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The architecture of circumstance

First published in the Architects' Journal in April 2020


The coronavirus crisis calls for a new moral and aesthetic code for architecture. Architects must stop following style or theory.

Three weeks ago, my team and I were gathering our thoughts for a lecture I was invited to give as part of the now-postponed AJ Summit. At that time, I already knew I wanted to talk about the ‘architecture of circumstance’, discussing the impacts of a rapidly changing climate on the way the industry will continue to design and build architecture as it progresses.

Since then the world has changed dramatically, with ours and all industries facing challenges we could have never foretold we would encounter in our lifetimes.

What has not changed is our obligation to progress as a profession. We are collectively faced with new obstacles in terms of working methodologies and patterns. Our default has been forcibly challenged and our circumstances drastically altered.

This scenario may be temporary, but it seems foolish to think that current adjustments will not have an impact on the way we work even after this crisis abates. Creating an architecture of circumstance has never been more relevant than now.

At the start of 2020, our collective directive as architects was to begin rethinking our design approach in response to the triple crises of climate emergency, biodiversity erosion, and social divide. These issues persist, and so must our determination to shift our profession’s mindset. Global health experts have outlined how a warming climate has made the world more hospitable to viruses and bacteria.

As humanity continues to encroach on our planet’s natural spaces, we create new circumstances and encounter new dangers that we are seemingly unprepared for. This pattern needs to change.

Our context both before and after Covid-19 unequivocally favours a culture of reduced carbon impact, minimised waste, and increased regenerative practice. Our buildings will need to reflect this context. If this period of obligatory isolation can teach us anything, it is how necessary it is for us to be nimble, not just in the way we work, but also in the way we make buildings.

We need to develop a new moral and aesthetic code – an architecture that is reliant on modular components and recycled materials

We must begin to embrace a consequence-aware approach to design. Accepted aesthetic expectations will need to adapt and rely on ‘process’, as opposed to finished product. Process, in turn, will need to rely on quick and evolutionary thinking. In short: we need to develop a new moral and aesthetic code – an architecture that is reliant on modular components and recycled materials, both of which dRMM as a practice has spent years developing and testing.

To do this, we will need to be ready to re-programme our visual expectations. If we work to create an architecture of circumstance as opposed to one led by style or theory, then buildings will inevitably look different to what we know today.

Different does not mean worse – we must work to create bold forms out of new regenerative building parameters. Authenticity will define our new visual language, breaking down preconceptions and weaning us off our unchallenged aesthetic upbringing.

Despite our successes to date and our ongoing efforts to create architecture that has a reduced impact on our planet, we still seem to be missing a few tricks. The entire construction industry is responsible for not sufficiently examining what happens to our buildings throughout their whole lifespan.

Furthermore, we are guilty of creating not just material waste, but enabling a consistent waste of potential that lies in our current urban fabric.

The new focus for the architecture industry needs to be on looking at our buildings, analysing them rigorously, and being honest about those findings. The key to re-imagining existing and future spaces lies in actively building in flexibility.

It also lies in a new reliance and dedication to assessment – to understanding what can be saved, what can be used, and how design can work to circumvent waste. This is not unlike the situation we are all facing on a domestic level in our homes during these trying times. We are all looking around our own new intimate worlds, our new set of circumstances, and striving to flourish with the resources we already have.

The architecture of circumstance

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The architecture of circumstance

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