Towards an architecture of degrowth: resisting the narrative of perpetual growth

The recent climate strikes happening globally show a growing consciousness among the people on the issue of climate change. These climate conscious movements show common people pushing to do what is individually possible and pushing forth for what is collectively required. Yet, as inheritors of this market-is-always-right attitude, we hardly know of any other way of life than have every aspect of our modern life to be dominated by the idea of perpetual growth – countries still measure their worth through GDP; common folks are more than ever inundated with relentless advertisements that suggest that somehow the next new product will make their life happy; sucked into successive ways of consumerism, common human aspirations are primarily driven towards wealth accumulation.
Needless to say, in contemporary times, the building industry and as a consequence, architecture has always been a party to the idea of perpetual growth, except for a few instances and practices that occupy the fringe. We have been building as if we could build infinitely – the ever-expanding city and the idea of our planet as an unending resource has shaped our mentality with which much of the built environment is being built today. 
The building industry is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and a physical manifestation of the Anthropocene altering the planet in profound ways. Such realities sometimes drain my morale as an architect. As a person deeply concerned about the built and the natural environment I have seem to have hit an impasse.  Perhaps it would make environmental sense to not build at all. But what about all the people suffering without basic needs of housing and cities without infrastructure? What then is the responsible way to move forward? What then is the responsible way to build?
To understand the planet and its resources as finite and facing up to the consequences of the idea of perpetual growth, the built environment and for that matter, our own life and lifestyle, I believe, must turn towards and tread a path it has not ventured sincerely before  and to question this notion of growth as progress
‘How much is enough? ‘
Schumacher in his book ‘Small is Beautiful’(1973) couldn’t have formulated this better:  (…) ‘economic growth’ as the highest of all values, and therefore has no concept of ‘enough’. There are poor societies which have too little: but where is the rich society that says: ‘Halt! We have enough’? There is none. 1
The idea has been brooding in my mind for sometime now and in my yearning to overcome the impasse of conflicting interests – to actively build because buildings are needed or not to build because of the effects on the natural environment. But perhaps there is a middle ground – to build by consciously and conscientiously by disengaging from the narration of infinite growth and to look at buildings and the built environment for their real worth – as places of refuge, as places of communion and so on and so forth. 
Below is a list of aspects that I have been thinking as necessary for a more responsible view on architecture. Although not exhaustive, this list contains my thoughts and concerns that have been accumulating recently that has also made me approach architecture differently.

1. Buildings are not a commodity

The commodification of buildings and the built environment has become an ever-pervasive urban reality. Projects that are developed for foreign investments and for people to buy them as assets, at its least, have nothing to offer, but most frequently create a rupture of the social and economic fabric of the immediate surrounding. In much of contemporary cities, especially in the Global South, there are no urban plans or visions guiding a city’s growth but a collection of projects that are primarily financial investments.
The examples are many – New York’s Hudson Yards, the ghost towns of China, the fragmented and closed gated community that has mutated into every Indian metropolis. Such developments are more a norm than an exception these days
Moreover, with the speculative market, buildings have become an important means for wealth accumulation further contributing to the idea of perpetual growth. Here,  buildings are therefore not valued for the qualities they offer as places of security, identity and social well being but as a form of currency that could be exchanged for something. But unlike our conventional currencies, buildings are physical objects that affect our immediate physical environment and demand a greater toll on the natural environment. Needless to say, their strain on the urban fabric and on the natural environment have been drastic.
As Madden and Marcuse  argue in their ‘In Defense of Housing’, .”What needs defending is the use of housing as home, not as real estate. (…) – our concern is squarely with those who reside in them and use them  – the people for whom home provides use value rather than exchange value” 2
This Architectural Review article elaborates further: 
Liquidity in architecture is endemic. The price of a building is often not determined by how it can be used, but to what extent it can be converted to other types of value. Architectural decisions about form, structure and programme are often made with the question of how each choice will impact on the project’s performance as a sellable commodity resulting in, homes built, bought and owned without ever being lived in3
The same article identifies the problem as a flattening of everything in the current marketplace – land is traded alongside soft drinks and what matters is the price. As an alternative, it proposes grouping of tradable goods based on their environmental and social value such that ‘no amount of fizzy drinks could be exchanged for felling trees’. Translated to the built environment, ‘The land, materials and labour which go into the creation of schools, for example, might be traded in a wholly separate marketplace as those which go into luxury flats, radically reorganising their price’.3

More than Housing project, Zurich is a co-operative housing project where the land and buildings are collectively held by cooperatives that effectively stays away from the speculative real-estate market making homes accessible and affordable | image source

2.Building off the grid, less reliant and more resilient

Global chains of production and consumption, although have the reasoning of scale and manageability, have proven to be the cause of widespread ecological damage – from agriculture to transport to energy.  With the available technological developments, the paradigm for the future is to be local as much as possible, to situate a building and everyday life to the local environment, to produce and consume locally, ideally in a closed-loop cycle thereby reducing stress on globalized processes.
If accounted for, designed and looked after properly, it is not difficult to maintain a small vegetable garden. In our own house, we appropriated a small piece of unused nearby land for the sake of a vegetable garden and with little care and effort, there were enough organic, pesticide and chemical fertilizer free vegetables to feed us and a subsequent list of our friends.
Buildings and the built environment must strive to cut themselves off from the global cycles of production and consumption and instead embedded in local networks of production. Therefore a building or a group of buildings in a collective cluster could grow its own food through community gardens, generate its own energy through collective renewable energy sources, a shared water recycling and waste management hubs. Food gardens, renewable energy generation, water recycling and waste management could be organised as local closed-loop cycles within the building or a group of buildings.
Furthermore, the systems of mass global production are invisible to us. And all we see is a finished product or a commodity in the supermarket, energy that is always available as if it has always been there and we flush away the waste unconcerned of its after-life. Therefore we end up consuming products without much regard to how they are produced, how they come about to us and to what happens to them after. The result is a sort of alienation to the products and energy that we consume. But by bringing the production and management of basic stuff such as food, energy and waste locally and at hand, one is more in contact with these resources and therefore more mindful of its use

Masterplan of the More than Housing project, Zurich. ‘ The building is designed to use as little energy as possible but it also promotes sustainable lifestyles with low car use and low heating demands. This helps residents work towards the 2000 Watt society model that the City of Zurich has adopted’. 6 | image source

3.Building less and what is necessary

A justification that architects do to have any reason at all to build is the justification of an artist – that art must flow without ever being asked for.But I strongly believe that architecture is not art – it has the capacity to move and emotionally induce us but architecture also has a responsibility to respond to a physical need – that is, architecture cannot exist for architecture’s sake. The beauty of architecture is that it takes the dry and mundane yet important physical requirements and while satisfying these physical requirements also provides and responds to the (unasked for, yet important) emotional stimulation. Over the years, I have come to view such architects who are moved by the idea that architecture must stand for itself, are those acting in ‘Sartrean Bad Faith’.
 Buildings exert enormous environmental pressure – so we need to think with careful restraint on what we build. Is affordable housing better over another mega-mall? The problem is that there are wrong, unsuitable patrons, if they could be called as such, for architecture – the developers. One cannot expect philanthropy or even genuine goodwill from a private developer because in the end almost every private developer is motivated by self-preservation at the least. Yet there must grow a certain kind of resistance to this in the form of legislation backed by architects and people concerned with the built environment etc
What if building processes could respond to local needs? – For instance, ‘baugruppen’4,5 or building groups in Germany have an alternative to the issue of speculative housing. These are self-initiated housing projects by people who would live in them – therefore there is a strong and tangible purpose and need for such projects compared to a speculative housing project whose demand is that – speculative. This is unlike large-scale private developers who reason a project into existence based on its financial viability. This could be taken to all other building typologies – schools as in the case of India with this exploding private educational institutions, the malls and commercial centres and so on and so forth.

Masterplan Spreefeld Housing, Berlin is an example of a housing project self-initiated and developed by the future residents of the building. It cuts the private developer out of the equation and therefore there is a direct involvement in the project by its future inhabitants | image sourceof the More than Housing project, Zurich. ‘ The building is designed to use as little energy as possible but it also promotes sustainable lifestyles with low car use and low heating demands. This helps residents work towards the 2000 Watt society model that the City of Zurich has adopted’. 6 | image source

4.Building with humility

Throughout my experience of learning to be an architect both in school and in working in architectural offices, I have come across architects who would want to defend their designs at all costs. Such architects who would believe that their designs are a sheer act of their ego against a world filled with not so beautiful objects; who would adore the story of how a particularly famous architect scribbled the design on a napkin for a famous building and secretly wish they could also be a protagonist to a similar narration. Buildings are therefore revealed as if they are products – shiny new renders, pictures of buildings without people ignoring the fact that buildings age and transform over time . Buildings are given more importance as objects that what they might do to the social or environmental fabric of the place.
But a sensible, empathetic architecture is something that recognises buildings as a background for life to unfold and therefore welcomes and even celebrates heterogeneity and change. To be humble is to view architecture not as an egotistical declaration of a design against nature and all odds but as a process that welcomes and smoothes out discrepancies.  Such processes encourage participation and visualise an architecture that changes over time.
A humble work of architecture prioritises building materials and processes that are available locally and within reach, and favours passive energy strategies before taking help from mechanical processes. Overall acting with humility means situating a building in a place, its context – physical, social and economic – in the most empathetic way possible.

Balkrishna Doshi, LIC housing, Ahmedabad. Original construction in 1973. The design allows affordances for extension of the houses by inhabitants over the years. By stacking houses of smaller sizes successively over the larger ones, the houses on the higher levels have room to grow over the terraces so formed | image source

Incremental growth over the years by the inhabitants | image source

5.Building affordably

Affordability is not merely a number that is less costly but something which is accessible and within reach. Conventional approaches to affordability treat it as a problem of quantity. But affordability is not a top-down but a bottom-up approach. Affordability is about giving agency to the future inhabitants of the city in shaping their built environment. Affordability is rooted and is, therefore, more empathetic to the local situation and connections. Affordability is not merely designing cheaper buildings but enabling social and economic possibilities. Affordability is finding and offering the best possible standards with very limited resources.
For example, In Quinto Monroy, while the solution in the form of ‘half the house’ (citation) is affordable and gives agency to the future inhabitants in shaping the other half, what truly makes it work is it’s location within the centre of the city and closer to economic opportunities. Another example is in the Loving Community housing for the economically marginal families in Ahmedabad. Beneficiaries of the houses were taught a skill in building trade such as tile production, ferrocement construction etc. Therefore, while they offer manual labour to the construction of their house, thereby reducing cost, they have learned a new skill which they could convert into an economic opportunity to support themselves. 
As such, architecture must aim for such far-reaching effects. These are only a fraction of examples to illustrate that architecture must have a vision that extends beyond the brief to investigate and respond to the core of the problem. To approach every building as an exercise in affordability is to treat the resources at hand as precious and to work with them consciously and judiciously.

Half a house, Quinta Monroy, Elemental, Chile | image source

SeaLAB, Loving community housing, Ahmedabad. Beneficiaries of the houses were taught a skill in building so that they could help in the construction of their house reducing cost and meanwhile learning a skill with which they could could convert into economic opportunities | image source

6.Living slowly

Contemporary culture proceeds at a restless with speed, always looking for the next thing – constantly hurtled forward without time or opportunity to savour what is at hand. Even images are turned into objects of consumption through Instagram – images produced, half-digested and forgotten in moments. Such speed and overload of information has created a certain degree of numbness – a numbing of senses to the physical environment. It already demands a great effort to steal some personal time from the many distractions that we are constantly bombarded with, let alone be mindful of our current moment and to approach life with a bit of clarity.
I have enjoyed the times I’ve been to art museums and I’ve always felt energetic, refreshed and optimist after each and every visit. In the presence of good art, I’ve been able to forget my senses to fully enjoy it and therefore feel extremely alive and at present.
As Schumacher rightly articulates, “For the modern economist, this is very difficult to understand. He is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption”.1

Works cited

  1. Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond & Briggs.
  2. Madden, D., & Marcuse, P. (2016). In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. London: Verso.
  3. Harper, P., & Smith, M. (2019, August 30). On the money: the merits of degrowth. The Architectural Review.
  4. Kristien, R. (2016, November 22). Reinventing Density: how baugruppen is pioneering the self-made city. Retrieved from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/reinventing-density-how-baugruppen-are-pioneering-the-self-made-city-66488
  5. Neylon, L. (2017, August 30). A New Group Wants Dubliners to Team Up to Build Their Own Homes. Retrieved from Dublin Inquirer: https://www.dublininquirer.com/2017/08/30/a-new-group-wants-dubliners-to-team-up-to-build-their-own-homes
  6. More than housing. (n.d.). Retrieved from World Habitat Awards: https://www.world-habitat.org/world-habitat-awards/winners-and-finalists/more-than-housing/#award-content
  7. Cover image: https://unequalscenes.com/mumbai
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