Various versions of that ominous statement have in the last few years been the central premise of countless reports on the state of architecture. And it’s not without a point. A rapidly growing urban population raises urgent questions of how to balance the safeguarding of the environment while meeting the need for extended housing, offices and infrastructure. Already, the buildings sector is responsible for 40% of global CO2 emissions, with operations representing 28% annually and construction materials adding another 11%.
The good news is that so-called sustainable architecture is enjoying both unprecedented business and policy momentum, with construction and architectural companies around the world pivoting to a model where low-carbon thinking is integrating into every aspect of the planning and construction process — from the choice of building materials and waste management to climate efficient heating, cooling and plumbing.
And yet, as we are still establishing a benchmark for what should count as a truly sustainable building, there’s another — less-touted — aspect that is too often neglected: the imperative to build beautifully.
If strolling through any European capital today, you’re bound to eventually be confronted by a modern structure that compels you to question the vision. Sometimes, it’s an inner-city office grinding awkwardly against its historical surrounding, and other times it’s a cement-laden complex in the suburbs. The common denominator is that they fail to inspire.
Indeed, as the function of many modern buildings has taken precedent over aesthetics, many now suggest that the advent of climate-friendly construction will only amplify our technocratic approach to architecture. But is it really true that beauty and sustainability are incompatible?
After all, the idea of a climate-friendly building as a functional box adhering to regulations might not only be reductive but short-sighted. A broader view on sustainability means that our creations should be healthy for the environment and its population — and that means building something that can be admired for generations rather than facing the wrecking ball. Meanwhile, our green transition has ushered in both new building techniques as well as materials that will become cheaper as their adoption spreads — granting new tools to creative architects around the world.