What Happens When Architects Don't Live Up To Their Climate Pledges?

We are about to find out, as Architects Declare goes after Zaha Hadid Architects.

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Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher
The late Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher in 2015.

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Architects Declare is a movement that started in the UK and has spread around the world. Signatory firms commit to "raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies" and "evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach." Among the 17 original signatories was Zaha Hadid Architects, which has been run by Patrik Schumacher since Hadid's death in 2016.

Treehugger has questioned whether architects are living up to their promises, notably with Norman Foster's restaurant on a stick and more recently, Zaha Hadid Architects' swoopy new office tower in Shenzhen, where we wondered:

"Architects declare is just that – a declaration, with no real power, no real standard. But it sure seems to me that this building doesn't even nod in its direction. What do you have to do to get tossed from this club?"

We are apparently about to find out. The Architects Declare steering group is complaining about Patrik Schumacher's statements at a conference, where he called for more growth and more development. Will Hurst of the Architects Journal pointed us to a couple of posts, starting with Schumacher's speech about avoiding radical solutions to climate change:

"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, which gives us the freedom to invest more in research. We need to allow prosperity and progress to continue, and that will also bring the resources to overcome [the climate crisis] through investment, science and new technology."

Degrowth is a big debate topic in the UK now; in Jason Hickel's new book "Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World" (briefly reviewed on Treehugger here) he writes exactly the opposite of what Schumacher is saying: "If we want the transition to be technically feasible, ecologically coherent and socially just, we need to disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that we can carry on growing aggregate energy demand at existing rates. We must take a different approach."

The Architects Declare Steering Group took issue with Schumacher's statements and then did a long deep dive into degrowth, noting:

"There are some things we need to grow – such as ecosystems, human health, community cohesion, political unity, the vitality of the commons – and some things we need to urgently shrink, such as hyper-consumption, luxury lifestyles and unconstrained aviation."

This seemed a bit rich, given that a good number of the original signatories to Architects Declare are busy designing airports all over the world and demolishing perfectly good buildings, leading us to wonder, "is it a new era, where architects should be held to account for the environmental impact of their work?" But then they conclude that words are different than buildings.

"To date we have avoided calling out individual practices, recognising that we all struggle sometimes to do what is necessary. However, when statements are made that contradict the fundamentals of the declaration, we have no option but to speak up. Sadly, there remain signatory practices who appear determined to continue with business as usual. This is seriously undermining the effectiveness and credibility of AD, so we call on those practices to either join the wave of positive change or have the integrity to withdraw."

Degrowth is not discussed much in North America; it goes against all the conventional wisdom of green growth. I joked after reading Hickel's book that it would be "written off as a commie rant if it ever makes it to North America." It is so fascinating that it would be the breaking point for the Architects Declare people, not an airport or the biggest planned demolition of a LEED Platinum building or a giant concrete tulip. In Will Hurst's summary of the issue, he quotes Zaha Hadid's response to Architects Declare, where they say that the statement was during a discussion about "globalisation and a reorientation of society and the economy."

"It is in this context Patrik questioned ideas of radical growth reduction. It in no way implies any detraction from our commitment. The climate emergency requires much discussion and co-operation. Architects Declare must be a broad church that should not extend to taking sides with respect to big political questions or overarching socio-economic agendas."

I personally have disagreed with just about everything Patrik Schumacher has ever said, but he is right about one thing: degrowth is going to be a hot button issue. As economist Tim Jackson says in the Harvard Business Review, “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.” It is a really interesting place for Architects Declare to draw a line in the sand.