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We’re not powerless: our skills can build a future to be proud of

Nick Newman

Nick Newman, climate activist and director of Studio Bark, hopes his favourite book of 2019 will galvanise architects into more positive action

‘Power to the tower: Protest architecture inspired by 'U-Build' – Studio Bark's Nick Newman stands atop. Boxes were crowdfunded and assembled collectively by participants as part of 'International Rebellion 2' in October 2019.
‘Power to the tower: Protest architecture inspired by 'U-Build' – Studio Bark's Nick Newman stands atop. Boxes were crowdfunded and assembled collectively by participants as part of 'International Rebellion 2' in October 2019. Credit: Natasha Leoni

On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, Naomi Klein, Allen Lane/Penguin Random House, 2019

Some people might think it’s an odd choice for an architect to be nominating a book about politics and global affairs like On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein, but I hope it highlights that we’re not in ordinary times. With events like the terrible flood in Venice – one of our greatest architecture treasures and a UNESCO World Heritage site – the climate crisis comes closer to home. It does make you wake up. And it’s important that we make the connection to why it’s relevant to us in the world of architecture.

I was arrested in October as a result of my actions with the Architects Climate Action Network and Extinction Rebellion, for being chained to the top of a piece of protest architecture. As a group of citizens, we were choosing to rebel against a government that isn’t taking sufficient action to address the climate crisis.

I chose the book because it’s an amazing piece of work that looks into the causes of how we got into this perilous climate situation, and promotes a course of action – the Green New Deal – that could be a viable way forward (the name is a reference to the New Deal promoted by President Roosevelt in the 1930s).

Fire is a constant theme in the book, whether the wildfires that have been burning in Canada, the US and Australia, or in Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech where she demanded that governments should all be acting with the same urgency as if their house is on fire (because it is).

We’ve burned our way into this situation. The book shows a link between two systems: the Adam Smith economic theory of growth which is the foundation of modern capitalism, and the rise of burning fossil fuels and the culture of ‘extractivism’. The latter is also linked to the idea of ‘othering’ – that it is acceptable, if you don’t have enough resources in your own country, to export your problems elsewhere and keep finding other places to exploit. This extractivism has come at a huge cost. Klein’s theory is that we are now at the end of this process as there is nowhere left to exploit, and that the system is starting to turn inward on itself. People are unable to support themselves in their own countries, which have been turned into ‘climate sacrifice zones’, and so are looking to move to other countries. As a result, we’re getting Fortress Britain and Fortress US, and putting up walls against the victims trying to flee to safety.

Our system can only function because of the ‘othering’ of places that we still rely on for our cheap labour and resources. The practice of architecture, unfortunately, is not innocent here. We’re complicit in this act.

For the past 10 years, I’ve worked with practices trying to push the key sustainable policies of the day. This has been rewarding, but it feels like an incremental approach that is no longer enough. It’s clear that the climate emergency is no longer an issue facing future generations, it is happening now.

We need to be more radical in how we practise. This book is trying to fight against the convention of modest responses and being sensitive to the status quo by ‘not rocking the boat’. The time for that is gone.

If incremental and individual change isn’t enough, then we need to look at doing things on a group level – as architects and citizens – in order to lobby for change. There has been a shift in collective conscience with the rise of the Architects Climate Action Network, Architects Declare, and for an organisation such as the RIBA to declare an environment and climate emergency. There has been a step change in activity around the issue and I feel the direction of travel has now been set. There is the opportunity for anyone reading this book to turn a feeling of powerlessness to a sense of purpose.

The Green New Deal in the book tackles not just climate and environmental emergency but the huge amount of structural inequality in society. There is the potential to address both problems at the same time. And for architects, the situation is offering the chance of a lifetime to put our skills towards building a future that we’re all proud of. We like to think of our architecture as positive contributions to society, but if you look at our work in terms of carbon intensity, architects are probably one of the highest users of energy, especially compared with, for example, carers or teachers. But we have the potential for great good, rather than continuing acts of what one day may even be termed ecocide – crimes against ecology.

Opportunities can be offered for fair wages on a massive scale to put people to work restoring habitats and insulating buildings. Retrofit and adaptation should be what we’re about, not building new. Architects, who have a wealth of understanding of how buildings are put together, have the chance to go to work on bringing everything up to scratch – sensitively, and with care. There’s a massive role for knowledge and creativity.

I’d like people to consider a change in scale and perspective at this key time when climate change is moving up the political agenda.

I’d encourage people to read this book and understand what it could mean – a future predicated on more criteria than profit driven architecture. We can become richer in the communities that we build, finding circular economic solutions and becoming custodians rather than looters of the natural world. There is so much potential for positive change.

Text by Pamela Buxton based on conversation with Nick Newman

Read about four other recommended books:

Annalie Riches of Mikhail Riches on Wilding – The return of nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree

Matt Barnett Howland of CSK Architects on In Praise of Shadows by Junichirõ Tanizaki

Owen Hopkins, director of the Centre for Architecture and Cities at Newcastle University, on Radical Technologies: The design of everyday life, by Adam Greenfield

Tszwai So, director of Spheron Architects, on How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett