Architecture and the Death of Carbon Modernity

Log 47 reconceives architecture’s role in climate change away from sustainability and solutionism and toward its formal complicity and potential agency in addressing the crisis. In this excerpt from her introductory essay, guest editor Elisa Iturbe defines carbon form as a necessary new way of understanding architecture and urbanism in order to develop a new disciplinary paradigm.

Until now, most environmental discourse in architecture has focused on carbon as a by-product of building and construction, making it seem that at the ecological brink, the most pressing concern is energy efficiency. This stance compartmentalizes the discipline and dislocates the origin of the climate crisis from the dominant political, economic, and spatial organizations that are its cause. In response to this dislocation, Log: 47 Overcoming Carbon Form reconsiders the link between architecture and climate by exploring the reciprocity between energy and built form. To do so, energy must be understood beyond its technical capacity, viewed instead as a political and cultural force with inevitable spatial repercussions.

Log 47: Cover

Three paradigms of energy capture mark human history – foraging, agriculture, and carbon-intensive fossil fuels. At each transition from one to the next, the productive capacity of human society was transformed, restructuring the existing social order and engendering a corresponding spatial and architectural paradigm. The shift from a nomadic to an agricultural society gave rise to towns, villages, and cities; the ensuing shift to an industrial society driven by fossil fuels gave rise to factory towns, global trade networks, suburbs, and megacities. This most recent spatial paradigm, which I call carbon form, is the focus of Log. The aim here is twofold. First is to identify our current energy paradigm as a driver of urban and architectural form. When burning fossil fuels established a new horizon of possibility for production, society reorganized itself around the availability of abundant energy, which was immediately legible in space as new architectural typologies and urban growth patterns emerged. Second is to implicate architectural and urban form in the creation and unfolding of the anthropogenic climate crisis in a way that looks beyond the immediate quantification of a carbon footprint. Our current built environment has created spatial configurations that enmesh the cultural, economic, and political aspects of social life within an energy-intensive network of space and form. As a result, we cannot think of the built environment as passively receiving energy from the grid but rather as actively giving form to energy-intensive ways of life, from individual consumption to the dynamics of global capitalism. This, more than the day-to-day energy use of buildings and cities, is the more significant obstacle to meaningful change in the face of a worsening ecological disaster. Regardless of increased energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions in individual buildings, the built environment as we know it will be fundamentally unable to supplant the current energy paradigm or to address the climate crisis as long as its core is constituted by carbon form. Any proposal for the future must first deal with overcoming this cultural and architectural legacy. To do so, it is necessary to recognize the spatial expression of carbon energy – carbon form – as a site of intervention, which in turn reveals that architecture has a significant role in defining the outcome of this increasingly uncertain phase of human and planetary history.

Suburban development near San Diego, California. Architecture will be unable to address the climate crisis as long as the core of the built environment is largely carbon forms. Photo: Google, TerraMetrics

Overcoming Carbon Form

The idea of carbon form posits that architecture is an index of energy flows – form follows energy. However, an architecture dependent on energy and its corresponding technologies for its form is condemned to reflect and give shape to the dominant energy paradigm, capitulating to a timeline of existing technologies and maintaining its given role in the fossil economy. Thus architecture that is operative in the prelude to energy transition, rather than its wake, must be catalytic of new spatial, social, and energetic organizations and not rely on energy for the derivation of its form. In other words, we must denounce carbon form for its reduction of architecture to an epiphenomenon so that the overcoming of carbon form can bring about new sites of architectural agency. 

Carson, California. Photo: Google, Maxar Technologies

Given architecture’s current entanglement with carbon capitalism, it is clearly in need of a new ambition, creating an unlikely parallel to the Modern Movement. As Le Corbusier said, “Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and for the city.” Our moment also demands new architectural and urban organizations, a new plan for how we live. But unlike the modernists, for whom the relevant energy transition had already occurred, our energy transition is yet to come. While their present was the raw material for their proposed futures, our present is one from which we cannot build. because the fossil economy continues to govern the production of architecture.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Photo: Google, Maxar Technologies

Architecture is both as powerful and as powerless as it has ever been. The question is whether architecture can harness its power. If it had the capacity to give form to emergent social structures at the beginning of the 20th century, then it should also have the capacity to give form to an alternative today. Architecture’s ability to transform the city in our time will not result from the incorporation of technological advancements in building systems, fabrication, or design software, but by how radically architects are willing to reject the carbon fueled myth of unlimited growth and lay the groundwork for the coming transitions in energy and social form.

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Cite: Elisa Iturbe. "Architecture and the Death of Carbon Modernity" 21 Dec 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Mall of Qatar at the Rawdat Rashed Interchange, Al Rayyan, Qatar. Postcard image, Log 47: Overcoming Carbon Form. Photo: Maxar Technologies

Elisa Iturbe:碳基城市之死

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