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Climate emergency means it's time for architects to step up

Hugh Pearman

What will future historians think of the way the profession responds to the challenge?

For me and plenty of others there is nothing finer than a good archive, be it of drawings, photos or in our case the bound volumes of this magazine back to 1893, which we drew on extensively last year (our 125th). Having the RIBA Library next door to the office is an incredible resource, as devotees of our Parting Shot, selected each month by the curators of the famously extensive Robert Elwall Photographs Collection housed there, will testify. A 19th century photograph of Notre Dame de Paris last month, a 1970s photograph of the then-pristine new settlement of Thamesmead this month, a rare Lutyens Scottish pub with royal connections another. 

Meanwhile, dedicated people are cataloguing and conserving the work of some of the best architects in the world for the collections. Such material is so easily lost and, once safeguarded, it has to be made sense of and made accessible. It’s easy to take such long-term activities for granted, or even to question their necessity when architects are struggling day to day but, often thanks to generous funders, it is one of the glories of the RIBA that they happen at all.

In Edwardian times the profession was concerned about air pollution. Eventually the Clean Air Acts transformed people’s lives

I am keenly aware that in producing an architecture magazine month by month (and daily online) we are producing the archive material of tomorrow. Sometimes directly, such as the way the winners of our annual Eye Line drawing competition are considered for inclusion in the collections. Last year’s winner Tszwai So of Spheron Architects has kindly agreed to donate his winning image. (Deadline for this year's entries is Monday June 10.)

Archives teach you many things, above all that the main concerns of architects seldom change much. When the archivists of the future look back on what was engaging architects as we moved into the 2020s, what will we be able to offer? The same old debates about the declining influence of the profession (and fee levels), trad versus modernist, uncomprehending planners, dodgy builders, stop-start government policies and so forth? Or can we offer something new, something positive, that will demonstrate this was the time when architects got a grip?

I remember looking in the archives and finding an Edwardian RIBA president stirring a fire of smokeless coal in his office. He and the profession were concerned about air pollution (and soot damage to buildings of course). Progress was slow but eventually the Clean Air Acts transformed people’s lives – and life expectancy. 

Today we have an environment and climate emergency, declared by Parliament on 1 May. If ever there was a time for architects to step forward and change things for the better, permanently, it is now. This is the challenge that the whole profession needs to get behind. Not at some undefined point in the future. Now. But how?

Please write to us with your ideas for action.