Architecture in the Capitalocene (book chapter)

Throughout the Modern period the culture of architecture has inevitably been embedded in that of the Capitalocene. Both have been driven by the colonial project that has mercilessly exploited the resources of planet Earth.

The final chapter of my book Steel Architecture, the text of which is reproduced below, is a contribution to the re-appraisal of the history of Modern architecture, seen from the viewpoint of the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the need to address the environmental consequences of the Capitalocene will have to become the highest priority in architectural design.

The mining of iron ore, principally as the raw material for steel of one kind or another (see Chapter 1), has been taking place on the Mediterranean island of Elba for at least 3,000 years (Fig. 10.1). The remains of the resulting mine workings constitute just one of the sets of permanent scars that steelmaking has left on the landscape of the ancient world. Another has been the almost complete deforestation of the region from the shores of the Indian Ocean in the east to the Atlantic coast in the west, in order to feed the ravenous furnaces that supplied this source material for the tools and weapons that helped to create the Modern world.

The ecological cost of the steelmaking that has undoubtedly brought so many benefits to humankind is one of the several elephants that lurk in the room in which the phenomenon of Modernism is celebrated, not least by the engaging visual qualities of steel architecture. That the lustre is now beginning to dim, in an age of climate and ecological emergency, should serve as a reminder that the current age of steel may be coming to an end.

A major theme of this book has been the relationship between the history of steel architecture and the history of Modern architecture in general, with each being seen in the broad context of the development of Modernity itself. The building types that fall into the category of steel architecture may be regarded – although they by no means tell the whole story – as an encapsulation of most of the principal strands of Modernism, and draw attention to both the strengths and the weaknesses of this movement in architecture. The buildings also reveal a great deal concerning the collective mindset that developed in the architectural profession during the Modern period, and of the relationship of this to the society that it served, or, in some cases, failed to serve.

For some, the enjoyable qualities of Modern architecture were the environments that it enabled: visions of a new type of lifestyle that only became possible in the Modern age. The Tugendhat house expressed this in European terms. The Californian houses, such as the Lovell Health House, or the Eames and Stahl houses, captured a vision of a lifestyle of freedom and optimism, stimulated and enabled by the material progress that characterised the twentieth century. A more ascetic aspect of Modern living was expressed in the minimalism, clean lines, and transparency of buildings such as the Glass and Farnsworth Houses; enjoyed by some – as in the lifestyle that Philip Johnson created for himself in his Glass House or Peter Palombo’s enjoyment of his occasional occupation of the Farnsworth House – but not so welcomed by others, as with Dr Farnsworth herself in her response to that same building. These disparate reactions are examples of the variety of emotions that the buildings of Modern architecture have invoked in their users, from passionate enthusiasm to equally passionate disaffection.

The history of steel buildings has also encompassed, notably, the history of the multi-storey commercial building, and in particular of the skyscraper, that symbol of the wealth, power-relationships and transnational business that have been such powerful drivers of Modern society and lifestyle.

There has also been an aspirational quality to the built landscape created by steel buildings – enabling, as it does, humans to appear to dominate, and live above and apart from, Nature – dwelling in glass boxes elevated above ground level and working in skyscrapers affording god-like views – thus expressing an important aspect of the condition of Modenism: a belief in the superiority of humans over Nature.

All of the above have taken place in the context of an architecture that was intended to celebrate human achievement – not least that of the development of the technology that enabled the Modern lifestyle in all its forms.

By contrast, there was, as has now been well recognised, a negative side to the apparent onward march of progress that is symbolised by Modern architecture. Highly problematic, for the future of the planet, has been the very poor environmental performance of most Modern buildings, with high embodied energy, wasteful use of materials and high long-term environmental costs being particular concerns. This has been hardly surprising considering that the visual vocabulary of the architecture was conceived at a time when the world seemed infinitely large, and provided with resources that were inexhaustible. Concepts such as the sustainable use of materials and energy were not even remotely present in the consciousness of the architectural opinion formers who inhabited the artistic communities in which the forms and visual qualities of the new architecture for the Modern age originated. Quite the opposite, in fact, as committed Modernists wished to distance themselves from Nature rather than recognise that they were not only part of it but ultimately entirely dependent upon it. The built forms of Modern architecture expressed opposition to Nature; they were largely unsustainable and have in fact contributed significantly to the climate and ecological emergencies of the present day.

The problems of Modern architecture have inevitably been rooted in those of the paradigm of industrial Modernism itself, which has been largely responsible for the problematic relationship that has developed between humans and the environment of planet Earth. That relationship has resulted in the development of building typologies, including all of those featured in this survey of steel architecture, that are wasteful of resources both during construction and throughout subsequent use. The cosmetic incorporation of ‘green’ features into such typologies are unlikely to provide a satisfactory solution to current environmental problems.  Much more radical measures will be required.

Perhaps the most relevant problematic issue, has been the adoption, throughout the Modern period, of an almost purely formalist approach to the determination of architectural form, from the preoccupation with the symbolism of glass, transparency and rectilinearity of the early Moderns, to Gehry’s shoal of fishes in the Bilbao Museum and Libeskind’s shattered globe at the IWMN in more recent times. Similar disregard for the practical and environmental realities of the outcome informed the grand architectural gesture that created the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in which an overarching, but in fact highly simplistic, idea of how a building might become a ‘democratically’ available space for the celebration of creative activity, dominated the design. In the process, the multiple complexities associated with the manner in which such a building would actually function were simply glossed over, and the whole issue of the consumption of energy and other resources, both for initial construction and throughout the buildings lifecycle, disregarded.

A similar lack of concern for the use of resources in the service of a ‘grand’ architectural idea, this time purely visual, was evident in the complex cladding system that was adopted for the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, in which an impractical and untested arrangement of metal-faced panels was used to produce an envelope with an unsatisfactory environmental performance.

On a much smaller scale, Philip Johnson’s creation of a leaky ‘four-bucket’ building in his Glass House, with the implications that this had for ongoing maintenance and consumption of resources, is simply one further example of the elevation of the visual gesture over sensible building practice that has recurred throughout the Modern period in which centuries of acquired knowledge concerning how to make sound, weather-tight buildings was ignored in favour of a desire to create a new visual vocabulary for architecture.

The justifications for such an approach to architecture – producing buildings that were impractical and unsound, or both – have been various. At best these have been attempts to combine building with fine art, as at the Farnsworth House, or to enable societal change, as at the Centre Pompidou. Often the principal motivation was less worthy: to boost the ego of an architect, or to legitimise or draw attention to the activities of a business organisation.

The reactions to Modern architecture have also been various, from the mostly uncritical approbation of academic and critical establishments, and corporate clients with vested interests in promoting the whole Modernist enterprise (who were prepared to overlook the difficulties that the architecture was creating), to condemnation by lay observers and users, who simply wanted buildings that functioned well for their intended purpose, and, latterly, by environmentalists, who have drawn attention to its wasteful and damaging aspects.

Throughout the Modern period, the response of the majority of architects, and certainly of most of the acknowledged leaders of the profession, has been to disregard and gloss over the practical deficiencies of the new architecture that they were creating by emphasising the visual over technical and functional performance criteria – encouraged by the discourse that has prevailed in the supportive and largely uncritical architectural media. The reaction of Mies van der Rohe to the views of his client Dr Farnsworth was a prominent example of such a response and was particularly significant in view of his status as a role model. Such confrontations helped to establish a pattern of behaviour adopted by many architects, which has not been helpful to the cause of sensible building practice.

The current environmental and ecological emergencies – not least of which has been the Covid-19 pandemic, that is simply one indicator of the problematic relationship that has developed in the Modern period between humans and their wider environment – have drawn attention to the need for a fundamental re-examination of all aspects of the way in which human societies conduct themselves, including the types of architecture that they commission and build. There is now, clearly, a need to address, and move on from, the problems associated with the Modern condition before its consequences destroy the support systems of the planet.

This issue obviously reaches far beyond the confines of architecture and of this book. It includes the vast problems associated with increasingly rapid human population growth, wealth inequality, climate change, damaging land-use practices and all forms of environmental pollution. These are the major concerns that human society will have to address in the twenty-first century.

The effects on the world of architecture of the momentous changes that must now take place in society are likely to be profound, and the future role of steel will be one of the many aspects that will have to be re-considered. In this regard it will be important that due significance be attached to the lessons of history and, in the case of architecture, it will be desirable that the truly beneficial aspects of practice in the Modern period be distinguished from those that have been damaging (or merely ephemeral), so that the former can be retained and the latter discontinued. This increasingly urgent exercise is likely to be particularly difficult in the field of architecture in view of the widely differing opinions concerning which parts of Modern architecture are of genuine value and, in particular, of how much relative importance should be attached to the often conflicting – and in the case of Modern architecture highly problematic – relationship between technical and programmatic function, and artistic aspiration.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, if the architectural profession is to participate meaningfully in the design of the built environment of the future, everything connected to the way in which the architectural establishment conducts itself, including the manner in which architects are educated; the priorities that operate in the design process; and the academic and media discourses in which architecture is debated and discussed will have to be re-examined. 

The buildings described in this survey of steel architecture represent a relatively small proportion of the total number of buildings constructed in the Modern period, and have been selected for their predominance in the numerous monographs and articles that deal with its history. In this sense, the book has adhered to the conventional narrative of Modern architecture in which, as the historian and critic, Timothy Brittain-Catlin has expressed it ‘the triumphalism of … Modernism [has come] to dominate architectural criticism and history … at the expense of a quieter and more modest way of looking at and interpreting buildings.’[i]

In his penetrating analysis, Brittain-Catlin provided a glimpse into the introspective world inhabited by the majority of architects and commentators. If, in future, the profession does not look beyond the borders that it has erected around itself, and that have created the insular, self-congratulatory world in which most architects operate, it is likely to become an irrelevance, and society will turn to other building professionals to organise the design and construction of the infrastructure that it requires. It is therefore pertinent to ask what pointers this study of steel architecture might reveal concerning what must change in order that architects may play a significant role in planning the buildings of the future.

Firstly, serious re-consideration will be required of the preoccupation with the purely visual side of architecture to the detriment of function and the technical aspects of building. Manipulation of imagery, informed by Modernist perceptions that emphasise the idea of humans being separate from Nature, and superior to it, has been a major factor in the employment of forms that are environmentally unsustainable.

For this development to occur, a fundamental change in the approach of architects to the design process will be required. This will have serious implications for architectural education, which will have to move on from the Bauhaus model, as it has been interpreted in most schools of architecture, and that has predominated throughout the Modern period. There will also be a need for the architectural profession, and those responsible for the procurement of buildings, to re-examine their priorities so that buildings are produced that satisfy not only visual criteria, but also the requirements of wider society for structures that actually function well for their intended purposes and are not wasteful of precious resources.

Secondly, the aspiration that architecture should be considered primarily as one of the fine arts, over and above being a means of creating practical and serviceable enclosure (i.e. good design), will have to be reassessed. This approach has been highly problematic because it has seduced architecture away from the idea of making buildings that are sustainable, and that respect the resources of the planet, in the direction of creating buildings that are first and foremost works of sculpture, intended to express philosophical ideas. Of course architecture may function as a fine art – that is not in dispute, if it ever was, but it must also be – depending upon the project– both more and less than that. A narrow focus on its fine-art aspects has, over the last century at least, produced buildings with such poor levels of technical performance that they can no longer be afforded environmentally in a world of damaged ecosystems and depleted resources.

Such a narrow focus has also resulted in much architectural form being based on ill-considered ‘theory’, unsubstantiated by evidence, and in denial of the priorities of sensible building – an extreme example being the preoccupation of many Modern architects with all-glass walls as an enclosing medium, the inadequacy of which as an environmental barrier they have quietly ignored.

A collateral consequence of regarding architecture solely as a fine art has been the promotion of the idea of the ‘starchitect’ artistic genius – a god-like super-hero figure above criticism by ordinary mortals. This has encouraged the adoption of a characteristic ‘architect personality’ involving a high level of arrogance and the dismissal out of hand of much relevant and useful criticism.

Fortunately there are signs of change in this regard. Brittain-Catlin’s views, quoted above, were echoed recently by those of Eva Franch Gilabert, Director of the Architectural Association in London, who has expressed a mission to ‘… [redefine] the architectural canon, calling into question the emphasis on a few landmark designs, and instead focusing on what she calls ‘the 99 per cent’ – those buildings that the majority of the world’s population live in and around.’[ii]

Such an assessment is particularly welcome coming from the director of a leading establishment in architectural education, as it draws attention to the need for a complete re-appraisal of the way in which architects think of their role as the designers of the infrastructure that society requires.

There is also recent evidence of a change in the way in which new architecture is reported in the architectural media, for example, in the critical article that appeared in the February 2019 edition of Architectural Review on the recently completed Bloomberg London HQ (discussed here in Chapter 9), which challenged the idea that that building represented a valid vision of the future of office buildings, as its designers claimed. Other commentators have taken a similar view of this very prominent building and the fact that such criticism is now appearing in leading journals is another welcome sign that the approach of the critical media might be changing.

It is to be hoped that these small changes in the way in which architecture is reported and discussed may be timely indicators of an important reconsideration of the approach that architects are adopting in their practice that will enable them to participate usefully in the creation of future infrastructure.

In a future world that is responding meaningfully to the climate and ecological emergencies of the present day, architecture, together with virtually all other aspects of human activity, will have to undergo a fundamental change. A completely fresh attitude to the totality of the non-human world will have to be adopted. This will require the abandonment of virtually all of the tenets of Modernism, and with that, the relinquishing of Modern architecture and its associated practices as any kind of precedent for future action. A completely new formulation will be required in which environmental, and hence also technical considerations, are raised to at least the same level of importance as the visual, and in which architects take seriously the needs of the users of buildings and actually listen to them.

To summarise and complete the narrative of this book, steel architecture has played a particularly significant role, both symbolically and literally, in binging about the current situation of environmental and social dystopia. It will remain to be seen whether the new approaches to architecture that are emerging in the 21st century may lead to its almost complete demise as a preferred visual vocabulary.

[i] Brittain-Catlin, 2014, p. 5.

[ii] Emma Hardy, in ‘The New Change Makers’, Harpers magazine, March, 2020.