September 30, 2022

A new book argues that architecture desperately needs fixing. But what if it needs breaking instead?

8 min read
A new book argues that architecture desperately needs fixing. But what if it needs breaking instead?

Non-Extractive Architecture, Volume 1: On Designing without Depletion
Edited by Space Caviar | Sternberg Press | $32

Non-Extractive Architecture: On Designing without Depletion, a newish volume edited by the design research group Space Caviar, is provocative and timely in a way that much contemporary architecture writing just isn’t. The project stresses the role of architectural work writ broadly—encompassing buildings but also infrastructure and urban planning—in a long “Anthropocene”-type history. To this end, the editors guide the discussion with questions and provocations. I quote a few below, taken from Part V, “Toward a Non-Extractive Architecture,” and offer up some of my own answers:

Is architecture intrinsically extractive?
Yes.

Is it predestined to be an instrument of social injustice and an accomplice in human extinction?
Yes.

Is there no alternative to the predatory overconsumption of finite resources?
Well, yes, there is one. But you may not like the answer (find out below).

Is it possible to imagine an architecture that does not depend on hidden costs and externalities? A non-extractive architecture?
See above.

To be clear, these questions are not answered in the volume itself. Indeed, Non-Extractive Architecture displays a general contentedness in letting such queries simply remain on a rhetorical level. Terms of analysis are never fixed. Despite their prevalence, “non-extraction” and “architecture” float unmoored throughout or are bent to the whims of individual contributors. Depending on the context, “non-extraction” can connote technocratic circular carbon economies or austere localism. Likewise, “architecture” may appear as either the transcendent art of building or the banal administration of construction-development schemes.

The volume’s clearest statement of intent is to be found in lead editor Joseph Grima’s inaugural essay, “Design Without Depletion.” Grima begins by describing the Etruscan village of Baratti, on Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast, a place “[s]haped by a history of extraction, technological innovation, and dependency on that which lies beneath…where the production of empire, by military and economic means, touches ground.” In Baratti, this legacy is of an explicitly geographical character: The hills that used to surround the town (some of which were 65 feet high) were not geological formations at all but in fact great heaps of slag, remnants of crude Roman iron production. These “hills” were later pressed back into service beginning in 1921 by the Italian (Fascist) war machine, which through refined smelting techniques recovered some 300,000 tons of metal.

While fascinating, there is a dangerous naturalization contained within this historical scenario, one that cleverly draws a great unbroken line from deforestation and metallurgy in imperial Rome all the way to present-day industrial techniques. Declining to engage with the current predicament, Non-Extractive Architecture proffers a “long now” perspective, which judges human habitation to be and always have been extractive in all places across all time periods. With this established, contributors are set free to treat discrete scenarios with whatever pet theoretical approaches they have at hand. The particularity of capitalism as a mode of production and social organization within history lies, for the most part, outside the book’s scope.

In this way, Non-Extractive Architecture attempts to have its cake and eat it too: to be anticapitalist, insofar as capitalism remains nebulous and undefined, but also to be anti-architecture, insofar as architecture is construed as a byword for extraction, separate from its artistic administration. Because the book associates blame with the imprecative work of extraction that presages all architectural creation, it ultimately lets architects off the hook.

Barcelona Pavilion, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona, Spain, 2013. (Armin Linke)

Organized into thematic clusters, the collection can often come off as a fitful dance, with unsparing theoretical analysis followed by a soft feint. At times, this dynamic occurs within individual contributions, as in Mark Wigley’s “Returning the Gift,” which vividly analogizes buildings to “pieces of mining equipment, actively devouring the planet,” only to then gesture at a “shift of visibility” that would foreground architecture’s extractive attitude. In their piece “The Thin Thread of Carbon,” Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pevzner lament that “every city has its pit, and every material its extraction landscape”; the pair proceed to chuck this insight into the proverbial academic abattoir, in which architecture must be “unmade” until nothing remains. If there’s a unifying trend here, it is the convenience with which things always seem to turn, at the perfect moment, from intractable, concrete problems into easily solvable false problems of mind—or, put another way, from materialist analysis into the ponderous animism of New Materialism.

A few standout studies buck this trend. Charlotte Malterre-Barthes’s “The Devil Is in the Details” emphatically puts the lie to the idea of incremental sustainability and its abiding fiction of a “circular economy” of building materials. In “Old New Deal,” Keller Easterling reveals the settler-colonialist underpinnings of the New Deal that today’s green advocates unwittingly reproduce in their reparative schemes. Swarnabh Ghosh’s methodologically precise “Critique of Labor in Construction” advocates for conceiving “the work of designing buildings and the work of building buildings as internally related parts of the same whole.” It’s among the most potent and lucid formulations to be found in the entire collection.

Ghosh’s essay echoes Nancy Fraser’s exhortation to move from “capitalism talk” to Kapitalkritik—a damning statement that could be broadly applied to Non-Extractive Architecture. The ideological chasms separating some writers, coupled with an editorial indifference toward first principles or methods, render the book less a coherent statement and more a potpourri of ideas that happen to coexist within the same volume. Even the layout seems designed to leave readers circling the drain, so to speak: The book is divided into five sections of, typically, two essays and an art project write-up, leaving very little opportunity for momentum to build up. Perhaps Volume 2 (due out later this year) will organize these disparate strands into a unified line.

Though Non-Extractive Architecture does not go as far as it could, it does go to some interesting places. The volume truly shines when it digs in for an ideology critique of the architectural profession itself. But even then, many of the featured essayists are unable to break from a conception of the individual architect as reformist agent. In her essay “Open Water,” Elsa Hoover beseeches young architects to undertake “some work of imagination to step offshore…in order to consider other systems in the formation of space.” Yet, if feats of imagination or a well-meaning art exhibition (the book’s release was pegged to last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale) could change the world, they would have already done so many times over. The enemies lurking in these pages—fossil fuel companies, product providers, energy conglomerates, steel manufacturers, and all stripes of multinational corporate monsters—do not respond to invocations of morality, and that’s basically all the essays here have to offer.

When Jane Hutton does perturb this narrative, it is in too meek a voice. She writes:

For designers interested in what non-extractive architecture could be, there is much to learn from land defenders, abolitionists, and others who reject the harmful present, while dreaming of and constructing a different future. The concepts of reciprocal relations and solidarity…challenge the idea of architecture as a building in space, asserting that it should instead be considered a network of relations with land and other species, obligations and responsibilities to places and people, and potential connections and solidarity with others working to the same ends.

Were it that our architects could be compelled by some internal force to ethically act—to consort with radicals for the good of the planet and its future. But the time for leaving the question up to individual practitioners is long over, and relying on an individualistic exhortation to do better is not enough. Extraction and accumulation are not the work of the species, but particular moments in a process of making a lot of money. Architecture, or speaking plainly, the corporate activity of designing and administering other corporations, is one such moment. If anything, “architecture” is simply the name that we give to the material appearance of capitalism as it stalks the earth. It is the incisors of capital as it eats up the world.

image of a mountain valley partly shrouded in fog
Moving cloud, Aosta, Italy, 2000. (Armin Linke)

You may ask, “Why be so negative?” Isn’t laying the cards on the table ultimately an unalloyed good? Indeed, it can be. Considering the above, the destitution of theoretical approaches, and the lateness of the hour, I would like to offer a constructive counterpoint to the arguments advanced by Non-Extractive Architecture, no less “unfeasible” or “utopian” than dreams that building only with new materials, running extensive carbon checks, etc., will deliver us from extinction.

The only “alternative to the predatory over-consumption of finite resources” is to utterly subordinate the practice of architecture to the betterment of human lives, by force if necessary. Of course, architecture already is dominated by the master of capital, which gives it form, an ethos, a way of acting. I propose this master be usurped by a social force that seeks to devastate the capitalist world in favor of a human one.

This force would dictate: no more firms designing malls and military bases; no more clever solo practitioners with strange money and stranger connections; no more smug, vain, and solipsistic speculative provocations. All who are involved, or want to be involved, in the social practice of architecture, a word now stretched to its broadest limits, must be united under a simple order to put singular talents and merits to the creation of the material substrate and infrastructural underpinning of a world socially universal and maximally beneficial for all.

This may sound risible, perhaps even insane. But what’s the alternative? Continue with the status quo until we all die choking on air or boiling under brackish oceans? Think a little bigger!

What I am proposing will require many steps, beginning with dissolving the limits between “architect” and “worker” and culminating in the annihilation of property. How do we get there? There’s a problem for you—a problem of “imagination,” in fact. To quote from Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, “imagination is a pivotal faculty here.” He continues: “[I]t is also easier, at least for some, to imagine learning to die than learning to fight, to reconcile oneself to the end of everything one holds dear than to consider some militant resistance.” Architecture, as it stands, has become exceedingly adept at dying. What if we learned to fight?

Kevin Rogan is a writer, designer, student, and dilettante who lives in New York.

A new book argues that architecture desperately needs fixing. But what if it needs breaking instead?