PLAT Journal Interview
This is the text of an email conversation we had PLAT – an independent architectural journal edited by students of Rice Architecture. It appears in issue 10 (2021), pp. 172-176.
Architecture After Architecture
A conversation with MOULD
MOULD is a multidisciplinary collective of architects and theorists working in the intersection between spatial practice and the climate emergency. Its current members are: Anthony Powis, Tatjana Schneider, Christina Serifi, Jeremy Till, and Becca Voelcker.
Architecture after Architecture is a research project being conducted from within the UK and Germany. It asks what happens to architecture and planning after the climate emergency undoes its foundational assumptions of growth, extraction, and progress. Living with the climate emergency demands systemic change across economic, behavioral, and social structures, with profound implications for approaches to the built environment and spatial production. Architecture after Architecture examines how spatial practices might respond to such challenges, going beyond technical fixes, by addressing the cultural and socioeconomic factors that influence how we make, occupy, and share space. Here members of the research team respond to questions raised by the editors of PLAT:
Jimmy Bullis and Pouya Khadem (JB & PK): Your project Architecture after Architecture calls for a reset of the value system and modes of producing disciplinary work and knowledge. What is salvageable in architecture in the context of a radical call to consider it entirely anew?
MOULD: This largely depends on how you classify and define architecture. If one takes the established, yet restrictive, understanding of architecture as the production of (new) buildings, there is possibly not much to salvage. This is because architecture—in terms of finance, materials, and labor—is by its very nature extractivist and so tied into the causes of the climate emergency. Therefore, reducing all types of carbon load in buildings will not be enough on its own (though, of course, every designer should be doing this anyway). The emergency demands systemic change, and this needs to be accompanied by a wider definition of architecture—one that is not defined by its objects but by the spatial and social relations that it helps produce. It is here that new forms of architecture, or spatial agency, can and will emerge, anticipating and enabling these new socio-spatial formations. Architecture understood in this way is entirely salvageable. But to achieve all this, the paradigm must shift from understanding architecture in problem-solving terms and instead focus on negotiating situations.
JB & PK: Your lecture on Architecture after Architecture speaks of a new set of demands and spatial conditions that necessitate dismantling the discipline. Do you consider the future of architecture as necessarily reactionary to external conditions? Must we suspend or abandon inward-facing conversations or projective discourse beyond these decidedly urgent issues?
MOULD: We don’t so much call for a dismantling of the discipline but a reorientation of it. With this comes a necessary turning outwards to address the external conditions—including turning to and including another set of reference points. As discipline and education, architecture has too long negated or denied the responsibilities that come with intervening in this world and so has not dealt with its role in relation to external forces. It is therefore not surprising that generally, its reaction to the climate emergency has come too late and in too limited a manner. While there are inspiring examples of spatial practices critically and productively engaging with the ecological and climate crises, the more normal approach (where there is one) is of technical fixes.
It can be argued that architecture, as a handmaiden of the Modern project, is complicit in the climate emergency. Our project calls for engagement in the emergency in a manner that far exceeds technocratic “solutions” that are presently the focus of architecture’s response. Our suggestion is that architecture needs to turn its critical attention to the underlying social, economic and political constitution of the climate emergency. It is only through understanding those formations that spatial practice can mediate in a meaningful and productive manner.
JB & PK: In the context of the climate emergency, you call for local strategies and distributed systems over centralized and technologically advanced solutions. What is the role of academia in determining what is “good” architecture in a value system that shirks a universal scale? Does a traditional method of assessing architecture have a place in this new paradigm?
MOULD: At the moment, academia perpetuates and celebrates the overriding value systems of the profession through its concentration on image over content, individual genius over collective intelligence, technique over activism, reason over contingency, the abstract over the situated—and so on. Quality in the academy and the profession is too often determined by meeting the criteria and paradigms of the first half of each of those pairs. Instead, what is urgently needed is the deployment of the second terms. So, yes, we need to reconsider the terms against which we “measure” architecture. Or do we need to measure it at all? Forms of measurement, particularly those attached to the Modern project and the Eurocentric tradition, imply established fairly fixed and universal standards. More positively, if the current obsessions and values of architecture are generally bound to a certain canon of knowledge and history, then academia has a central role in challenging the hegemony of that canon. Our sense is that the climate emergency cannot be addressed through the current dominant models of knowledge—essentially those of the modern western project—because it is exactly those models that have led to the emergency. We, therefore, need to deploy different ways of thinking, acting, and making, and these are most rapidly developed and prototyped in the relative freedom of the academy.
JB & PK: As you note, the contemporary fetishization of technology as the sole answer to ecological crises is a capitalist strategy that controls accessibility and hides the socio-political aspect of the crisis. These technological solutions are politically exclusionary and deferent to market values—a criticism applicable to much of architecture and taken on by its theoreticians. What will architectural theory look like in architecture after architecture? Or are ethical questions replacing theoretical questions?
MOULD: You are right that there are already certain strands of architectural theory and critique that point to the way that architecture is bound to, and complicit in, the project of late capitalism. However, not all of these theories show a way out of the predicament. Our hope is that by tying Architecture after Architecture into the very real urgencies of the climate emergency, these more theoretical critiques will be thoroughly situated, and so will need to find traction and agency. In this light, architectural theory becomes ever more relevant as a means of first unravelling the constitutive forces, and then providing ways of intervening in them. There is no separation here of the ethical from the theoretical—theory should be ethical in so much as it has the imperative to consider the lives and actions of others, both human and non-human.
JB & PK: The proposition of an architecture after architecture raises the age-old question: what is architecture? Any answer to this question creates a centralized and reductive universal boundary that your research tries to avoid. The question falls apart. Can we instead think of architecture as a “dynamic discipline”? As a discipline that shifts its territory from one context to another?
MOULD: To answer simply: yes! All of us in the collective believe in expanding the definition, and role, of architecture. The project’s title, Architecture after Architecture, is a provocation to possibly abandon the term altogether and instead talk of spatial practice because this includes a much broader set of potential actions. It can be argued that in clinging to the protection of architecture as title, the profession has become increasingly marginalized as other disciplines and market forces have taken over the chain of spatial production. Though founded on a critique of the limits of current architectural thinking in the face of the climate emergency, our project is at heart hopeful of the potential of spatial practice to engage productively with the systemic changes required.