The Sharjah Architectural Triennial could be one of the built environment professionals gatherings of importance in the MENA region. Here is an article dated 25 August 2019 written by Rima Alsammarae who gives a fairly well-described idea of some thoughts of this event’s main contributor. And according to this latter, the Sharjah Architecture Triennial will address climate change.
The event was founded in 2017 and is led by Sheikh Khalid Al Qasimi, Chairman of Sharjah Urban Planning Council.The Triennial editions aim to highlight topical aspects of architecture and urbanism that have local relevance and to engage Sharjah’s existing built environment and social fabric.
Middle East Architect (MEA) speaks with curator Adrian Lahoud, who says the triennial is an invitation to ‘radically rethink’ questions about architecture and address climate change – ‘the most urgent challenge facing humanity today’.
The coastal emirate of Sharjah is the third largest city in the United Arab Emirates – and it’s considered the cultural capital of the country. Among the many cultural centres, government institutions that support art-led initiatives, and the ongoing regeneration of heritage spaces, the emirate’s creative realm is further defined by the upcoming Sharjah Architecture Triennial.
The latest move in connecting the city’s motivations with its architectural past and future, as well as a step towards rethinking its urban and environmental footprint, in addition to that of the wider Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, the triennial was launched as a non-profit initiative and is legally housed under the Sharjah Urban Planning Council and funded by the Government of Sharjah. Chaired by Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the team behind the initiative is formed by its partners including the Directorate of Town Planning and Survey; the American University of Sharjah’s College of Architecture, Art & Design (CAAD); the Sharjah Art Foundation; and Bee’ah.
The curator of the triennial, Adrian Lahoud, architect, urban designer and dean of the School of Architecture at London’s Royal College of Art, spoke to MEA about the event ahead of its launch in November 2019.
According to Lahoud, the theme ‘Rights of Future Generations’ is an invitation to “radically rethink” fundamental questions about architecture and its power to create and sustain alternative modes of existence.
“The theme prompts us to interrogate the fact that, while individual rights have expanded over the past few decades, collective rights, such as rights of nature and environmental rights have been neglected,” he said.
“Following various lines of enquiry around housing, education and the environment, the triennial seeks to question and decolonise architectural discourse; it uses architectural design as an opportunity to realise these alternative modes of living, including new concepts of buildings, cities, landscapes and territories, and to consider how these may be better adapted and understood as part of contemporary life and possible futures.”
Rights of Future Generations intends to explore how inheritance, legacy and the state of the environment are passed from one generation to the next, and how present decisions have long-term intergenerational consequences, as well as how other expressions of co-existence, including indigenous ones, might challenge dominant western perspectives.
Lahoud noted that inherent in the theme is a commitment to address climate change as the most urgent challenge facing humanity today.
“Through its exploration of how particular conditions in the Global South produce unique relationships between human beings and the environment, the triennial seeks to bring awareness to specific models,” he said. “Ones that allow interacting and living with the environment, rather than dividing ourselves from it.”
In addition to raising awareness via the exhibition and public events, the triennial has formed the Rights of Future Generations Working Group. Its mission is to advance the protection of future generations’ fundamental rights in a world where climate change is dramatically shifting along socio-economic, legal, gender, racial and political dimensions.
The group will collaboratively produce the Sharjah Charter to be presented as part of the triennial, which Lahoud hopes will prove to be a significant moment in the ongoing global discourse around climate change.
“I believe that architecture as a practice holds a key role in addressing climate change,” Lahoud said. “However, in order to leverage this potential, we must move away from the extractive and exploitative models that dominate architectural practice. We are at a point of ecological collapse and one fact must not be ignored: that the sites, regions and populations most immediately and irreversibly threatened by climate change are the same ones that face regimes of global socio-economic extraction and exploitation.
“Valuable insight can, therefore, be drawn from paying attention to existing social struggles at the frontline of climate change, including indigenous ones. There is a particular problem with the western ontological distinction between humans and the environment. This distinction views architecture as ‘shelter’ from the environment, thereby validating land grab and resource extraction. Human history offers a myriad of examples of alternative social orders, of relationships between humans and other beings that evolved according to various beliefs and practices, and through these examples, we might understand our agency and relationship with the world differently.”
Most recently, the triennial announced the two venues that it will be held at – the old Jubail vegetable market and the Al-Qasimiyah School, which is currently being renovated to form the triennial’s permanent headquarters.
The choice in venues was no coincidence, asserts Lahoud. They speak directly to the theme of the triennial. Both buildings are leading examples of the emirate’s 1970s and 80s architecture. And in the adaptive reuse of these structures, the triennial offers a sustainable approach and example of working with existing infrastructure.
“The mission of the triennial is to serve as a space for dialogue that supports an emerging generation of architects drawn from across the Global South and their diaspora,” said Lahoud. “Ultimately, we hope to prompt our audiences to rethink the potential of architecture – to interrogate existing models, disrupt dominant perspectives and consider the alternative ways of living that can be formed.
“Inherent to the theme of Rights of Future Generations is a commitment to legacy building, and I hope to create a lasting community beyond the exhibition,” Lahoud said. “Physically, the school will serve as a central hub for architectural learning within Sharjah. For those based in other regions, texts and publications produced during the triennial will be available across a variety of online platforms long after the exhibition has ended, offering a globally accessible resource for those who wish to interrogate existing architectural discourse.”
(Images courtesy of Sharjah Architecture Triennial)
Posted on July 29, 2019, and written by Whitney, an American traveller, is the following article titled Doha, Qatar… Epitome of Opulence. Having personally stayed in the country in the 90’s through to early 2000, I can confirm every single detail of the author’s story. The difference would perhaps be that I was leading a quasi-normal resident life whilst making a living through practising my skills of Architect. Indeed, today there is a bit of a situation vis a vis its surrounding neighbours, Qatar is the most open country in the Middle East but it was not exactly as enthralling as you might imagine in my early years but at least I had the privilege to see before my very eyes, the making of this city. I must say, I did contribute however modestly into the shaping of its skyline. But enough of me, here is Whitney’s.
A tidbit of information – Qatar is the most open country in the Middle East, allowing Transit Visas upon arrival for free, given you have a valid passport and return ticket. These Visas are valid for stays from 5 hours and up to 96. Additionally, Discover Qatar offers one-night free hotel stay in a variety of 5-star accommodations, or two to three nights for a fee of $100 in the same hotels. Given that the layover in Doha is a whopping nine hours, this was absolutely worth the extra money for a good nights sleep in luxury lodging.
Unfortunately, I did not know that Qatar Airlines offered a stopover through Discover Qatar in Doha when Hubs and I initially booked our Maldives flights through Qatar Airlines (ranked the #1 airline in the world). We made this delightful discovery after we had already departed the States. However, the airline (for a fee, of course) altered our flights, and we made a two day pit stop in the incredibly wealthy, insanely hot, and bustling country.
The money flowing through Qatar is obvious before you even land at the airport. From the sky, you can see the intricate, man-made island. The skyscrapers litter the cityscape. Upon landing at the airport, a sparkling air-conditioned building greets you. We were met by a smiling gentleman driving a black luxury sedan. He ferried us the 25 minutes through Doha to our accommodations for the next couple of nights. He deposited us at our five-star hotel in the ‘City Center’, the Marriott Marquis.
Unlike US hotels, security has a much larger presence. We had to go through a metal detector upon returning to the hotel each time we left. They scanned our bags before allowing us access to the enormous lobby. The friendly, multi-lingual front desk checked us in, and we took the elevator up to our room.
Downside to vacationing in a conservative Muslim country… twin beds in hotel rooms.
We are actually married (at least in Slovenia), does that entitle us to at least a queen-sized bed?
However, we were at least provided a decent view through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the city center on the 11th floor.
Tiny little admission… I may have slept brilliantly while buried beneath the blankets in my personal feathery, comfy haven in the starkly cold room thanks to the wonderfully chilly air conditioning.
We began our Doha exploration with a City Tour provided by Discover Qatar for a minimal cost of $24 a person. We were ferried around the city by a local gentleman, who regaled us with Doha facts throughout the jaunt. Doha is the capital of Qatar and boasts a population of about 2.4 million. It is located along the Persian Gulf. He informed us, water is more expensive than fuel in the wealthy country. And if we happened upon any green spaces (grass is a novelty there), it was likely watered every 30 minutes in order to survive in the extreme heat of the desert.
We cruised through the city in air-conditioned comfort in a van, just the two of us and our insightful guide. A few highlights and/or stops:
The Pearl-Qatar, an artificial island jutting into the Gulf, is a $15 billion (so far) project. It will be a stunning residential estate made up of luxury villas and commercial amenities. The project was originally to cost $2.5 Million, but clearly, that budget was a tad off.
A colossal to-scale model of the not yet finished island takes up the first floor of a building, displaying a life-like representation of the what the man-made archipelago will look like upon completion.
The imitation even has people, boats, greenery, and lighting!
And it was so enormous that I could not even get a photo of the entire model in a single photo.
Moral of the story: Sorry for the disjointed photographs that do not portray the full enormity of this undertaking.
Yet another displaying of probably the most financially stable country I have ever travelled to. They successfully made the desert desirable.
MOSQUE (Unfortunately, I don’t recall the name)
We also crept into a mosque. Thankfully, I had smartly packed a shawl and light sweaters to cover my provocative shoulders. I was also clad in baggy, white linen pants (thanks, Athleta for selling breathable and comfortable pants perfect for the occasion).
Anywho… the lower floor, only suitable for men, was basically an open floor for praying. The upper balcony was where the women were relegated to. I was escorted outside to the separate entrance they were banished to. The much smaller space overlooked the men’s sanctuary below. After collecting our footwear, we returned to our Discover Qatar chariot.
MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART
Our guide dumped us at the entrance to the Museum of Islamic Art. This free museum sports an unusual exterior facade. It is geometric and quite unique, looking vaguely similar to a stack of building blocks. Our chaperone challenged us to guess the significance. Stumped, he enlightened us that it is meant to resemble a woman in a hijab with only her eyes visible. If you decide to visit the museum, abide by the conservative dress code, otherwise, you may be refused entrance. Little update: My recent perusal of the museum’s website showed there is now a fee in order to gain entry to the museum. You now… because Qatar is a poor country…
The collection was fascinating, with pieces ranging from the 7th to 19th centuries, and included scrolls, textiles, ceramics, and metalwork, along with items of early mathematical importance. There is also a cafe, a gift shop, and an exterior park. Don’t forget both male and female private pray rooms. The glass windows at the rear of the building provide an uninterrupted view of the water beyond.
We were given 45 minutes to peruse the sprawling Souq Waqif by our chauffeur. The Souq is a maze of vendors selling everything from spices to jewelry to daily goods to birds to furniture. We could have spent hours wandering the alleys, and made a mental note to return later with more time to spare.
Fast forward several hours, and we returned by cab to the Souq. Unlike when we were roving the passageways earlier, most of the merchants were open for business at the later afternoon hour. The bazaar is organized into areas by means of the goods the shopkeep was bartering. Spice hucksters were in one section, while rug peddlers were off in another. I must admit, the souqs have become one of my favorite places to visit common in many Middle Eastern countries. We walked out of there is color footwear, mugs, spices, tea (cinnamon was my poison, but should one have consumed a few too many beans that day, flatulence tea was also an option), kitchen wares, and a chess set. Bartering is welcomed!
We opted to walk the 5.5 km from the Souq back to our hotel. We strolled along the pathway ringing the water front. Due to the requirements of my gender covering up, it was quite the toasty saunter. Regardless of my clamminess, the walk provided quite the view of the very colorful skyline.
And a handstand of course. I made sure to wait until there were no other onlookers, so that I did not offend anyone when my shirt dropped to my shoulders, revealing my stomach. GASP! I’m such a heathen.
During our exploration of the hotel, and the attached mall, we discovered several restaurants that were housed in the same building as the hotel. After perusing the options, Hubs decided we were going to splurge on our meal that evening. He settled upon Ipanema, a Brazilian-style steak house. Because… when in Rome??? I suppose we spent the previous couple weeks dining on Indian food, for the most part, we can branch out on our final night overseas.
The food did not disappoint. I could not tell you everything I ate that night since I felt like a whale upon departing. After getting a smallish sampling from the buffet (I had to save room for the immense amounts of meat to come), we purchased a bottle of wine, and awaited the first round of meats to be whisked by our table. For anyone unfamiliar with Brazilian steakhouses, you are given what amounts to a coaster – one side RED and the other GREEN. When you’re ready to gorge on whatever tasty hunk of meat the waiters are strolling by with, you flip your coaster over to the green side, prompting the servers to cut you a fresh slice off the slab they are toting.
I swore I was not going to give into every delicious smell that wafted passed me, but alas, I was defenseless against the succulent fare, acquiescing to my cravings. I felt like I gained 30 pounds when we waddled out of there. Totally worth it, and I slept like a baby. Another note… I discovered grilled pineapple. The delectable fruit was blanketed in cinnamon. I was incapable of dismissing the servers when they came by with it.
Random side note… Arby’s in Arabic present in the busy food court in one of the many malls. Along with the longest, flattest escalator, I have ever ridden.
Alas, it is time to depart the warmth of Qatar and return to the cold, snowy climate of Virginia in November.
وداعا … Apparently, that is “goodbye” in Arabic. Back to reality (and winter).
According to an expert in sustainable design, how to keep buildings cool without air conditioning, is by no mean as impossible as it may sound.
The warmer it gets, the more people crank up the air conditioning (AC). In fact, AC is booming in nations across the world: it’s predicted that around two-thirds of the world’s households could have an air conditioner by 2050, and the demand for energy to cool buildings will triple.
But unless the energy comes from renewable sources, all that added demand will generate more greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming – and of course, to hotter summers. It’s a vicious cycle – but buildings can be designed to keep the heat out, without contributing to climate change.
1. Windows and shading
Opening windows is a common way people try to cool buildings – but air inside will be just as hot as outside. In fact, the simplest way to keep the heat out is with good insulation and well-positioned windows. Since the sun is high in summer, external horizontal shading such as overhangs and louvres are really effective.
East and west-facing windows are more difficult to shade. Blinds and curtains are not great as they block the view and daylight, and if they are positioned inside the window, the heat actually enters the building. For this reason, external shutters – like those often seen on old buildings in France and Italy – are preferable.
2. Paints and glazes
It’s now common for roofs to be painted with special pigments that are designed to reflect solar radiation – not just in the visible range of light, but also the infrared spectrum. These can reduce surface temperatures by more than 10°C, compared to conventional paint. High-performance solar glazing on windows also help, with coatings that are “spectrally selective”, which means they keep the sun’s heat outside but let daylight in.
There’s also photochromic glazing, that changes transparency depending on the intensity of the light (like some sunglasses) and thermochromic glazing, that becomes darker when it is hot, which can also help. Even thermochromic paints, which absorb light and heat when it’s cold, and reflect it when it’s hot, are being developed.
3. Building materials
Buildings which are made of stone, bricks or concrete, or embedded into the ground, can feel cooler thanks to the high “thermal mass” of these materials – that is, their ability to absorb and release heat slowly, thereby smoothing temperatures over time, making daytime cooler and night time warmer. If you have ever visited a stone church in the middle of the Italian summer, you will probably have felt this cooling effect in action.
Unfortunately, modern buildings often have little thermal mass, or materials with high thermal mass are covered with plasterboard and carpets. Timber is also increasingly used in construction, and while making buildings out of timber generally has lower environmental impacts, its thermal mass is horrendous.
4. Hybrid and phase change materials
While concrete has a high thermal mass, it’s extremely energy intensive to produce: 8% to 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions come from cement. Alternatives such as hybrid systems, composed of timber together with concrete, are increasingly being used in construction, and can help reduce environmental impacts, while also providing the desired thermal mass.
Another, more exciting solution is phase change materials (PCMs). These remarkable materials are able to store or release energy in the form of latent heat, as the material changes phase. So when it’s cold, the substance changes to solid phase (it freezes) and releases heat. When it becomes liquid again, the material absorbs heat, providing a cooling effect.
PCMs can have even greater thermal mass than stones or concrete – research has found that these materials can reduce the internal temperatures by up to 5°C. If added to a building with AC, they can reduce electricity consumption from cooling by 30%.
PCMs have been hailed as a very promising technology by researchers, and are available commercially – often in ceiling tiles and wall panels. Alas, the manufacture of PCMs is still energy intensive. But some PCMs can cause a quarter of the CO₂ emissions that others do, so choosing the correct product is key. And manufacturing processes should become more efficient over time, making PCMs increasingly worthwhile.
5. Water evaporation
Water absorbs heat and evaporates, and as it rises, it pushes cooler air downwards. This simple phenomenon has led to the development of cooling systems, which make use of water and natural ventilation to reduce the temperature indoors. Techniques used to evaporate water include using sprayers, atomizing nozzles (to create a mist), wet pads or porous materials, such as ceramic evaporators filled with water.
The water can be evaporated in towers, wind catchers or double skin walls – any feature which creates a channel where hot air and water vapour can rise, while cool air sinks. Such systems can be really effective, as long as the weather is relatively dry and the system is controlled carefully – temperatures as low as 14°C to 16°C have been reported in several buildings.
But before we get too enthusiastic about all these new technologies, let’s go back to basics. A simple way to ensure AC doesn’t contribute to global warming is to power it with renewables – in the hot weather, solar energy seems the obvious choice, but it takes money and space. The fact remains, buildings can no longer be designed without considering how they respond to heat – glass skyscrapers, for example, should become obsolete. Instead, well insulated roofs and walls are crucial in very hot weather.
Everything that uses electricity in buildings should be as energy efficient as possible. Lighting, computers, dishwashers and televisions all use electricity, and inevitably produce some heat – these should be switched off when not in use. That way, we can all keep as cool as possible, all summer long.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared that skyscrapers made of glass and steel “have no place in our city or our Earth anymore”. He argued that their energy inefficient design contributes to global warming and insisted that his administration would restrict glassy high-rise developments in the city.
Glass has always been an unlikely material for large buildings, because of how difficult it becomes to control temperature and glare indoors. In fact, the use of fully glazed exteriors only became possible with advances in air conditioning technology and access to cheap and abundant energy, which came about in the mid-20th century. And studies suggest that on average, carbon emissions from air-conditioned offices are 60% higher than those from offices with natural or mechanical ventilation.
As part of my research into sustainable architecture, I have examined the use of glass in buildings throughout history. Above all, one thing is clear: if architects had paid more attention to the difficulties of building with glass, the great environmental damage wrought by modern glass skyscrapers could have been avoided.
Heat and glare
The United Nations Secretariat in New York, constructed between 1947 and 1952, was the earliest example of a fully air-conditioned tower with a glass curtain wall – followed shortly afterwards by Lever House on Park Avenue. Air conditioning enabled the classic glass skyscraper to become a model for high rise office developments in cities across the world – even hot places such as Dubai and Sydney.
Yet as far back as the 19th century, horticulturists in Europe intimately understood how difficult it is to keep the temperature stable inside glass structures – the massive hothouses they built to host their collections. They wanted to maintain the hot environment needed to sustain exotic plants and devised a large repertoire of technical solutions to do so.
Early central heating systems, which made use of steam or hot water, helped to keep the indoor atmosphere hot and humid. Glass was covered with insulation overnight to keep the warmth in, or used only on the south side together with better insulated walls, to take in and hold heat from the midday sun.
The Crystal Palace
When glass structures were transformed into spaces for human habitation, the new challenge was to keep the interior sufficiently cool. Preventing overheating in glass buildings has proven enormously difficult – even in Britain’s temperate climate. The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park – a temporary pavilion built to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 – was a case in point.
The Crystal Palace was the first large-scale example of a glass structure designed specifically for use by people. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, chief gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Estate, drawing on his experience constructing timber-framed glasshouses.
Though recognised as a risky idea at the time, organisers decided to host the exhibition inside a giant glasshouse in the absence of a more practical alternative. Because of its modular construction and prefabricated parts, the Crystal Palace could be put together in under ten months – perfect for the organisers’ tight deadline.
To address concerns about overheating and exposing the exhibits to too much sunlight, Paxton adopted some of the few cooling methods available at the time: shading, natural ventilation and eventually removing some sections of glass altogether. Several hundred large louvres were positioned inside the wall of the building, which had to be adjusted manually by attendants several times a day.
Despite these precautions, overheating became a major issue over the summer of 1851, and was the subject of frequent commentaries in the daily newspapers. An analysis of data recorded inside the Crystal Palace between May and October 1851 shows that the indoor temperature was extremely unstable. The building accentuated – rather than reduced – peak summer temperatures.
These challenges forced the organisers to temporarily remove large sections of glazing. This procedure was repeated several times before parts of the glazing were permanently replaced with canvas curtains, which could be opened and closed depending on how hot the sun was. When the Crystal Palace was re-erected as a popular leisure park on the outskirts of London, these issues persisted – despite changes to the design which were intended to improve ventilation.
These difficulties did not perturb developers in Chicago from building the first generation of highly glazed office buildings during the 1880s and 1890s. Famous developments by influential architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, such as the Crown Hall (1950-56) or the Lakeshore Drive Apartments (1949), were also designed without air conditioning. Instead, these structures relied mainly on natural ventilation and shading to moderate indoor temperatures in summer.
In the Crown Hall, each bay of the glass wall is equipped with iron flaps, which students and staff of the IIT School of Architecture had to manually adjust to create cross-ventilation. Blinds could also be drawn to prevent glare and reduce heat gains. Yet these methods could not achieve modern standards of comfort. This building, and many others with similar features were eventually retrofitted with air conditioning.
Yet it’s worth noting that early examples of glass architecture were not intended to provide airtight, climate controlled spaces. Architects had to accept that the indoor temperature would change according to the weather outside, and the people who used the buildings were careful to dress appropriately for the season. In some ways, these environments had more in common with the covered arcades and markets of the Victorian era, than the glass skyscrapers of the 21st century.
Becoming climate conscious
The reality is that the obvious shortcomings of glass buildings rarely received the attention they warranted. Some early critics raised objections. Perhaps the most outspoken was Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who in the late 1940s launched an attack on the design of the UN Secretariat, arguing that its large and unprotected glass surfaces were unsuitable for the climate of New York.
But all too often, historians and architects have focused on the aesthetic qualities of glass architecture. The Crystal Palace, in particular, was portrayed as a pristine icon of an emerging architecture of glass and iron. Yet in reality, much of the glass was covered with canvas to block out intense sunlight and heat. Similarly, the smooth glass facades of Chicago’s early glass towers were broken by opened windows and blinds.
There’s an urgent need to take a fresh look at urban architecture, with a sense of environmental realism. If de Blasio’s plea for a more climate conscious architecture is to materialise, future architects and engineers must be equipped with an intimate knowledge of materials – especially glass – no less developed than that held by 19th century gardeners.
“If I can generalise and group the buildings into three categories, the overwhelming majority aim to maximise area with very low construction cost and no allowance for design,” he added. “So the buildings end up bulky, repetitive and lacking character.
“Some attempt to give a local flavour and the successful ones are commendable. However, if the traditional elements are applied incorrectly, such as outside of their intended scale, function and context, then they tend to appear pastiche and ‘decorative’. Other buildings are contemporary, with a few good and forward-thinking examples, such as the Four Seasons in Bahrain Bay and the Bahrain National Theatre.”
Omari added that, particularly in Bahrain, traditional buildings demonstrate the country’s strong cultural routes and its rich history as a pearling harbour. Built from mud and coral and featuring distinct vernacular architecture, many of these examples are preserved in Muharraq, the country’s old capital, he said.
OAOA’s design for Big Box, a new office project to be constructed in Bahrain by 2021
The comments came as part of a larger conversation regarding OAOA’s new office project in Bahrain, Big Box, which is located within a wider masterplan designed for high density high-rises, while still underdeveloped and exposed to a busy main highway intersection. His client’s commercial desire to have a building that “stood out” from other buildings in the area presented a creative challenge for OAOA.
Big Box consists of four stacked cubes with similar proportions. While retail spaces and a lobby activate the pedestrian level, parking is placed in the aluminium louver-cladded podium box. Office spaces are designated to the three upper boxes, which are visually separated by the lower box, as they are cladded with a ceramic fritted curtain wall.
“It all depends on the context,” Omari said. “Here, there were no existing buildings of historical importance that we would overshadow, and we weren’t disrespectful to any neighbours, so it felt suitable and, if the architecture is well thought-out and serves a purpose, good design adds value.”
Big Box is expected to be completed by 2021, and an in-depth review of the project will be featured in Middle East Architect’s May issue.
What could be more important than sustaining habitable living conditions on Earth? Climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental problems demand changes on an order of magnitude well beyond the trajectory of business-as-usual. And yet, despite accumulative social and technological innovation, environmental problems are accelerating far more quickly than sustainable solutions.
The design industry is one of many industries mobilising to address environmental imperatives. While sustainability-oriented designers are working towards change from many angles, addressing climate change and other environmental problems on this scale demands much more dramatic transformations in economic ideas, structures and systems that enable – or disable – sustainable design.
Put simply, designers cannot design sustainable future ways of living on scale without a shift in economic priorities. Human impacts on planetary processes in the Anthropocene require new types of ecologically engaged design and economics if the necessary technological, social and political transitions are to take place.
World making design
Design is crucial to this debate because it is key to the creation of future ways of living. Designers make new ideas, products, services and spaces desirable to future users. With the shape of a font, a brand, the styling of a product, the look and feel of a service, the touch of a garment, the sensation of being in a particular building, designers serve the interests of customers (generally, those with disposal income). They do so according the logic and modes of governance generated by what is valued by economic structures. Design is the practice that makes capitalism so appealing.
Designers make new products, services and spaces that shape future ways of living – and can use their skills to create sustainable options. But there is a dilemma here. The market rarely prioritises interests that do not pay the bills or otherwise bring capital to the table.
Design sits at the intersection of economic value and social values. Design transforms what economic systems value into new ways of living – which in turn produce certain types of social values. This work is generated by priorities in the design industry, driven by economic imperatives.
Blind spots in conventional economics
Traditional neoclassical economics was developed in an era when all knowledge systems essentially ignored ecological concerns. In conventional economics, value – which is created by generating profit and accumulating capital for owners and investors – is systematically extracted from the systems in which economic systems are embedded: the social and the ecological systems.
Contemporary economic systems reproduce this tradition by rewarding individuals and companies for using (and often exploiting) resources to generate profit, regardless of the ecological or social consequences. The extractive and exploitative dynamics of capitalist economics generate economies locked into accelerating climate change, species extinction and other severe environmental and social problems. This economic system continues to produce ever greater degrees of crises as planetary boundaries are breached in ever more extreme ways.
But there are economic alternatives. Heterodox economic theory (such as ecological, feminist and Marxist economics) challenges the assumptions of mainstream economics. It has shown how neoclassical and neoliberal economics produce unsustainable economies that consistently devalue the natural world, women’s work and the labour of other groups historically denied equal access to capital.
For example, the Iceberg Model depicts a feminist economic framework where non-market activities, including the unpaid labour that buttresses capitalist economics, are made explicit.
The challenges of the Anthropocene demand that we overcome the exploitative and anti-ecological biases in neoclassical and neoliberal economics. One popular alternative is Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics. This would prioritise both social justice and environmental sustainability to create a safe operating space for humanity. Unlike conventional economics, heterodox economics takes the ecological context and planetary boundaries into account – while also addressing the interests of historically disadvantaged populations.
Ecological economics and design
The design industry, like most industries, is governed by economic ideas, structures and systems. Economic systems determine priorities in design studios and design education – including whether or not designers can focus on sustainable solutions.
And so economic factors govern whether designers can direct their energies towards making sustainable ways of living possible – or not. Few of us are employed to do tasks that make it possible to respond responsibly to environmental circumstances because the current political economy is not oriented towards prioritising the preservation of life on this planet.
When the priorities of an individual designer who is oriented towards sustainability conflict with those of the design industry, which is often governed by an economic system oriented towards profit, the designer finds it hard to make a living. If sustainable solutions will not generate profits, they will not succeed in this economic system (without either government intervention or charitable support). The design industry does not systemically prioritise the needs of the environment within this economic system because the way value is generated in contemporary economics depends on the systemic dismissal of ecological priorities.
New design economies
Addressing this dilemma is a severe challenge. It is now evident that the economic system must be designed to reflect priorities and values associated with preserving habitable conditions on the planet. Climate change and other severe environmental threats require dramatic shifts in economic priorities. The fields of economics and design must be redirected so that economic services, structures and systems will support socially distributive and environmentally regenerative design.
Humankind already has the knowledge to make sustainable and socially just ways of living on this planet possible. What we do not yet have is the ability to make these transitions possible in the current political context. New types of design and economics could be a basis for systemic transitions.
Key to this transition is ecologically literate education in both design and economics. Both fields must be radically transformed to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene. With critical, ecologically-engaged design and economic education, new redirected design economies could facilitate sustainable transitions and make another world not only possible – but desirable.