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Sea of troubles: adapting to a changing world

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As ocean levels rise, we must consider how architecture will adapt to uncertain futures

The parable of the wise and foolish builders is one of Christianity’s most famous. It teaches us that they who build their houses on foundations of sand will be unable to weather the storm. It is a parable unfortunately not standing the test of time, inappropriate for our current situation; the buildings we live and work in have been built on the strongest foundations we have – centuries of learning and science. It is sobering now to acknowledge that our civilisation’s body of experience and storytelling does not equip us with the tools we need for the world we have created. From sea level rise to plastic, from the acidity of the oceans to extinction of species, the Anthropocene is well and truly here, and we have little idea how to deal with it, nor how it will pan out.

‘How do you design for future elemental attacks of which we have not yet conceived?’

Like any aesthetic discipline, the practice of architecture is a palimpsest of references – recycled, restructured, reformed, elaborated on, and stripped away, its structures are in a state of constant destruction and evolution. So climate change poses an existential threat, both in practical terms; how do you design for future elemental attacks of which we have not yet conceived? – and on a metaphysical plane; how do you design for a future that has no respect for millennia of references on which this discipline is built?. A future that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is hurtling towards us at an ever increasing speed. In one of the starkest examples yet of our designs becoming unfit for purpose, in 2017 the Global Seed Vault, a repository for over a million varieties of seeds for each food crop on which we depend, built deep within a mountain on Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, needed its entrance redesigned after a flood caused by melting permafrost.

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Source: Sim Chi Yin / Magnum Photos

Perversely, we continue to reclaim whole swathes of land in the form of artificial islands such as those shown under construction in Johor, Malaysia

The science is in and the jury is no longer out – sea level rise is already happening and in the forthcoming IPCC special report on oceans and the cryosphere, the reality of what we are in for will become even starker. A 2 degree rise in temperature would likely lead to rises of 50cm – already a level at which a majority of our existing coastal defences would be rendered useless.

Whether it is The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman or The Book of Dave by Will Self, literature is filled with examples of how, when the seas rise and our anchors come loose, we are forced to drift through new plotlines, new heroes emerge and villains, thought vanquished, return. In a world without anchor points, as earth’s current protagonists, we need to create our own; choosing which remnants of a past world to moor ourselves to; which archaeological and paleontological remains to laud above others and choose to inherit our values and rituals from. It would seem apposite to avoid those institutions and structures reminiscent of those that have brought our society to its knees – colonialism, extractive industries, unregulated marketplaces and the like. JG Ballard’s Concrete Island explores the eff ect of transposing patriarchy into an alien environment, culminating in Maitland urinating on Proctor. How easily depraved we can become when we carry these outdated values into new landscapes; Maitland, in establishing himself as overlord of this ‘discovered’ domain, free from the structures that once reined him in, cannot help but live out his desire to foul conclusion.

‘On the margins, the skills involved in generating the building blocks of a new society lie deep within us all, and are nowhere more visible than in the field of architecture’

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1960s Booker Prize winner Offshore, she paints the picture of a community afloat in the houseboats of Richmond and the ways in which this alternative lifestyle led to a restructuring of social norms. As the tide ebbs and floods, a new social order free from the structures of early 1960s class and hierarchy was possible; the chaos described is one that to a more limited, sanitised level still exists among the UK’s waterway communities. Situated in the chaos of leaking boats and changeable weather, the river a primary and primal force around which their relationships and routines are built, this collection of flawed characters find themselves completed by the river and mudbanks around them – their personality intertwined with their environment. Having lived on a ‘continuous cruiser’ canalboat for five years in my twenties, moving location every two weeks, it is by and large a community content, or even drawn to live in a differently organised society – things take longer, personal relationships are more valued, the impact of the elements felt more strongly. It gives me faith that on the margins, the skills involved in generating the building blocks of a new society lie deep within us all, and are nowhere more visible than in the field of architecture.

Pedagogues, politicians and architects alike would do well to seek out ways in which to further these skills of self-organising and empowerment. Most of the population lack a religious institution from which to learn how to adapt to new societal changes, and so open spaces, people’s assemblies and town hall debates, free education for all ages, a social media infrastructure that privileges content fostering empathy, education and skills can all play a role in helping us learn how to deal with climate change in our personal and professional lives. Our control over the changing climate may be limited, but our control over the ways in which we deal with it is much greater, and we should start identifying the structural and, indeed, architectural modes of engaging with the problems ahead.

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Gettyimages 1125067501

Source: Getty Images

Thousands gathered in London’s Parliament Square on 15 February this year in the first UK-wide youth strike

Where our political leaders are failing in this challenge to reimagine a more circular economy, built for the long term, there are many from the grassroots up who are doing their best to create the space for exploring alternatives, and challenge those at the top to do better. As a movement of young activists have begun to strike against climate inaction, they are following in a long history of radical protest to reclaim public space to provoke dialogue and stand up against the status quo. Sitting on Westminster Bridge last month, in the shadow of the UK’s chaotic Parliament, these students began a journey of learning how to self-organise, and they did it in front of the world’s media. From consensus decisionmaking to non-violent direct action; from public lectures on the nature of capitalism to self-produced zines on the need for action to combat sea level rise – such activism fosters public debate at a time when we desperately need it. From Edward Carpenter to Murray Bookchin to Françoise d’Eaubonne, the call to engage and involve the masses with the reimagining of our relationship with our environment is far from new. Our surroundings must encourage us all to become stewards, and to better understand the natural processes on which we depend such that future generations do not make the same mistakes we have in alienating themselves from the environment so much they cannot understand when it simply will not play ball.

Climate change discourse is filled with what can seem like conflicting calls to focus more on mitigation, versus the extent to which in our effort to drive down emissions we are ignoring the immense challenges of adaptation. The unfortunate reality is that we must perform both in parallel, dramatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we are pumping into the atmosphere at the same time as structuring our built environment around a less predictable, more extreme future. And yet despite this monumental challenge, I still have a further call to action – not only must the built environment reflect the twin needs of reducing fossil fuel use and dealing with extreme weather, but also it must serve to inspire a fundamental shift in our approach to the natural environment. 

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Source: Mauritius Images GMBH / ALAMY

Building into the sea remains a spectacle, however dissonant, as sightseers gather at the glass of the aquarium housed in the Atlantis hotel on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai

I have faith in the ingenuity of our species to deal with the impacts of climate change, though this is not to say there will not be tragic, and ultimately avoidable losses on the way; our survival and that of many billions of our descendants is not what I fear most. This is, however, an assertion based on faith, not evidence. Evidence points the opposite way – despite us being aware for several decades now of the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the rate of production and consumption continues to grow year on year with business as usual overtaking all efforts to revolutionise our means of production. Our ability to deal with evidence when it risks disrupting the status quo never fails to astonish.

At its best, architecture is uniquely placed to deal with the future we face – a discipline accustomed to straddling reality and multiple possible futures; a practice intimately acquainted with the shifting of paradigms, the creation of new doxa and of course with the built environment itself. As half the world lives in cities threatened by sea level rise there is no better analogy than to see us as frogs in slowly warming water, oblivious to the need for urgent action. It is a failure to reassess our inherited wisdom that allows fools across the world to begin projects of reclaimed land and concrete islands – awesome feats of engineering and skill, they may soon be proved to be temporary structures.

‘It is time to prepare for a fast-approaching new world’

Even the finest craftspeople, artists and dreamers have been unwittingly captured by an economic system that places profit before planet. The values prioritised in architecture replicate the values prioritised by our political leaders – the acquisition and growth of capital – a private garden bridge across the Thames, balcony swimming pools in drought-hit Mumbai, an artificial ski slope in Dubai. Attention grabbing and ultimately doomed projects like these are obscuring the urgent need to exploit the cracks in the monolithic structures we are up against and lever them open to create the spaces within which radical alternatives can be experimented with. Literature and architectural discourse is full to the brim with fantastical images and re-imaginings, now it is time to challenge our politicians and ourselves to let us use them to prepare for a fast-approaching new world.

This piece featured in the AR April issue on Oceans – click here to purchase your copy today