On Designing without Depletion

Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, Scales of Extraction, after Morphosis, 2-4-6-8 House Parts drawing

To design, to build, to shape the environment around us is an irrepressible human instinct. It is also an act of intrinsic optimism. The immense effort and cost that the production of architecture involves can only be justified by the idea that it will, in one way or another, make the world a better place. Every architect, as Rem Koolhaas once wrote, carries the Utopian gene.

This only makes it more difficult to face up to an uncomfortable fact: that our urge to produce architecture has become one of the most direct threats to our existence as a species. It is only now that we are becoming aware of the real cost of cheap concrete, the miracle material of modernity that is today one of the primary sources of CO2 emissions. Only now are we beginning to question the consequences of the speculative financialisation of the housing market, and the social crisis it has triggered on a global scale. And as of now we can only imagine the multitude of ways in which architecture will be deployed to reinforce the boundaries separating those most responsible for the climate emergency from those fleeing its worst consequences.

This is the dilemma facing architects. Is architecture intrinsically extractive? Is it predestined to be an instrument of social injustice and an accomplice in human extinction? Is there no alternative to the predatory overconsumption of manifestly finite resources? We believe not. But in order to escape this fate, architecture must be prepared to question itself on a much more fundamental level than it has ever done before.

Non-Extractive Architecture is a research platform investigating the material and social dynamics underlying the production of the designed environment, with the aim of encouraging architects to be both more responsible and more ambitious in their thinking as designers and custodians of the build environment. Over the course of one year we will examine the full spectrum of operations that making buildings involves, from material production to deconstruction, from funding to pricing, and from policy to planning. We will look to vernacular techniques and new technologies alike, in search of optimistic alternatives to current models of building which, more often than not, appear viable only because their true cost remains hidden.

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