Speaking Our Architectural Values

Architecture is an expression of our cultural values. How do architects communicate their commitment to the global climate crisis.

One need only notice the banality of modern cities and suburbs to realise that most architectural decisions are driven by the miserly cogs of capitalism. The extra cost associated with ‘good design’ is often one of the first things to be left on the cutting room floor.

In this environment, architects have found themselves serving a tiny portion of the construction industry – Appearing to many of us as an unnecessary and expensive luxury, while the majority of our built environment is driven by utility and cost. But let’s consider what is we are trading-off by privileging cost above all else when we build.

Building is at bottom a destructive process. It is the balance of an equation we only dimly consider, which places the destruction of our environment and cost on one side, and our cultural values on the other. The foundation’s we have laid and the walls we have erected to live, work, and pray in, have all been at the expense of nature. A nature that was likely much more beautiful than the brick and steel boxes we have erected in its place and might have gone on teaming with life had we not decided to clear it away. These days, we are often destroying what we have previously built, but the fact remains that the construction industry requires vast resources. All of which are mined and manufactured at the expense of the environment.

The high environmental and cultural cost associated with profit-seeking building requires a consideration equal to the scale of what we have to lose. This is illustrated brilliantly by Alaine de Botton in his book, The Architecture of Happiness.

“A development which spoils ten square miles of countryside will be the work of a few people neither particularly sinful nor malevolent. They may be called Derek or Malcolm, Herbert or Shigeru, they may love golf and animals, and yet, in a few weeks, they can put in motion plans which will substantially ruin a landscape for 300 years or more. The same kind of banal thinking which in literature produces nothing more than incoherent books and tedious plays can, when applied to architecture, leave wounds which will be visible from outer-space.”

De Botton’s anecdote is a sound justification for a more ‘considered’ approach to building. However, contemporary architectural practice is often driven by the values of architects, which can seem abstruse for the rest of society. The Global Climate Crisis has the potential to make salient the importance of a more ‘considered’ architecture – one that holds environmental concerns over profit.

It takes no less talent to design a building that embodies the values of sustainability. Its a shift of emphasis that can hold aesthetics, culture, and poetry in the same space, but speaks directly to our existential threat. In doing so, it has potential to reengage the consumers of architecture beyond architectural insiders and aesthetes.

If we want society to see the value of our profession, we need to define an architecture that is relevant to the moment we live in. There has perhaps never been a more important cause than global warming. The question now is, how will architecture look, function, feel, and speak as we step into this uncertain future?

De Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. Penguin, England, 2014.

Peter Milligan

I am an Master of Architecture student, with an undergraduate degree in applied science from the University of Western Australia. I'm interested in the way these two fields, architecture and science, might intersect as the challenge of global warming demands new approaches to how we build and how we analyse our building practices.