For a Socialist Architecture 2. Part 1. Environmental Principles

ASH design proposals for Central Hill estate

‘We want a say in how the resources are managed in our territory, to remind those who seek to benefit from them that they aren’t a commodity to be sold. Every resource is a part of the system. Each part that is taken out, or over-harvested, affects everything that depends on it. If we don’t take care of it today, it won’t be there in the future. Those who are just after the commodity will move on.  But those of who will be left here because we are tied to our land by ties of blood and history will have to work harder to survive.’

— Wuikinuxv Treaty Office, We are the Wuikinuxv Nation (2011)

Between our first presentation on Friday 19 July, which looked at the social dimension of a socialist architecture, and this one, on its environmental dimension, there has been a political coup in the UK. Our new Prime Minister is Boris Johnson, who was immediately hailed by the US President, Donald Trump, as the ‘UK Trump’. I think this is significant, because where the US guard-dog leads the UK lapdog inevitably follows, and the rest of Western world obediently falls in line. Through a combination of the three-and-a-half-years of deadlock on Brexit and our antiquated laws on appointing new leaders to a political party in government, Johnson was voted Prime Minister by a majority of the members of the Conservative Party, but by only 0.2 per cent of the UK electorate. In his own version of Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives, Johnson has replaced the holders of almost all the key ministerial appointments, including the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Minister for Housing. This has resulted in what is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most right-wing government we’ve had since that of Margaret Thatcher. However, when Thatcher was voted into power in 1979 the Neo-liberal revolution was in its infancy. Forty years later it is entrenched in every aspect of our economy, our society, our politics and, as we will go on to argue, of our environment. In response to which, ASH formally declares our defiance to both this government and the political system that has so undemocratically allowed it to seize executive power over the British people. But we also want to draw that people’s attention to what should be obvious: that the necessity of a socialist architecture — and not only an architecture — is becoming more and more urgent. If we thought — as we have been encouraged by liberals to think — that following the financial crisis of 2007-2008 the Neo-liberal programme was at an end, we should think again.

1. Opposed Economies of Architecture

This is the second of our four presentations on a socialist architecture. In the first presentation we looked at its social dimension, the context of which is:

  1. The Social. To situate architecture within the totality of relations of its production, distribution, exchange and consumption and propose new practices for a socialist architecture under capitalism.

As the election of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson strongly suggests, anyone waiting around for a socialist, or even social democrat, government to save us from Neo-liberalism will be waiting a very long time. This makes it necessary for us to start articulating what socialist practices are now, particularly given the lack of understanding of what socialism is among young voters who have only ever known different brands of Neo-liberal government in the UK. But today we’re looking at the environmental dimension of a socialist architecture, the context of which is:

  1. The Environmental. To understand and reduce the totality of consumption within the finitude of global resources.

I want to start with this diagram in which we’re opposing economies of architecture. This diagram opposes the economies of architecture within a capitalist economy and a socialist economy. The diagram on the left will hopefully be familiar and self-explanatory: it’s a pie-chart; and within this chart, the different aspects of architecture — which in the capitalist economy are limited to the social, the environmental and the financial — are allocated a portion of resources. Within this economy, the financial considerations of building a new development are almost entirely dominated by its financial viability for the developers. And it’s not surprising that the assessments produced to establish a scheme’s viability invariably show that it’s simply impossible for developers to build social housing, and barely possible for them to afford even affordable housing. As a consequence, in London at the moment, about 5 per cent of new residential properties are for social rent, which is always calculated as a financial loss of revenue (therefore indicated in red on the chart) that should be reduced as much as possible. The equivalent financial concessions made to reducing carbon emissions at present I would guess receive a slightly greater piece of the financial cake. And like the social dimension of architecture, the environmental dimension, which is ameliorated through so-called ‘green architecture’, represents a financial loss that should be reduced as much as is politically possible.

The key thing in this diagram, however, is that under capitalism the political occupies a separate sphere of practice. Of course, in practice it occupies nothing of the sort. But one of the ideological principles of a capitalist society is that capitalism is just the way the world is; that capitalism is not a historically contingent economic system that emerged a few hundred years ago, but an expression of the abstraction it calls ‘man’. It’s an anthropological model of history, in which, for example, feudalism represents a necessary but surpassed moment in the movement of history; while socialism, by contrast, represented an altogether wrong turn. With such fictions has capitalism convinced us that the entire history of the world has led us to this inevitable and necessary end, and that the hegemony of capitalism is the triumphant end of that history. Given the environmental disaster to which capitalism is leading us, perhaps it’s more accurate than it thinks. Within this teleological model of history, therefore, the political present, which is global capitalism, occupies a separate sphere from the economic, the social and the environmental.

Comparing this to a socialist economy, I should point out that this is not a Venn Diagram, and that these are not overlapping spheres. I also want to point out that while, under our capitalist economy, the economic is reduced to a financial pie chart, in a socialist economy the financial sphere is expanded to the totality of economic exchanges. The social, the environmental, the economic and the political spheres are all metonyms, therefore, for the totality. They are not components of the totality, which would make this another kind of pie-chart; rather, they constitute different perspectives on that totality, and they function as different discourses. Language by its nature abstracts the totality into discrete objects of knowledge (capitalism then goes and sells that object as a portion of its financial budget); but in our social practice, in our economic growth, in our political policies, and in the environmental consequences these will have for us, they are indivisible. A socialist architecture must therefore understand each perspective, each dimension of its practice, within the totality of its relations.

I think we all understand by now that the environment is a very good word for the totality of relations that make up the whole. The economic, which is about all exchange and not only — as it is in the capitalist economy — financial exchange, is as well. As is the social totality that those relations compose. Is the political? I would say the fact that, under the fundamentalism of the market, the political sphere is excluded from the financial pie chart as an unquestionable given shows that, in practice, our economy is a political economy, and one that composes (and imposes) the totality of our world.

2. The Erosion of the Social and the Rise of Environmentalism

In 1997 the UK Conservative government of John Major passed the Architects Act. The ruled that the Architects’ Registration Board (ARB) would ‘issue a code laying down standards of professional conduct and practice expected of registered persons’, which is to say, architects. As far I can work out, it took the ARB 5 years to come up with what these standards would be, which is fairly representative of the pace at which the architectural profession embraces change. There are 12 standards in The Architects Code: Standards of Professional Conduct and Practice, and those laying out an architect’s obligations to their client or how to manage their business have up to 8 clauses. But there is one standard, numbered 5.1, which might be said to have anything to do with the social and environmental dimension of architecture. It is titled: ‘Considering the wider impact of your work’, and it has a single clause, the only standard that does. This is how it has been revised between its first appearance in the 2002 version of The Architects Code and its configuration in the latest edition: 

‘In carrying out or agreeing to carry out professional work, architects should pay due regard to the interests of anyone who may reasonably be expected to use or enjoy the products of their own work. Whilst architects’ primary responsibility is to their clients, they should nevertheless have due regard to their wider responsibility to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.’

This is the first time that a reference to the environment was brought into the code of conduct of architects in the UK. But importantly, this conduct was laid down in the context of the architect having due regard to the wider impact of their work on its users, which includes its inhabitants. This brief moment in UK socialism passed by 2010, when the first part of this statement was completely erased, and Standard 5.1 was reduced to the following:

‘Whilst your primary responsibility is to your clients, you should take into account the environmental impact of your professional activities.’

Two years ago, in 2017, this was reduced again to the following mish-mash of get-out clauses in which the architect is no longer the self-regulating guardian responsible for the social impact of their professional work but servile adviser to their client:

‘Where appropriate, you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.’

Again, this is pretty representative of the way legislation gets made in the UK, and how increasing ambiguities are allowed to creep into our laws. Over 15 years architects have gone from having ‘regard’ for their wider responsibility, via taking ‘account’ of the impact of their work, to ‘advising’ their client where appropriate on maybe not destroying the environment as long as it doesn’t interfere with their profit margins.

3. Green Architecture

Vincent Callebaut Architectures

What this has led to is something that, with its usual lack of imagination, the profession has called ‘green architecture’. An example of this are the design proposals by Vincent Callebaut Architectures, Paris Smart City 2050, in response to a commission from Paris City Hall, which asked the practice to envision 8 prototypes for 8 districts of ‘positive energy towers eco-conceived to fight global warming’. These scry-scraper greenhouses are what they came with for the 4e arrondissement (above).

Now, if you think, as many people did, that this is a joke, this sort of stuff is already a reality on the developments around the Battersea Power Station in London, which has been entirely dismantled and is now being faithfully reconstructed by a Malaysian consortium of investors. This is part of the Vauxhall, Battersea, Nine Elms Opportunity Area (below), which is one of the largest development sites in Europe; and as you can see, so-called ‘green roofs’ are plentiful.

Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea Opportunity Area

I haven’t seen the environmental impact assessments — if indeed any have been produced — but I’d be very surprised if planting a few green roofs will do much to offset the vast carbon emissions from the demolition, removal, disposal and reconstruction required for these buildings, the energy they will use as functioning buildings, or the increased traffic and other consumption of resources they will induce in the area. This may have been acceptable if it was offset by the use-value of this vast development as housing for Londoners, but it isn’t. These are deposit boxes for global capital, investment opportunities for overseas investors, real estate speculations for offshore accounts, using up rare public land in the centre of the capital that could and should have been used to address London’s crisis of housing affordability. The entire Vauxhall, Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, which could have been used to meet the housing needs of every Londoner for a generation to come, has instead been squandered on the profits of developers and investors. It’s the clearest image of why liberal window-dressing to capitalism, of which ‘green roofs’ are an example, will do nothing to stop the climate crisis we’re facing. This is tokenistic rubbish, as serious about addressing carbon emissions as a percentage of so-called ‘affordable housing’ provision in luxury market-sale developments is about addressing housing needs. And as an image of Inner London, or indeed of Central Paris, it makes Le Corbussier’s much maligned Plan Voisin look almost sensitive to its surroundings.

But what’s also interesting to us is that, to the immediate south of the Battersea Power Station development is the Patmore estate, which is run by a housing co-operative. This is an estate that ASH has been working with over the last few years. As can be seen, any Inner London estate built on this incredibly lucrative land so close to the Thames is under threat of demolition and redevelopment. So at the request of the Patmore Co-operative, we’ve produced what they’ve called ‘A Vision for the Future of the Estate’. This begins by asking the question: if this is an opportunity area, should it not also be an opportunity for the current residents, and not only for property investors? In response, we have drawn up designs that propose bringing disused laundromats on the estate back into use as communal amenities, making the privatised community halls available for residents, coming up with solutions to the some of the design flaws of the original estate such as the housing of bins and rubbish disposal, as well as improving access to the estate’s plentiful and verdant gardens. All these design proposals will extend the use of the estate as social housing, and in doing so sustain the existence of the residents whom we tend to forget are every bit as much a part of the environment we are trying to save as the water and air ‘green architecture’, such as that on the luxury residential developments to the north, is supposed to be saving.

4. Environmental Lobbying

ACM panelling and insulation cladding system on Grenfell Tower

In contrast to which, environmental lobbying, much like The Architects Code, has erased people, and in particular residents, from its proposals to reduce carbon emissions and save the environment through green architecture. This includes not only the green roofs and photovoltaic panels we see fitted as standard on the luxury residential developments springing up across London, but also the retrofitting to council estates of insulation and cladding systems that improve the thermal performance of the buildings, reducing loss of energy and with it residents’ energy bills. Both practices has been the direct result of government lobbying by green industries, which have made huge profits out of the installation of cladding systems to hundreds of residential blocks, both private and state owned, across the UK — the most famous of which is, of course, Grenfell Tower (above).

The retrofitting of Celotex thermal insulation and Reynobond aluminium composite material (ACM) rainscreen cassette panels to the reinforced concrete walls of Grenfell Tower was part of a refurbishment scheme designed by Studio E Architects and installed by Rydon, the primary contractor, under the project management of Artelia UK. Completed in July 2016, this cladding system created the ‘chimney effect’ that a year later swept the small fire that began on the fourth floor up and across the new facade of the building (below), circumventing and rendering useless the compartmentalisation on which Grenfell Tower, like hundred of other tower blocks across the UK, relied for its fire safety system. In the context of The Architects Code, the ‘wider impact’ of the architects’ work was the fire that killed 72 people and made hundreds of others homeless and thousands traumatised.

Grenfell Tower fire

In contrast to this absence of consideration, the architect’s ‘regard’ — which was in the original standard 5.1 of the code — for ‘anyone who may reasonably be expected to use the products of their work’ was expressed very clearly by the Grenfell Action Group. This was set up in 2010 to oppose new development on the estate’s green land that residents felt not only deprived them of community amenities but endangered the fire safety of their homes. In November 2016, after 6 years of having their increasing concerns ignored by their landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, members of the Grenfell Action Group wrote their now famous blog post:

‘It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.’

7 months later their terrifying thought came true. What is the role of the architect when given a brief such as this? Is it enough for an architectural practice to simple ‘advise’ the client, as the latest version of Standard 5.1 has it, on how to ‘conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its resources’? Does collaborating on a potentially fatal cladding of a residential block in order to conserve those resources without regard for the voiced concerns of the residents constitute sufficient discharge of the architect’s duty to ‘consider the wider impact of their work’?

5. Carbon Cost of Demolishing the Aylesbury Estate

Let’s move on to a less immediately but, in a different way, just as violent example. Resisting and proposing design alternatives to the demolition and redevelopment of council and social housing estates in London is ASH’s primary work. We’ve identified around 250 of these in London alone, where the exaggerated value of the land on which these estates are built means their redevelopment, in order to realise the land’s potential value uplift, are at least 50 per cent for market sale and more often than not up to 65 per cent, with the remainder being some form of so-called ‘affordable housing’ increasingly composed of shared ownership and shared equity schemes, rent-to-buy products, and rents up to 80 per cent of market rate. In every estate redevelopment we know of there is a loss, and usually a mass loss, of homes for social rent, which in 2017-2018 made up only 5 per cent of completed new-build dwellings.

The Aylesbury estate

An example of such a scheme is the Aylesbury estate in Camberwell, whose ‘regeneration’ was initiated in 1997. This is, or was, a large council estate of 2,758 homes for around 7,500 residents. Completed between 1963 and 1977, since 2004 it has gradually been decanted of residents and their homes demolished by Southwark council (above). It is currently awaiting redevelopment by the newly merged Notting Hill Genesis Housing Association, whose proposals will result in the loss of 778 homes for social rent in an Inner London borough with 11,000 households on the housing waiting list. The Aylesbury estate is located immediately adjacent to Brockwell Park, as was common in the 1960s and 70s when such amenities were considered a boon for everyone, including the working class, rather than the exclusive preserve of the rich. Nowadays, any housing estate beside a park or canal or river, with desirable views, close to current or soon-to-be-built transport links, or simply in a neighbourhood undergoing enforced gentrification, is under threat of demolition and redevelopment as high-value properties designed to realise latent land values.

Although sometimes it can seem like it in the face of the mass collusion of the profession in the social cleansing of Inner London, ASH isn’t the only architectural practice resisting the estate demolition programme. In 2017 two architects, Mike Kane and Ron Yee, published an article in the Journal of Green Building in which they estimated the carbon cost of demolishing and removing one of the Aylesbury estate’s slab blocks. Chiltern House — which is the large block overlooking the demolition site in the Googlemap 3D image above — at fourteen storeys high and over 200m long, is 1 of 7 super-scale slab blocks that are evenly distributed across the estate. With 172 flats, it contains 6 per cent of the Aylesbury estate’s residential units, but less than that of its entire structure, with communal facilities, housing offices, schools, playgrounds, sports facilities, car parks, garages and other amenities contributing to the total built environment. In January 2016, Chiltern House was occupied by political squatters protesting against the demolition of the estate. In this report, Kane and Yee reach the following conclusions about the carbon cost of demolishing this building. This includes not only the carbon emissions from its demolition and disposal, but the carbon already embodied in the building that will be lost upon demolition, as well as the carbon cost of replacing the demolished building with a new structure:

‘The carbon cost of constructing this building was extremely high. The reinforced concrete structural frame (excluding partition walls and internal elements) is estimated to weigh in excess of 20,000 tonnes, which equates to approximately 1,800 tonnes of emitted CO2 for the concrete alone. This figure is significantly increased with the remainder of the construction process and transport emissions. Demolition of Chiltern House requires in the region of 800-plus HGV truck journeys through London’s congested streets, and the use of heavy demolition machinery will greatly add to the figure again. Clearly, the CO2 emission cost of reaching just the cleared site (after only 40 years of housing use) is very high, moreover, if the replacement building is of conventional construction (with only 30-year warranty), then the overall environmental cost of providing additional homes is enormous.’

What they don’t say, and which neither Southwark council nor Notting Hill Genesis housing association have produced an impact demonstrating, is how these environmental costs — let alone the social and financial costs to existing residents — will be offset by green roofs, photovoltaic panels, improved thermal insulation and all the other tokenistic gestures of ‘green architecture’ we might expect to see on the roughly 3,500 new properties being designed by a dereliction of architectural practices led by HTA Design and followed by Duggan Morris, Hawkins\Brown and Mae.

6. Environmental Costs of Demolishing the Central Hill Estate

Central Hill estate

Built between 1966 and 1974, the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace (above) contains 476 dwellings that are home to around 1,200 residents. In 2016, against the wishes of 77 per cent of residents, the estate was condemned to demolition by Lambeth council, and is awaiting redevelopment by Homes for Lambeth, a council-owned commercial venture financed by private investment partners. The redevelopment scheme will result in the permanent loss of 340 secure council tenancy homes for social rent in a borough with 28,000 people on the housing waiting list. And while no fixed plan for their replacement has as yet been published, in order to recoup the costs of demolition, compensation for leaseholders and the replacement of the demolished homes, at least 50 per cent of the new-build properties will have to be for market sale, with the remainder a mix of affordable housing. As usual, the majority of these will be shared ownership properties, with the rest a mix of rent-to-buy products and so-called affordable rent. Based on one proposal by PRP Architects, which increased the housing capacity to 1,530 properties, over a thousand of which would be for market sale and rent, this is a project costing in excess of £572 million, payable back over 60 years.

But it’s the environmental costs of Lambeth council’s proposals I want to focus on here. In 2016 ASH commissioned a report of what some of these would be from the green engineers, Model Environments, and in December they published their report, Embodied Carbon Estimation for Central Hill Estate, and I want to quote at length some of their findings. These estimations fall into three categories:

A. Embodied carbon

  • ‘The office of the London Mayor has set a target to reduce London’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 60% based on 1990 levels by 2025. Homes are responsible for 36% of London’s CO2
  • ‘The concrete industry is one of the world’s two largest producers of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. About half of the emissions come directly from the heating of limestone in its manufacture, and around 40% are emissions associated with burning fuel.
  • ‘A significant fraction of the carbon emissions a building will make over its lifetime is locked into the fabric by the time the building is constructed. As improvements in efficiency reduce carbon emissions from energy in the operational phase, increasing attention is being given to the issue of embodied carbon, examination of which can provide cost-effective carbon savings.

B. Environmental costs of demolition

  • ‘When a building is demolished, there are carbon emissions from the energy used in the deconstruction, removal and disposal of the waste. There may also be CO2 emissions released by chemical processes as the building fabric is broken up.’
  • ‘The vast majority of the embodied carbon is sequestered within the building fabric itself. The carbon emissions released by any deconstruction of the buildings is 40 times greater than the emissions from the energy needed to carry out the demolition.
  • ‘Demolishing a housing estate of some 450 homes will exact a high carbon price on the environment and detracts greatly from the London Borough of Lambeth’s contribution to tackling climate change.’

C. Embodied carbon and demolition estimation of Central Hill estate

  • ‘A conservative estimate for the embodied carbon of Central Hill estate would be around 7000 tonnes of CO2. Those are similar emissions to those from heating 600 detached homes for a year using electric heating, or the emissions savings made by the London Mayor’s retrofitting scheme in a year and a quarter.
  • ‘For the demolition phase a conservative estimate of 3 months (480 hours) with 4 excavators using 30 litres of diesel per hour equals 57,600 litres. A conversion factor of 2.68kg of CO2e per litre of diesel suggests a figure of approximately 154 tonnes of CO2.
  • ‘Annual domestic emissions per capita in Lambeth were 1.8 tonnes in 2012. Therefore, the emissions associated with the demolition of Central Hill estate equate to the annual emissions of over 4,000 Lambeth residents.
  • ‘Other environmental impacts from the demolition such as air pollution and water pollution should also be considered in further studies.’

7. Refurbishment versus Redevelopment

What does this mean? It means that green roofs and walls, photovoltaic panels, external insulation, improved thermal performance and the reduced energy consumption of modern buildings are not enough to offset the environmental impact of demolition and redevelopment. It means that the environmental sustainability of housing needs to be taken as a totality. It means that it takes decades for the more environmentally efficient buildings one might expect to be built on new developments to recoup the environmental costs of demolition and redevelopment. In 2015, at a Housing Committee meeting convened by the London Assembly into the relevant merits of refurbishment versus demolition, Chris Jofeh, the Building Retrofit Leader at Arups, the engineering company that designed the structure of Central Hill estate, testified that:

‘Even if you build a super-efficient home, it could take 30 years before you redress the balance.’

Unfortunately, neither the former nor current Mayor, nor any of the local authorities in London or elsewhere, has listened to him or the numerous other expert testimonies to the social, economic and environmental benefits of refurbishment over demolition and redevelopment. Professor Anne Power, Head of London School of Economics Housing and Communities, who gave her endorsement to our 2018 report on Central Hill estate, in an 2008 article titled ‘Does demolition or refurbishment of old and inefficient homes help to increase our environmental, social and economic viability?’, argued for the preference of the former over the latter when situated within the context of the totality of concrete relations that compose this abstraction we call ‘the environment’:

  • ‘The evidence we have uncovered counters the suggestion that large-scale and accelerated demolition would either help us meet our energy and climate change targets or respond to our social needs.
  • The overall balance of evidence suggests that refurbishment most often makes sense on the basis of time, cost, community impact, prevention of sprawl, reuse of existing infrastructure and protection of existing communities. It can also lead to reduced energy use in buildings in both the short and long term.
  • Upgrading the existing stock is likely to gain in significance for environmental, social and economic reasons.

8. Environmental Principles for a Socialist Architecture

How do we learn from this expert testimony, to which the UK Government, the Greater London Authority and every council in London has turned a deaf ear? To situate the environmental dimension of architecture within the totality it composes, rather than reducing it to the window-dressing of ‘green architecture’, we have to address the relationship between the principles we want to see guiding this social, economic, environmental and political totality and how we put these principles into practice as agents of a socialist architecture. So, let’s begin by formulating this ignored expert testimony into some of the environmental principles for a socialist architecture.

  • A socialist architecture must be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.
  • The built environment cannot be separated from the people who produce and inhabit it.
  • The environmental context of a socialist architecture means understanding and reducing the totality of consumption within the finitude of global resources.
  • A commitment to reducing carbon emissions and to policies of economic de-growth is inevitably a socialist concern, not least because damage to the environment has enormous collective social and economic consequences, which are disproportionately born by the poorest members of our societies, and of which the fiscal policies of austerity are the most recent example.
  • Under capitalism, the global consequences of expansion are not estimated in individual project costs but deferred, manifesting themselves in the health and social well-being of future generations, and in contributions to the long-term degradation of the global environment.
  • While maintaining that only a socialist economy can hope to re-order the relations of production to environmentally and socially sustainable levels of consumption, a socialist architecture must seek to offset, resist and challenge the unsustainable growth on which capitalism depends for its profits, and which is the economic cause of the global crisis of housing affordability.

The first, typical and almost universal response to any mention of socialism in this country is that it ‘goes against human nature’ — or some equivalent truism, as if the few hundred years in which capitalism has emerged to become the dominant economic model of our world represented the thousands of years in which humans have lived in something larger than hunter-gatherer bands. ‘Nature’ has always been the last refuge of the politician, the priest and the judge; but it turns out that nature is very far from being capitalist.

While in Vancouver I started reading Robert Macfarlane’s new book, Underland, and I came across a passage in which he describes the symbiotic relationship between Douglas firs and paper birches in the forest of British Columbia. Loggers, eager to maximise their profits from the fir ‘products’, ‘weeded’ out the birch saplings, thinking that, as we are constantly told, they would be competing for nutrients from the soil. Once removed, however, the firs weakened and soon began to die.

The subsequent ground-breaking research by the Canadian forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard, established that the Douglas firs were receiving photosynthetic carbon from the birches, and the means of its transmission was the extraordinarily complex network of fungi (dozens of miles of hyphae per cubic meter of soil) that linked the roots of tree to tree at the cellular level, both among and between species (above). Far from competing for resources according to capitalism’s ideological depiction of nature in its own image, the trees were in fact sustaining each other. Not only that, but the fungi were themselves siphoning off carbon produced by the trees in the form of glucose during photosynthesis, by means of chlorophyll that the fungi do not possess. And in turn, the trees obtained nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen the fungi had acquired from the soil through which they grow, by means of enzymes the trees lack. In describing this mutually sustaining relationship, Macfarlane, to my surprise, slipped into a language a long way from his usual, rigorously depoliticised, tales of a Cambridge University professor on holiday:

‘Instead of seeing trees as individual agents competing for resources, Simard proposed the forest as a “co-operative system”, in which trees “talk” to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence she described as “forest wisdom”. Seen in the light of Simard’s research, the whole vision of a forest ecology shimmered and shifted – from a fierce free market to something more like a community with a socialist system of resource redistribution.’

For some time now we’ve been harvested for the wood-chip mill of capitalism, and it’s not surprising that, although still growing, we’re as lifeless and utilitarian as a forest plantation. The question facing us is: how do we convince a UK population every bit as indoctrinated to Neo-liberalism as the Hitler Youth were to Nazism — only over a far longer period of time — that there is nothing ‘natural’ about capitalism; that there are other motivations to human evolution than money and power; and that, if we don’t openly identify, denounce and overthrow capitalism as the parasitical destroyer of our environment, we’ll all end up as dead as those Douglas firs? In the Part 2 of this presentation we’ll try to answer these questions through proposing some of the environmental practices of a socialist architecture.

Architects for Social Housing

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