Note — Jul 24, 2022

Designing without Depletion

Fascinating interview with Joseph Grima about his firm’s new book, Non-Extractive Architecture. The gist of his argument is that architecture/constructing buildings uses materials that are not only physically extracted but also economically and socially, with no regard for the repercussions on ecosystems and communities where the materials are taken. He presents two main solutions: more local production and local materials, not only to save on transport but as a way of integrating better tracking of responsibility and impact. Second, by re-imagining architects as advocates, as “points of intersection between actors that make up the production of the built environment.” Architects would not design buildings apart from the systems, but rather in the full knowledge of how impacts reverberate across the sourcing and construction, and they would expand their agency to orient the whole for less extraction and more sustainable models.

Grima is one of a few ‘non-architecting architects’ I follow, people who spend more time thinking deeply about the practice and reinventing it for our current challenges than they do with the ‘classical’ tasks of architects. In other words, doing what I mentioned in the last issue, thinking about the world through a specific toolkit. I’m talking about people like Bryan Boyer, Fred Scharmen, Liam Young, and Dan Hill (who’s not a trained architect but threads many of the same paths as this group). For me this view of architecture has a lot of overlap with Shannon Mattern and Drew Austin “the city is a really productive and ripe area where a lot of different disciplines are converging in their thinking, it’s already a very interdisciplinary field of study.”

Two things; all the architects I mentioned are men, please recommend women doing this type of work. Second; are there economists reflecting on economics in similar ways? Not necessarily practicing but completely re-assessing the place of their discipline within our complex now and futures.

The marketplace as it exists and operates today depends entirely on the invisibility of the consequences of production and manufacturing, often located on distant landscapes. Making these consequences visible again and rethinking the supply chain is going to be one of the great challenge of the 21st century. […]

What if we suddenly decided that we’re going to stop pretending those things don’t happen? What if we embrace the consequences of what it means to manufacture products and to build, and to price its full cost? If the sticker price included the full cost of everything we build, then suddenly making things locally and sourcing materials locally would become much more attractive. […]

[T]o reposition the architect as the guardian of the landscape and the guardian of the environment. This means finding ways to produce beauty in a way that is much more about the creation of a pleasant and liveable environment, in the sense that Christopher Alexander often wrote about. […]

[I]ndividuals and societies need to rethink our existential practices to be able to live in a way that is not the predatory practices that our current societies do, especially Western developed economies. […]

What is core to this kind of cross-disciplinary work is the need to work in teams and networks rather than the idea of the architect as heroic, centralized figure.