The potential emergence of deep change in the face of emergency. Pia Ednie-Brown, Sam Spurr, Amelia Hine and Charity Edwards outline the paradigm shifts needed in how architects and designers understand their roles and the world we work in.
We live in a world populated by much more than just humans – our own bodies contain billions of other organisms, for instance – but we become more aware of this state of cohabitation when certain species gain our attention, like the traumatic plight of koalas during the bushfires, or when a viral pandemic such as COVID-19 sweeps the world.
The heartbreaking reality of unprecedented wildfire intensity was a shock, even though we had been forewarned. Diverse communities of human and non-human animals and plants became more aware of one another, linked through tragic circumstance. Now, as we digest the reality of social distancing, quarantine and self-isolation – with no end in sight – spatial politics has become acutely important, triggering attention to issues of fundamental importance to all design disciplines.
Like many communities, the architectural profession has responded quickly to these emergencies and immanent future challenges. In the case of the bushfires, coordinated statements from the Australian Institute of Architects supporting the Global Climate strike rallies in September 2019 were drawn up, and hundreds of architects and architectural practices pledged their support for an Australian offshoot of the UK-based climate change advocacy group, Architects Declare Climate & Biodiversity Emergency.
As the bushfire season worsened, pro bono architectural services network, Architects Assist, was set up by Jiri Lev, aiming to assist those who lost their homes in bushfires. The network was subsequently taken on by the Australian Institute of Architects. Then, in a movement to ‘clean up our own shop’, a swathe of architects under the banner of ‘Architects Declare, Architects Act’ publicly committed to going carbon neutral by the end of 2020, publishing the steps they will take in achieving this.
These are all valuable and worthwhile responses to the situation and ought to be applauded. We all know, however, that these acts can only be a beginning. Similarly, with COVID-19, we have a long road ahead.
There is a need for deeper paradigm shifts in how architects and designers approach the cohabited world they operate with, and their role within it. We rarely attend to this deeper change because it is the hardest kind, involving the undoing of habits that are so ingrained it’s difficult to see them clearly, let alone take tangible steps to change them. So, what do we need to realise, undo and re-learn?
Digging under the technological responses and surface effects of ‘sustainability’ or the strangely mathematical, spatial measures of ‘public distancing’, architecture and design’s most pervasive and problematic habit is anthropocentrism – that is, assuming humans are at the centre of all concerns. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the ‘human’, along with ‘technology’ and ‘culture’, are somehow separate from ‘nature’. Similarly, we should remember how often ‘human’ also simply stands in for ‘man’. As economist Kate Raworth tweeted in response to a scientific working group established to consider human influence on climate change, which only contained six women out of 35 members: “The Anthropocene is bad enough. Spare us the Manthropocene.”
Critically, a human-centred world-view tends to miss the degree to which all action is so enmeshed in the world that it always has profound ecological impacts. It also misses many opportunities for shared joy and comfort. While many people understandably fear immanent isolation and potential loneliness, it is only humans from whom we need to keep a distance, and there are many rocks, trees, atmospheres and other non-human entities to embrace. What if the ‘public’ of ‘public space’ became more widely understood as much more-than-human?
As a habit of thought, human-centredness obviously extends well beyond architecture and design, and this significantly magnifies the challenge of deep change. But design goes to the core of our patterns of thought, which are in themselves designed. The architecture and design community can make meaningful contributions to shifting these patterns, but only if it can – at this deep level – ‘clean up its own shop’.
A key issue here lies in more fully realising how caring beyond ourselves is the only way to really look after ourselves in the long run. As outlined recently by Cecily Maller, it has been well established that a more-than-human approach to cities has significant human-health benefits. We understand the importance and benefits of caring for one another inside human communities, but how can we get better at understanding community as much, much more than human?
For architecture and design, getting out of our habitual, human-centred ruts will require a great deal of exploration, experimentation, and ethical innovation with ‘more-than-human-design’ practices. What does this mean?
Critically, it means designing in ways that neither exclude human interests nor make them the centre of concern, while enabling the non-human to actively engage in the design process. ‘More-than-human-design’ attempts to work ecologically with the complex interrelations of humans and non-humans in an effort to cultivate – with others – mutually beneficial modes of cohabitation.
In using the term ‘ecological’ or ‘ecology’ here, we do not mean ‘nature’. As the celebrated urban thinker Jane Jacobs insisted, what we call our ‘economy’ is an ‘ecology’, but not in a metaphorical sense – in a literal sense.
Both economies and ecologies are made of lots and lots of interdependent things, actions and movements, often invisibly connected to each other. We all know the economy works in this interdependent way, with mood, weather events, politics, disease (for example, COVID-19) triggering economic shifts that have very real, material, physical implications for all our lives – human and non-human. In other words, the economy works ecologically.
At a fundamental level, more-than-human-design requires realising that all design acts are ecological, and that constructed environments (such as buildings) inevitably involve altering an existing ecology and, potentially, generating novel ecologies.
Two exemplary approaches – which are key reference points in Australia – can be found in indigenous world-views with practices of care for Country and those working in the Australian-born field of permaculture design. Indigenous philosophies show us a profoundly relational enmeshing of humans, animals and landscape, and permaculture has – from its inception in the 1970s – acknowledged and understood this, going on to develop design principles based in ecological thinking. Leaders and emerging practices in these two fields have much to offer our design futures and the experimentation we need to foster, such as Greenaway Architects, Future Black or Relative Creative, and Holmgren Design, Milkwood or Kat Lavers, among other related community-oriented efforts such as The Planthunter.
More-than-human-design, as we mean it here, it is not about privileging ‘nature’, or focusing on saving some specific, appealing non-human animal. Related approaches are common. Animal enclosures such as BIG’s recent Panda House at the Copenhagen Zoo and China’s ChimeLong Ocean Kingdom are clear examples of animal architecture serving a human-centred focus. Urban and architectural researchers like Jennifer Wolch and Marcus Owens also ask why must ‘wild’ life so often become subject to control through design, and why do architects rarely engage with animals’ sensory realm or experiences? Perhaps more importantly, why does a focus on individual species tend to not operate more ecologically?
Design practices are certainly becoming more aware of non-human needs, and the idea of the more-than-human is gradually infiltrating design thinking. For instance, Wolch and Owens point to architectural projects (including bird-collision reduction design, such as Studio Gang’s ‘Aqua Tower’) and infrastructural interventions (such as SCAPE’s Oyster-tecture project and MOMA’s Rising Currents exhibition) that seek to engage urban design in ways that go well beyond the simply ‘human’. Practices such as ecoLogicStudio are experimenting with ‘integrating nature’ across scales – from pavilions and facade systems, to landscape territories.
Baracco Wright’s Garden House offers another exemplary approach through incorporating a slow site-observation period into the design process. Designing with attention to biodiversity is becoming more common: popular programs like Gardening Australia repeatedly offer tips along these lines, and Renew’s Sanctuary magazine recently published an article on designing homes with biodiversity in mind. Along related but different lines, Design Speaks was to stage a symposium (now postponed) at Partners Hill’s Daylesford Long House concerning the Hybrid House, or ways that homes might be designed to attend to more than just human inhabitation. These are just a few examples, and there is much being developed to be built upon.
The challenge that architecture and other design disciplines face is not that architectural activity isn’t already ecological (because it has always been an intensely inter-relational, complex art), but that it approaches this through a blinkered lens emphasising form and function that serve human needs. As Australian feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti writes, rather than attempt to integrate nonhumans into ‘our’ world, we need to replace ourselves with “‘a living nexus of multiple inter-connections’ and alliances that empower the collective. We are all in this together.”1
For Melbourne Design Week 2020, a conversational, experientially designed symposium at the NGV, ‘Design Practices For More Than Human Commons’, had been planned to explore how we might approach these issues. The gathering involved a number of practices mentioned in this article. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this event is postponed to a later time. In the meantime and in the near future, a new online platform dedicated to sharing more-than-human-design, the ‘MTHD commons’, will be launched, aiming to mobilise collective effort because we are, as Braidotti insisted, all in this together.
Pia Ednie-Brown is an architectural theorist, researcher and practitioner, and a Professor of Architecture at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her design practice, onomatopoeia, works with diverse media, methods and milieu to explore creative ways of unsettling anthropocentrism. The ongoing goal is to foster alternative, ecologically inclined ways of practicing, through projects such as The Jane Approach (see: http://onomatopoeia.com.au/what-is-the-jane-approach) Through creative practice methods, her research over the years has sought to articulate relations between creativity and ethics, aesthetics, innovation, emergence, ecological thinking, and emerging technologies. Her writing and creative works have been published in diverse national and international contexts.
Charity Edwards is a lecturer at Monash University’s Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture; and an architect-geographer who collaborates with artists and scientists to create objects, environments and urban strategy. Her research highlights more-than-human impacts of urbanisation at the scale of the planet, and she foregrounds the long-disregarded space of the ocean in particular. She is currently investigating how urban processes extend into the Southern Ocean and manifest through increasingly autonomous underwater technologies. Charity is also a member of The Afterlives of Cities research collective, which brings together expertise in architecture, astrophysics, and speculative fiction to recover futures through civic creative practice.
Amelia Hine is a human geographer with a background in design and museum studies, and an ongoing professional practice in visual communication. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow funded by CRC ORE and located in the QUT Business School. Her research focuses on the social and material aspects of Anthropocenic landscape planning and transformation, with a particular interest in the extractives sector, and uses experimental feminist storytelling practices that build on vital materialist and multispecies worldings.
Sam Spurr is an architectural theorist, academic and designer. Her practice incorporates text, event, installation and curatorial design, developed through a commitment to collaborative, aleatory and diagrammatic processes. She is interested in feminist philosophies of collective political subjectivity and how these can be used to transform our built environment and think with more-than-human worlds. Her current research is on Mining Ideology and Coal Capitalism, examining the agency of spatial practices to make legible the complex forces at play in the age of the Anthropocene. Sam’s doctorate was titled ‘Performative Architectures’ (2008). Sam has exhibited at international biennales, curated major symposia and conferences, and writes for both academic and general audience architecture, design and fine arts publications. Sam is an Associate Professor in Architecture at the University of Newcastle, Australia.
- Braidotti as cited in Houston, D., Hillier, J., MacCallum, D., Steele, W., & Byrne, J. (2018). Make kin, not cities! Multispecies entanglements and ‘becoming-world’ in planning theory. Planning Theory, 17(2), 190–212.