This Anonymous Manifesto Outlines How Architects Can Design for Degrowth

An architectural worker tells us where the profession should be going.


Paul Sableman via Wikipedia

Degrowth is a divisive topic. Author Jason Hickel defines it as "a planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way." But economist Tim Jackson says, “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries.” It is a particularly difficult ground for architects.

In the United Kingdom, the Architects Declare steering group says that "to suggest that we can carry on growing and just hope technology will eventually save us is a reckless and unscientific delusion." That is in response to Patrik Schumacher, the principal architect of Zaha Hadid Architects, saying, "I want to warn against those voices who are too quick to demand radical changes, to moralise, even talking about degrowth [and] breaking up global supply chains. There is a big danger there because what we can never compromise [on] is growth and prosperity."

The construction of buildings is a huge driver of carbon emissions and the bigger the buildings, the bigger the bucks for the architects. They usually get paid as a percentage of the construction cost, so the more, the merrier. So, how can architects design for degrowth? Is it something we have to worry about?

Some believe it is inevitable. As critic and author Phineas Harper has noted, "Fundamentally, degrowth is coming sooner or later. The challenge we’re putting to designers is: let’s get there by design rather than just inevitably collapsing into it." How do architects prepare and adapt? How do they make a living?

This has been a mostly European discussion—degrowth is just too out there in North America, where the preferred pitch is "green growth." But some are thinking about it. An American "architectural worker" who prefers to remain nameless at this time published an Architecture Degrowth Manifesto on Twitter.

I asked the author if they were part of a larger organization and why they wrote it. They tell Treehugger:

"I wrote it and posted it myself. However, I'm very plugged into the activist architecture community, and my intention has been to synthesize and reflect what I am hearing as a wellspring of frustration among many architects, especially young ones who not only increasingly struggle materially, but perhaps more significantly, increasingly sense that the profession is intractably complicit in climate degradation. I meant it polemically, as a provocation, but there have been a couple of people who have asked about signing on, so maybe it will evolve into something like that."

It is certainly provocative and may well be the start of a movement. The views in it are those of the author and not necessarily those of Treehugger or myself. I have added notes and explanations in italics.

A Degrowth Manifesto for Architecture

1. We refuse to accept the dominant response of the AEC [architecture, engineering, construction] industry to urgent environmental and human rights injustices, which we see as inadequate, accommodationist, diversionary, and, in some cases, opportunistic.

2. (This is inclusive of Canon VI of the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, "Obligations to the Environment.") The AIA is the American Institute of Architects, which has a code of ethics for architects.

3. We believe current governmental regulations and industry standards constitute insufficient ethical guidelines for architects as they pertain to climate and the exploitation of workers worldwide.

4. As it relies, at its base, upon global extraction and exploitation, we refuse to advocate for the growth of, or expansion of, the design and construction industry in its present dominant form.

5. In light of impending climate catastrophe, we refuse to recommend the use of energy, contribution of emissions, or extraction of raw materials by the building industry for any reason unless it is absolutely necessary, and demonstrably will benefit the public ...

6. ( ... in accordance with AIA ethics oath to "enhance and facilitate human dignity and health safety and welfare.") The determination of what is necessary varies between core and periphery economies.

7. We pledge to recommend the most minimal architectural interventions only, and to discourage clients from building at all whenever possible.

8. We refuse to participate in projects that benefit from the transfer of costs from present generations to future generations, from core economies to periphery economies, or from private actors to the public commons...

9. ... This is nonnegotiable, irrespective of clients' goals. ( ... in accordance with AIA ethics oath to "enhance and facilitate human dignity and health safety and welfare.")

10. We refuse to work on projects we consider unnecessary or undesirable.

11. We refuse to call for the demolition of buildings without a complete accounting of the full lifecycle decommissioning of assemblies and materials.

12. We demand clients adopt ethical climate and fair labor practices.

13. We refuse to specify or approve any product, material, or assembly having improper, unknown, or incomplete labor and emissions provenance...

14. We will not accept the status quo in this regard, even in anticipation of promised future technological fixes such as supply chain tracking, improved product declaration oversight, or satellite surveillance.

15. We refuse to assume responsibility for convincing clients to voluntarily adopt principles of ethical procurement. We refuse to bear the burden of responsibility for curating sustainable and fair trade materials, products, and assemblies...

16.  We refuse to contribute to the framing of these as voluntary, ethical, or aesthetic options.

17. We refuse to assume responsibility for convincing clients to adopt principles of ethical procurement in the interest of "good business" or that it may prove advantageous in their marketing, or that it may "advance the building industry"...

18. We simply refuse to specify products which cannot demonstrably be proven to be free of forced labor or environmental criminality embedded in their supply chain.

19. We refuse to act as moral repositories for, or arbiters of, the moral choices of clients. We refuse to provide free emotional work, or sell indulgences.

20. We refuse to trust, or participate in, voluntary commitments by industry to gradually "phase out" carbon emissions or human rights abuses in the AEC supply chain, or to rely on the power of international organizations or governmental regulatory bodies to compel industry to do so.

21. We refuse to patronize the professional accreditation industry which minimizes, obfuscates, and exploits the urgent threats of climate degradation, unfair labor practices, and public health in the guise of professional development.

22. We refuse to serve as "emissions accountants" for clients. We refuse to obfuscate the urgency of climate destruction in an avalanche of questionable metrics and technical minutia [sic].

23. We refuse to rely on metrics such as building lifecycle analysis (LCA) which we consider a grossly inadequate and diversionary response by the design and construction industry to the climate emergency.

24. We advocate for ethical climate and fair labor practices in their own right and refuse to justify them on the basis of stimulating commerce or otherwise returning value to an owner, or creating jobs.

25. We refuse to market our work, or our clients' projects as sustainable, green, or zero-carbon. Zero carbon does not exist. It is a misleading marketing ploy.

Can Architecture and Architects Survive?

This is indeed provocative, but the age-old question comes up: In a degrowth world, how do architects make a living? Growth drives the industry. The author tells Treehugger:

"We use 'degrowth' because, as architects, we sometimes get to control the consumption spigot a bit, or we can simply loudly refuse to participate in the mindless churn of material and energy characteristic of our industry, or refuse to legitimize the spurious, frenetic attempts to 'go green' that are so much marketing hogwash. Someday architects may be called upon, first and foremost, to make spatial interventions that create value for society and for future generations—more like caretakers or repairmen, and less as heroic form-givers who function primarily as the marketing arm of the real estate industry. Architecture education plays an important role in that."

The author says this was all meant to provoke and inspire; I hope that it does.