized according to a “carbon form” typology. From this varied presentation, however, a clear narrative emerged. As the forces of industrialization took hold, the Ildefons Cerdàs and Corbusiers of the world devised remedial schemes for skyscrapers and the urban gridiron along with strategies for humanely cramming more people into space and for periodically allowing them to escape into green parklands. According to the technocratic thinking of the time, certain conditions of modern life—pollution, disease, congestion—were treated as problems to be solved but others—namely, urbanization itself—were taken as givens. The result was “carbon modernity”: a set of architectural and urban forms that propped up a fossil fuel–based energy system. Although architecture eventually moved on from modernism, embracing historicism and the digital in turn, this disavowal was one of form rather than substance. As cocurator Elisa Iturbe pointed out in her introduction to a 2019 Log issue on “overcoming carbon form” (which she also guest edited), “the production of architecture has remained rooted in the same energy paradigm that sparked the Modern Movement.”

In the world of carbon modernity, nothing is safe from critical scrutiny. The exhibition indicted everything from the cantilever (“a modern aesthetic that celebrates industrial achievement and the resistance to natural forces”) to the invention of artificial lighting (“every step of the [electrification] process relies upon energy-consuming technology”). The appearance of Le Corbusier’s infamous Ville Radieuse was expected; less so was the inclusion of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, normally every architect’s favorite sendup of modernism but here somberly presented as an unreflexive “portrait of human life unfolding within carbon form.” Iturbe and her coconspirators impugn even ostensibly progressive ideas for fostering communal sensibilities—public parks, public transit, social housing programs—as examples of how we have agreed to organize space around cars and their lugubrious supporting infrastructure. Just as one can read the entire history of the US through fossil fuels’ ever-deeper entrenchment, so too can the entire history of architecture since around the turn of the twentieth century be read as a climate catastrophe in the making.

MUCH OF TODAY’s academic discourse is fixated on making “carbon modernity”–esque arguments to explain why everything is terrible. Material Cultures, a London design nonprofit that researches bio-based construction materials, does something else. As founders Paloma Gormley, Summer Islam, and George Massoud explain in their recent book, Material Reform (coauthored with Amica Dall), of the formless architecture studio Assemble, and with photographs by Jess Gough), behind this research is a distinct theory of political change. Building with materials derived from raw or natural inputs, they point out, offers a way to produce buildings that are at once more climatically and socially sensitive by disrupting the global supply chains, extractivist economies, and exploitative labor practices that contribute to the construction industry’s enormous carbon footprint. (According to the International Energy Agency, the construction sector is responsible for a staggering 40 percent of total annual global carbon emissions, 11 percent of which are caused by the manufacturing of building materials like steel, cement, and glass.) Each of the book’s nearly two dozen pithy chapters tackles a different dimension of the industry’s extractive, carbon-intensive practices and considers how they might be reformed. The effect of these tracts, which examine substances whose local varietals remain underexplored for use as lower-impact building materials (say, straw, stone, or timber) is propulsive, and yet the authors never lose sight of the manifold institutions that will need to be reformed if bio-based materials are ever to gain a foothold.

In fact, over the course of the book, the group elaborates an inventory—as capacious as the one that began this review—of all the different forces that conspire to keep mainstream architects and builders locked into the carbon status quo. Architects today design using proprietary software programs that rely on standardized composite building products. Deviating from these preprogrammed specifications means that a project will be “harder to contract, harder to insure, and harder to justify.” Similarly, rather than work directly with carpenters or tile makers, architects typically select their materials from catalogues that steer them toward off-the-shelf products without any regard for where these products come from or who made them. The widespread availability of artificially cheap, mass-produced, imported products also means that the bio-based alternatives are often prohibitively expensive by comparison. Other roadblocks include structural grading systems that exclude indigenous (but lower grade) types of timber; performance expectations and structural warranties; risk-averse contractors, insurers, and mortgage lenders; and a highly litigious industry culture. “Working with non-standard and bio-based materials,” the authors admit, “sets you outside most of the infrastructures that support and regulate construction.”

Taking note of these avowals, we might avoid reading Material Reform as a how-to manual. Instead, it might be better appreciated as an articulation of Material Cultures’ specific way of working. “Making buildings,” Gormley, et al. write, “allows us to engage in a slow, determined practice of reform, finding ways to adjust and reorientate existing infrastructures, economies, and technical knowledge to produce outcomes that start to demonstrate that different ways of creating and maintaining the built environment are not only necessary, but possible.” The chapter on straw is instructive. For a project in Cambridge, Material Cultures (not unlike Assemble, the studio has a collectivist ethos, with the core group supplemented by the efforts of numerous collaborators and fellow travelers) wanted to incorporate straw from hemp grown on site. But before the hemp could be used as a construction material, it had to go on a journey. First, it was trucked off-site to a processing plant in Yorkshire, where it could be separated into its component parts of fibers and shivs. The fibers were then shipped to a facility in France to be turned into cladding, while the shiv went to a different facility, in Buckinghamshire, where it was mixed with lime and turned into hempcrete, which was then used as insulating infill in prefabricated panels. Only after the hemp had been processed could everything be delivered back to Cambridge for final assembly.

That’s a fair amount of carbon expended across the supply chain in the name of producing a “sustainable” or carbon-sensitive building. Still, it beats the more glaringly contradictory practices currently touted by the construction industry as the cutting edge in “climate-friendly” building materials. In a chapter on timber, Material Cultures quietly refutes claims that position cross-laminated timber (CLT) and other engineered timber products as lower-carbon alternatives to concrete. CLT’s production, the authors point out, involves a whole host of petrochemically derived toxic glues and chemicals; it is also an incredibly wasteful process, requiring “astonishing volumes of timber” to produce a single sheet. In a chapter on quantification and architects’ love of energy performance standards, they alight on the great irony of the Passivhaus approach to energy efficiency, whose declarations of carbon neutrality rest on a long list of energy-intensive and petrochemically indebted technologies, inefficient manufacturing processes, convoluted supply chains, and various incompatible construction techniques.

If there is a call to political action implicit in Material Reform, it is for architects and designers to involve themselves in the rules, regulations, supply-chain logistics, and standards that currently govern the construction industry. The book is full of conditionals: hemp and straw could become viable construction materials, but only if “the supply chains that support these techniques and reduce their impact are themselves robust.” More homes could be built using locally grown softwoods, but only if we adjust our expectations around things like timber grading, structural capacity, the maintenance and care requirements of buildings, and (in the UK) tree felling licensing systems. In effect, the authors are asking designers to forego the high levels of technical proficiency that are conventionally taken as markers of how far the discipline has advanced in its ability to produce safe, efficient, predictable, and durable buildings. It also means that architects need to care much more than they perhaps do now about things like regenerative agriculture practices, land use policies, regional labor market dynamics, workers’ rights all across the supply chain, and global trade agreements. If that feels like a tall order, that’s probably the point. Material Cultures wants to reform the construction industry from within, but according to the model proffered, everything would need to change.

THE EXTENT TO WHICH Confronting Carbon Form and Material Reform wrestle with similar issues is striking. Material Cultures’ observation that the dangerous—and, in some cases, even forced—labor practices involved in making construction materials is rendered invisible by the time a building product reaches the hands of builders brings to mind a mixed media piece from the Cooper show that debunked the technological triumphalism of the 1964 New York World’s Fair by highlighting the sites of human exploitation bound up in the project of modern “progress.” And the book’s chapter on “oil vernacular”—premised on “the ready availability of cheap oil-based products,” which enable high-performance, hermetically sealed buildings—strongly echoes the concept of carbon modernity itself.

The difference lies in the horizon of possibilities that each project opens up. Grand narratives like carbon modernity leave us with the sense that things are mostly very bad. But with this kind of totalizing argument, it’s hard to know where to even begin to change things—or whether change would actually make things better. It’s a conundrum that surfaces regularly when teaching about the climate crisis. Driving a Tesla might be “good” in that it reduces CO2 emissions, but once students learn that mining for lithium (a critical mineral for electric car batteries) is catastrophic for the environment and promises to wreak sheer havoc on Indigenous lands in Chile, Argentina, Canada, and the US, they realize there’s nothing about “ethical” consumption choices that makes a car fueled by renewables much better than a gas guzzler. In other words, in the quest to make things “better” for the climate, we risk merely trading off one set of injustices for another. This is where the carbon modernity argument lands us, I think.

The question, then, is how to move beyond the paralysis that comes with the knowledge that things are bad now, but that trying to change things for the better might just as easily trigger a new chain of extractive, exploitative practices that results in a world that looks a little different but remains fundamentally rife with inequities. In this context, Material Cultures’ project of naming the specific things within the construction industry that are primed for reform feels more generative. At the very least, it creates a space for thinking about what it would take to make things slightly less bad, climate-wise, while still holding the industry to account for the social implications of its footprint. These days, when everyone knows that everything is terrible, perhaps trying to make things a little less bad is all we can ask for.

LEAH ARONOWSKY is a historian of science at Columbia University, where she writes and teaches about the history of the climate crisis. She lives on Riverside Drive with her dog, Ramona.