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There is nothing wrong with Modernism in architecture and urban design

There is nothing wrong with Modernism in architecture and urban design

Markus Appenzeller

‘Modern Architecture, a planetary warming story’ is the title of a book by architecture historian Hans Ibelings published recently. In his text, Ibelings builds evidence that modernist architecture is closely linked and therefore partially responsible for global warming. This publication is only one in a row that try to paint modernist architecture as the root cause of all the problems related to climate change. In that narrative, shopping malls, glass office towers, large scale housing estates, motorway roadhouses all become the showcase of everything that went wrong. Concrete – the material most of the modernist buildings are made of, is evil and so are the – mostly white and male – architects. Everything is wrong somehow, and we need to turn to wooden buildings, natural ventilation and small scale low rise.

Hans Ibelings: Modern Architecture: A planetary warming history
Available here

While we should be more conscious about the impact of our own doing as spatial designers, I think judging modernism in its entirety is plain wrong and stupid. Modernism has helped us to achieve a lot in our cities. Modernist construction methods allowed us to build higher and more densely. Modernism gave us many other means of urban transport – from trams to metro’s, trains and buses. Those are critical if we want to reduce the amount of cars in cities and everywhere else. Utilities systems greatly reduced diseases and allow us to reduce soil pollution. Modernism also introduced the idea of efficiency and optimization of systems into the equation. All in all, this allowed us to accommodate a global human population that is six times bigger than in pre modernist times at greatly increased wealth and life expectancy.


Many problems however are attributed to modernist architecture and urban planning: a loss of biodiversity in cities, destruction of ecosystems, proliferation of cars, urban heat islands, environmental pollution, depletion of water resources and many more. For none of them architecture and planning are solely responsible, but for all of them, the economic model as it has evolved behind modernism is the problem. Independent of ideology, all models are based on the exploitation of natural resources for economic benefits and the assumed infinity of resources without major effects on the planet.

If we want to change something, we have to change the economic logic and not kill the achievements of modernism. Wood is a finite resource, and it needs 40 years to regrow and there are researchers that are deeply worried about our hunger for wood for construction, packaging and heating since the result might be a destruction of even more ecosystems. Climate change in many parts of the world will make places uninhabitable. Without air-conditioning and in these places, the already anticipated waves of migration will turn into tsunamis. Giving up on the efficiency and system thinking inherent to modernist architecture and urban planning will not reduce the use of materials and land but increase it.

But how can a new economic model as underlay to modernist spatial design look like? The answer is not as simple as the old model since – next to land, labour and capital, it requires the introduction of two other variables.

It is a start – but in a way still to global – offsetting pollution in one place by not doing it in a completely different context: Clean Development Mechanism

One is carbon. This is already happening, It has been included in circular thinking, in emission rights and in a number of other newly developed mechanisms. The next step to take is to bring extraction of new fossil fuels down to zero and to introduce these principles not only in a limited set of markets but universally. If the embodied carbon of a building that is scheduled to be destroyed and replaced by a new one would become part of a zero carbon equation for the project, the likelihood that it will be reused and adapted is much higher.

The second variable is biodiversity. For decades, we have seen biodiversity shrinking to reach a point where the earth’s ability to compensate for our impact has been compromised such, that the entire system is at risk. Any future activity has to avoid deteriorating biodiversity further and enable nature to gain ground again. Incentivizing promotion of more biodiversity by economic benefits such as more favourable interest rates or tax breaks could further the cause, and outlawing reduction of biodiversity by a charter of the rights of nature that ranks higher than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could make it a lot more difficult to get away with destructive behaviour. Admittedly, the latter is a long shot, but it would make it clear to any human being on the planet that human rights have no value if the planet is not able to sustain human life any more.

The result of these changes in the economic model could be modernist spatial design that is even more modern – a kind of ‘carbonmodernism’. Like their predecessors, architects and urban designers would have to embark onto the search for aesthetic answers to the new economic paradigm. I believe that this carbonmodernism will be the first architectural movement where a universal aesthetic does not play the key role any more and instead gets replaced by a way things are made. This could range from a totally organic look of houses grown like – and by – plants and microorganisms to radical re-use of buildings that look like collages of things from the past repurposed and put in a new context.

It is our call to be as visionary as the founders of the modernism movement in architecture were – to help to turn this new thinking into spatial expressions and allow people to picture an alternative, better future.

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