Should Architects Continue to Design Airports in the Age of Climate Change?
“The climate is changing,” declared Architect Editor in Chief Ned Cramer back in 2017. “So must architecture.” The sustainability and net-zero movements have been steadily growing since 2006, when Architecture 2030 and newly minted AIA Gold Medal recipient Ed Mazria launched the 2030 Challenge. This initiative asked the global building community to formally adopt new standards regarding greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption for all new construction and major renovations. The 2030 Challenge proved to be the catalyst for a surge in like-minded organizations that formulated their own manifestos, calls to actions and associated pledge networks—among them AIA’s 2030 Commitment, RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge, Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), the Living Building Institute’s Living Building Challenge, and most recently, Architects Declare. Some stayed with performance benchmarks in line with that of their key predecessor, while others introduced language that was less shy about hitting the rhetorical panic button when it came to the climate crisis.
But even in the middle of this global crisis, we have begun to see pushback on commitments that are viewed by some as too extreme. Within the last few weeks, Foster + Partners, the U.K.’s largest and arguably most high-profile architecture practice, announced that it was withdrawing from the climate action organization Architects Declare (aka U.K. Architects Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency). Within 24 hours of that public announcement, Zaha Hadid Architects, now under the leadership of Patrik Schumacher, did the same.
At the heart of this debate, which has been more than a year in the making, is the construction of new airports. In October 2019, mere months after signing on to Architects Declare, ZHA won the design of the £2.9 billion Western Sydney International Airport; then in July of this year, ACAN called on Foster + Partners to either drop its plans to design an airport in Saudi Arabia that would primarily service a luxury resort or withdraw from Architects Declare altogether.
It all came to a head last October, when Schumacher gave a speech at the 2020 Conference organized by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. In that speech, he asserted that “continued growth and prosperity” is necessary to combating climate change, but warned against quick and radical change that may well lead to “degrowth and breaking up global supply chains.” This evidently did not sit well with the Architects Declare steering group, which on November 24 issued a statement—a challenge, if you will—under the title “ZHA should live up to its climate promises or withdraw them” that read, “There are some things we need to urgently shrink, such as hyper-consumption, luxury lifestyles, and unconstrained aviation.” The statement continued, “Sadly, there remain signatory practices who appear determined to continue with business as usual. This is seriously undermining the effectiveness and credibility of [Architects Declare], so we call on those practices to either join the wave of positive change or have the integrity to withdraw.” Although not mentioned by name in the group’s statement, Foster + Partners clearly took exception.
One week after the steering group’s written hand-wringing, Norman Foster said in a statement, “We believe the hallmark of our age, and the future of our globally connected world, is mobility. … Agriculture and aviation are not going to go away and they will both need the most sustainable buildings to serve them together with the architects who can most responsibly design them.” While curbing the tide of “unconstrained aviation” was not among Architects Declare’s stated commitments upon its founding, the back-and-forth suggests that, at some point, both Foster and Schumacher inferred that the organization was making real-time amendments to its goals and standards. If that is the case, they’re not entirely wrong.
What may appear on the surface like some minor squabble over the merit of building new airports is actually quite more. The act of any climate action group publicly calling out one of its signatories, and such a high-profile one at that, for failing to abide its pledge, is unprecedented. It is also, in this particular case, tantamount to catching flies with vinegar.
Established in May 2019, Architects Declare started off with a bang. Foster and ZHA were among the 17 original signatories, which represented a feather in everyone’s cap. The organization’s founding principles stated, in part, “For everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour.” In the ensuing months, the group gained more than 1,000 signatories (a little under one-third of all RIBA-chartered practices) and launched its sister initiative, Construction Declares, comprising an international consortium of 26 countries, each with their own network of architects, engineers, and consultancies.
To the steering group’s underlying point, the climate crisis is an existential threat and, in a perfect world, we should be fully transitioning to a carbon-free society across all aspects of life. New, enormous and carbon-intensive projects—like, say, international airports—are clearly not contributing to the goal of a carbon-free world. Despite Schumacher’s supposed best intentions when it comes to “continued growth and prosperity,” supporting the growth of an industry that represents such a large carbon footprint takes us in the opposite direction in which we should be headed.
Practically speaking, however, even in a post-Covid world we will remain reliant on air travel and all the conveniences that come with it. For Architects Declare to draw such a line in the sand and seemingly expect there to be an instantaneous, albeit gradual, move away from carbon-based transportation is, to Schumacher’s point, somewhat “radical” and frankly myopic. The steering group’s apparent inability to achieve internally some degree of compromise has made this whole ordeal a public spectacle and, consequently, does potential damage to the organization’s image and mission.
Now, to Foster’s and Schumacher’s underlying points, it’s foolish to assume that a business can simply refuse a lucrative commission like, for example, Beijing’s Daxing International Airport, and making some effort, however nominal, to create a low-impact, high-performing project is not nothing. If a design practice were to refuse outright or walk away from that project in its early stages, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that will be the death knell for said project. On the contrary, that client will simply go elsewhere and perhaps hire a practice that institutionally has made far less commitment to finding environmental solutions. The loss of this revenue, and subsequent loss of work stemming from their refusal to undertake such projects, would have real consequences on the health of their business and threaten the job security of many employees. This approach is economically unsustainable.
In all fairness, given Foster’s and ZHA’s portfolios to date, there can be justifiable debate over just how committed these practices are to leading wholesale change in how building design can combat climate change. In his statement, Foster did go to great lengths in touting his firm’s sustainability accomplishments, citing a curated sampling of projects including the Hearst Tower in Manhattan and the Queen Alia Airport in Jordan, which are certainly representative of progress made but hardly emblematic of his firm’s oeuvre.
Standalone critiques or analyses of one firm’s sustainability record versus another notwithstanding, are industry leaders like ZHA and Foster willing to push back or even decline commissions that may be deemed environmentally perilous? Or does one’s financial bottom line override what is today the profession’s moral and ethical obligations to, at minimum, mitigate the damage caused by buildings, the largest single source of CO2 emissions? In the stark words of architect Richard Buday, “The end is nigh, and we are why.”
However necessary this public rift may have been at this moment in history—and it truly does feel like a watershed moment—it should not and cannot be precedent-setting. That would only lead to more committees of more climate action groups publicly calling out high-profile signatories for accepting a controversial commission or, worse, failing to meet certain performance targets that, if we’re being honest, were always nonbinding. Let us avoid going down this all-or-nothing path. In the end we all lose, and along the way we are forced to reckon with the unpleasant reality that statements on par with that of the steering group are toothless and the withdrawing parties, at least in the public theater, appear to favor martyrdom over solidarity.
For no other reason than the political and social implications it would carry, Foster and ZHA should swallow their pride and rejoin the pledge they signed in 2019, but not unconditionally. There is a balance to be struck here, even if it is an uneasy one. Climate action groups like ACAN and Architects Declare shouldn’t pump the breaks; on the contrary, their manifestos should adopt strong (and evolving) language to address the climate crisis and outline best practices for the building community writ large to meet standards that, at minimum, mitigate damage caused by new construction and renovation, and at best, produce net-positive outcomes in terms of energy production and consumption over the long term.
But the goal of climate commitments like Architects Declare, as well as ratings systems and certifications, is not to upend one’s business model; the goal is to be the North Star and facilitate a more rapid progression in due time.
Maintaining business as usual isn’t a real option, and any half-sane practice with some skin in the game knows this as gospel. But the goal of climate commitments like Architects Declare, as well as rating systems and certifications such as LEED, WELL, Edge, et al., is not to upend one’s business model; the goal is to be the north star and facilitate a more rapid progression in due time. If and when rifts like this occur in the future, the world would be better served if that spirited debate occurred in the public theater, and any finger pointing, ultimatums, or other critiques were kept an internal matter.
Climate action groups should also be prepared to tackle the key issue—and not in the philosophical sense—of how to reconcile the practical realities of the industrialized world with the real need to become a carbon-free global society. If large-scale transportation projects are suddenly off-limits, then Architects Declare is beholding its signatories to unrealistic standards in the short-term. Are hospitals and data centers suddenly in the same camp as airports, or do those get a free pass for some reason? Issuing ultimatums in such a public manner to the practices that have the greatest capacity to lead by example (and compete for commissions at a very high level) will only distract from solving critical problems and do irreparable damage to the movement’s credibility.
Featured image: The Foster + Partners design for “an ultra-luxury tourism project” in Saudi Arabia. Rendering via the architects.