Towards an Environmental Architecture

As architecture is an elementary part of the socioenvironmental ecologies in which we live, Godofredo Pereira analyzes the responsibility that architectural practice has for achieving a more dignified, common and just world dwelling.

Towards an Environmental Architecture

Global environmental change poses two immediate challenges to architecture: the first is how to respond to its myriad consequences, from rapid transformations in land-use to food scarcity or population displacements; the second is how to re-assess the legal, ethical and political limits of architecture’s responsibilities, as—from an environmental perspective—these cannot be confined to the limits of the building. All around the world several inroads are being made to address these issues, from adopting sustainable building practices to incorporating concerns with materials’ embodied energy and CO2 emissions. And yet, the multi-scalar complexity and intricate chains of causality that characterize environmental issues, not to mention the different ways in which these affect architecture, requires moving beyond piecemeal responses to a more systematic approach. It implies the development of a new field, concerned with re-imagining architecture as a practice that has the environment as its object of concern.
Architecture has always been an environmental agent
At stake in environmental architecture should not be how to design a sustainable building but the ways in which design participates in processes of ecological transformation. [1] The 1960 design of the British Petroleum headquarters in Lagos by international development architects Maxwell Fry & Jane Drew is a perfect example of “tropical architecture” with its use of brise-soleils and its bioclimatic concern with local conditions, including humidity levels, wind direction, and solar orientation. But this building also gave form to the administration of wide ranging environmental destruction. At that particular time and in the decades that followed, Shell British Petroleum was one of the key players in the oil contamination of the Niger Delta. Between 1958 and 2010, oil industries spilled between nine and thirteen million barrels of oil into the Delta ecosystem. The BP headquarters were not a distant relation but a central part of oil’s extractive architecture. They were necessary in managing the circulation of commodities from Nigeria to the US and Europe and housed what was mostly a white labor force. To say that architecture is an environmental agent doesn’t simply apply to its direct material consequences (the disruption of water tables or deforestation that are typically associated with exploitative forms of urbanization, for instance). It concerns its participation in broader environmental assemblages as well. To the frequently wavered claim that architects are responsible to the building only, such willful refusal to answer for architectures’ broader consequences is at best a cynical position, and at worst a contribution to ecocide. If to this we add the common practice of playing along in providing “sustainable” and “ecological” images for greedy corporations, we start to realize the extent to which environmental neglect has characterized architectural practices.
Environmental violence is molecular
We are not all in this together. Some environments are changing faster than others: in the US for instance, African American, Latino, and Native American communities have been disproportionately affected by the decision to locate polluting industries or toxic waste treatment stations in their vicinity. What distinguishes environmental violence is how it is often invisible, slow, remote and indirect—in other words, molecular. Contaminants such as mercury and arsenic left behind by mining, or pesticides used in the maintenance of plantation monocultures, slowly transform environments, and in doing so, often reinforce racial or colonial forms of violence (of course, colonialism was always an environmental project). [2] Globally, areas of resource extraction tend to map out according to racial lines, whereby it is the minorities, the wretched, which suffer most from the molecular effects of capitalism: be it directly from oil spills, water contaminations or air pollutants, or indirectly via the transformations these impose to modes of coexistence. [3] It is in great part because natural violence is often imperceptible that such forms of violence can continue to take place. But when resistance emerges, environmental violence can become direct and visible. Indigenous peoples are particularly at risk: according to Global Witness in 2016 alone 201 environmental activists were killed across the world, most of whom from indigenous groups. [4] Women are at the forefront of environmental struggles: initiatives like Womin, Not1More, or COPINH (founded by Berta Cáceres) have been key to highlight gender discrimination and violence in environmental disputes. In the context of today’s ecological transformations, more urgent than designing sustainable futures for a future climate change is recognizing how, for most people, the current situation is already unsustainable.

Environments are relations of coexistence
But what are environments? Often confused with habitats, ecosystems, or ecologies, an environment is a medium or milieu. Medium here should be understood not as an entity per se but as a consistency formed by relations of coexistence. A lake is an environment, but not as a geographical entity. For an environment to exist the formation of a stable space or consistency is required: in this case a stable (but not static) relation between water, geological strata, climate, fish, algae, etc. These settings are the consistency generated by modes of coexistence between living and non-living bodies. They are consistent relations between bodies, but their demarcation is not necessarily a line, a border, or a date. Instead, they are existentially demarcated. The limit of one environment is the end of a mode of coexistence. A forest, for instance, is a very peculiar mode of coexistence that, as Eduardo Kohn has shown, is maintained by a broad range of communicational processes (biosemiotics) without which it could not persist. [5] Environments are always collective, always in composition with other surroundings, always dynamically affecting and being affected by the elements that produce them. In other words, environments are the product of relations of coexistence, among living and non-living entities. [6] Coexistence is not only molecular but also semiotic: by this I am referring not only to the signifying semiotics of language and symbols, or more broadly to the those of icons and indexes, but to all other forms of a-signifying semiotics that, like molecular relations, are at stake in environmental relationships, such as those between bacteria, trees, and stones. It is molecular and semiotic relations that should be the object of environmental architecture, with the caveat, of course, being that humans are not the only environmentalists around. Animals and plants, fungus and bacteria, all these participate in the production and transformation of environments.
Environments represent themselves
While so much contemporary work about climate change and the Anthropocene focuses on how to represent or visualize changing Earth systems, it is often left to the side that the world is already a sensorium of environmental transformations; a sensorium of changes in modes of coexistence. This is evident in how black snow expresses pollution in the Artic, and how the increase of mental health disorders in urban contexts demonstrate the precarization of labor relations. We require a different attention to the world’s capacity to represent itself. [7] This is where techno-science enters: the molecular nature of environmental change has been pushing a different sensibility to material properties, acoustics, and chemicals, as much as it has to the technologies that allow us to capture them, from climatic simulations to remote-sensing technologies, reflection seismology tools, big data analysis, and material and archival sampling practices. All this has been key to feed the discussion of new problems and the constitution of new politics. However, an engagement with techno-sciences can only be emancipatory if these are seen as practices, as modes of existing in the world, and not as expert representations detached from a world out-there; if they are seen as part of concrete environmental assemblages, instead of devices to eliminate the legitimacy of other modes of expression or existence. [8] A renewed environmental aesthetics should be a project in polyphony insofar as representing is always an intervention into environments, a practice that takes place within pre-existing semiotic relations of coexistence. This was the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s writing of poetry as his way to intervene (in a non-pacific way) in the destruction of Ogonilands’ environments by Shell Oil. The fact that environments represent themselves indicates that the challenge for this type of architecture is not so much the aesthetics of how to best represent or visualize, but how to practice environmental transformation as an aesthetics.

Thinking the future otherwise
The polyphonic dimension of an environmental aesthetics requires the opening of ways to practice the future otherwise. The key point is to not see futures as predictions; the future is not a bet, but the dismantling of power-relations that are presented as certain or eternal. In this sense, the future is something that is practiced, in the way that Afrofuturism pursued in writing and in music a future where whiteness and patriarchy did not own the exclusive rights to science and fiction. What follows is that it is not only the time to come that has to be disputed, but our relation with time. For the Atacamenos in Chile, for instance, it is the past that lies in front of us, as that which we can see, while the future is invisible and as such behind us. How, then, does one accelerate towards the future while walking backwards? This promethean premise becomes unraveled by one of those other futures that have been around for a long time, and that despite colonial or racial projects’ best wishes, is not a thing of the past. Three key aspects are worth highlighting in contemporary conversations about the future: discovering how sites of technological mutation can become places of environmental and subjective re-invention; considering the rights of those that cannot bear responsibilities such as “nature” and coming generations; and expanding the structures of thought upon which the idea itself of a future is built upon. [9]

To re-imagine what might be architectures of coexistence, we should strive to practice futures that are based on dignity and justice.

For this we could start by learning from Ursula Le Guin’s eco-feminism and her imaginations of care as a guiding principle of inhabiting the Earth, or from the environmental speculations of Afrofuturism, from Sun-Ra to Octavia Butler. [10]
Environmental monocultures are a project in subjectivity
Monoculture is commonly associated with imperial expansion and its conversion of biodiverse areas of land into singe-species plantation—as a matter of soils, waters and chemicals; of patents, Monsanto herbicides, and industrial farming techniques; a matter of losing plant, animal, and insect species; of exploiting, drying, erasing, and plundering the Earth. But monocultures are first and foremost a problem of subjectivity, that manifests in two key ways: in the erasure of alternative modes of living and production—for instance, in the dismissal of subsistence agriculture by industrialized agriculture and agribusinesses as reactionary or primitive—and in capitalism’s endless production of commoditized lifestyles—each with its own app, dress code, specialized shop or film and music culture. As Guattari said, “Capitalism launches (subjective) models the way the automobile industry launches a new line of cars.” [11] Which is also to say that capitalism requires the bringing together of the material/energetic economy and the subjective one. This is evident in the coupling of new forms of precarious labor with the promotion of “socially liberated” and flexible work/life relations, or in the global promotion of real estate developments with lush tropical imagery as an index of “green” and “sustainable” living. Despite their diversity, capitalist models of subjectivity are all anchored in the same principle of valorization (profit), and in the same mode of relating to and conceiving of nature (extraction). Monocultures are as much a matter of soya as they are of desire. Be it in hinterlands or urban centers, monoculture is a project with both material and subjective dimensions.

Militancy can only be from the middle
To think the future otherwise is not to refuse architecture’s long tradition of vanguard thinking, but to acknowledge that its ability to recognize and engage concrete struggles has been very limited. It is also to recognize that architecture has historically been privileged, colonial, and male, existing comfortably within structures of domination and control. The consequences of climate and environmental change are surely an incentive for the transformation of the practice. But before attempting to yet again conquer the space of the vanguard, environmental architecture can only emerge from engaging the multiplicity of projects of future that are already being practiced around the world: from Chiapas and Rojava to Marinaleda, or Alto Comedero [12]; from Barcelona en Comu’s experiment in radical democracy, to ECSA’s development of post-blockchain technologies or the Yasuní ITT initiative in Ecuador. [13] The list could go on. These are not ideal models, but often-precarious projects of emancipation that could do with being supported and expanded upon. Architecture can have an important role in these processes, from the design of collective equipment or infrastructure to spatial research in the form of reports and the deployment of analytical and representational tools to support environmental claims in legal forums. This leads to a form of practice that can only be characterized as militant: intervening from within social movements and popular organizations, NGOs, or governmental institutions. It is a matter of moving from the position of providing services to that of critically supporting ongoing processes of social transformation, be it at the scale of small communities of international alliances. Expanding epistemic, economic, legal, or democratic cannons has to take center stage: if environmental architecture is to engage with the future, it should start from the middle of the futures that already exist.
From modes of living to modes of coexistence
If the way architecture conceives of the environment remains limited to its current form—something out there that surrounds us—architects and designers will remain unable (or unwilling) to address environmental relations that are in cities as much as in forests. Recognizing how environments consist of semiotic and molecular processes of coexistence between all kinds of bodies aims to address this issue. It implies, for instance, that architecture affects and is affected by the world in far more complex ways than usually assumed. In fact, architectural history is immensely rich in environmental concepts, from the quanat to the roman aqueduct, the nineteenth century greenhouse, or the air-conditioned interiors of post-war US. By organizing customs, habits, rituals, and protocols of being in the world, all these architectures gave form to very different socio-environmental ecologies. This is, after all, what architecture has always done best: to provide consistency to modes of living through the design of infrastructure and collective equipment. [14] And yet, the radical challenge for environmental architecture is not simply that of providing consistency to human modes of living, but to modes of coexisting. By coexistence I mean the possibility of an architecture that has care instead of domestication as the driver for being with and among others. Who or what these “others” are will vary from case to case. Perhaps the spirits of the dead, perhaps soil, perhaps future generations.

*Text originally published in e-flux Architecture in the initiative Positions.


  1. See as well a recent study by Yale University with evidence of racial and economic gaps in affects from air pollution: Cheryl Katz, People in Poor Neighborhoods Breathe More Hazardous Particles, on Scientific American, Environmental Health News, November 1, 2012. Accessed on October 3, 2018: [https://wwwscientificamerican.com/article/people-poor-neighborhoodsbreate-more-hazardous-particles/]. (Recently, similar motives have led Black Lives Matter UK to close down London City airport in protest).

  2. Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997); Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh. The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization As Climate Change in the Negev Desert (Steidl, 2015); Jason W. Moore, Capitalism In The Web Of Life: Ecology And The Accumulation Of Capital (London: Verso, 2015).

  3. Françoise Vergés, “A Racial Capitalocene,” in Futures of Black Radicalism, ed. Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (London: Verso, 2017).

  4. According to Global Witness figures of killings of environmental activists in 2016, thirty-three deaths resulted from conflicts against mining and extractivism, twenty-three against logging, twenty-three against agribusiness, eighteen against poaching, and eight related to water conflicts. A hundred and five murdered people whose absence leaves a community wound.

  5. On this last point see Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 2015).

  6. See as well Felix Guattari, Schizoanalytic Cartographies (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), for the important distinction between non-signifying and a-signifying semiotics.

  7. On this topic see Nicholas Mirzoeff, Visualizing the Anthropocene (Public Culture 26, No. 2, 2014), p. 213–232.

  8. Isabelle Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” Cultural Studies Review 11, no. 1, 2005.

  9. Every technology redistributes a set of affective coordinates and opens up possibilities for political re-imagination, whether this is a conflict over the resolution of remote sensors, the classification of hydrocarbons, or estimates of financial credit rating. See Godofredo Pereira, “Dead Commodities,” Cabinet 43, August 2011.

  10. “Sur,” first published in The New Yorker, February 1, 1982, 38. See also Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower, 1993.

  11. Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolution (Paris: Union Generale d’editions, 1977), p. 95.

  12. I’m referring to the Zapatista experiment in Chiapas, Mexico; to the feminist self-managed Kurdish communities of Rojava in Syria; and to the self-managed Tupacamaru indigenous community of Alto Comedero, in Argentina. These are only a few, among a wide list of examples from all around the world.

  13. On Barcelona en Comu, see Manuela Zechner, “Barcelona en Comu: The City as a Horizon for Radical Democracy,” ROAR, March 4, 2015. Regarding the Yasuní proposal see Godofredo Pereira, “Anomalous Alliances: Nature and Politics in the Yasuní Proposal,” Anthropocene Curriculum & Campus, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2017.

  14. Importantly, to give in this sense is not simply reinforcing what exists, but also providing support in such a way that collectives can empower and transform themselves.

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