The solution of every problem is contained within itself.

Its plan, form and character are determined by the nature of the site,

the nature of the materials used,

the nature of the system using them,

the nature of life concerned and

the purpose of the building itself.

. . .

F.L. Wright , 1933


In Case we Want to Survive
A Plea for an Architecture of Responsibility

Thorsten Bürklin, Michael Peterek, Jürgen Reichardt

The climate of our common “spaceship earth”¹ is changing drastically. As the global population has surmounted the 8-billion-mark and the ever-increasing agricultural, manufacturing and commercial activities are stressing our natural resources we find ourselves at any rate in the centre of radical changes. Every corner of the globe is prey to pollution. Academicians in the fields of Architecture, Engineering and Urban Planning can no longer escape this reality. We are required to take responsibility that goes beyond our ‘individual’ horizons. The world is too big for one head. It's far too big for a dozily head that does not want to see what happens beyond the doorstep.

As a matter of fact professional organisations have already stressed the instance that building is a key contributor to climate change. Yet not much has happened to tackle this menace. Where are the exemplary examples of socially acceptable, climate-friendly and affordable buildings that use local ressources² ? Where can one find urban development projects that show us the way to a future worth living in? And where are the research results and international networks that develop the performance oriented necessary knowledge base³ , especially at the University level? Therefore, more than 50 years after the founding of the Club of Rome⁴ , the challenge must finally be accepted. We have to face the consequences of our collective indifference towards planning, designing and constructing.

The days of alluring gullibility are over. While believing in the promises made by modern sciences and the repeated mantra of digitization the illusion thrives that rapid technological advancement alone is enough to cope with the ever increasing environmental and climate challenges. The case is just the opposite. So far, we have seen more promises of salvation than solutions. The social distortions as well as the environmental and climate damages caused due to mindless construction is immense.

Yes, architecture is spatial art. But it is not an end in itself. It is not beyond human needs, not even beyond society and technology. The framework for architecture is the human horizon – which is threatening to disappear if we do not care about the environment – the human beings, the animals, nature as a whole. Beauty should be the splendour of truth⁵  – this can only be true in our discipline if it does not only superficially aim at an aesthetically pleasing design. At the same time functional, social and also climatic demands are to be taken seriously. Beauty ends where it does not want to show itself within the framework of what architecture and the city have to achieve for people's lives. The pleasure of architecture cannot be „without interest“⁶ . We do not build for the glossy magazines and online publications.
“Maintenant l’architecture” (Now the architecture)⁷  – this more than three decades old request must be complied with. We believe that the image of the profession needs urgent restructuring in view of the eminent challenges. Universities have to take lead on this task. We have reached the crossroads. The question arises as to what Architects, Engineers as well as Urban Planners can and want to achieve in the face of climate change and environmental degradation or whether they would continue to be mute service providers to consumerism. There must be an end to this egocentric approach towards architecture, which is only serving as a tool for short-sighted interests of investors. There is no time for such escapades any more. Instead a holistic networked approach of international expert knowledge  has to cope with the crisis on hand (the living conditions, the climate). With this in mind, we submit the following thoughts to our fellow Academicians, i.e. we submit our plea for an

Architecture of responsibility:

A hundred years ago, modernity proposed to deliver better living conditions for the masses. The goal was to guarantee light, air and sun for everyone to live and work in. Given the still grossly inadequate living conditions around the world, this task remains largely unrealized and continues to be relevant. Yet in addition it is time to propose to add another goal to these requirements.

Architecture must be in sync and harmony with nature and the respective regional, social and climatic circumstances.

Therefore we demand:

    to refuse – the rejection of architecture as a rapidly perishable consumer product,
•    to reduce – the minimization of the exploitation of natural resources as well as of the global production-supply chains,
    to reuse – the creation of closed loops for recycling of materials in the construction industry,
    to rethink – to face our responsibility now.

Refuse – architecture only has to meet reasonable requirements:

Architecture is supposed to combine “commodity, firmness & delight”. The Vitruvian Triassic emphasized the importance of these points with a view to a healthy, sustainable and livable environment. It's about fundamentals – about the beginning, the origin, the basics of architecture. We suggest comprehensive anamnesis and diagnosis in order to prescribe corrective measures for a therapy.

Therefore teaching and learning at Universities must inculcate the scientific basis within an international exchange network. Comfortable certainties of contemporary and affluent societies need to be rigorously questioned. Architecture and urban planning do not primarily have to present ever new excited sensations. We must reject such unreasonable demands with all certainty. Architecture, Engineering and Urban Planning must provide answers to the urgent call to adequately accommodate all people on our planet – at home, at work or leisure.

Reduce – architecture must be minimalist:

Architecture has to minimize the depletion of resources as well as the production, supply and waste disposal chains that are necessary for construction and demolition of buildings and structures. As far as possible, locally available materials and components must be used⁹.  Environmental degradation has progressed too far across in most parts of the world. The consumption of land and the footprint of buildings on site have to be reduced. Thoughtful positioning of buildings, organization of spaces in horizontal as well as vertical planes and possibilities of adaptive re-use could help us to slow down further degradation in the long run. These are decisive elements for adaptivity and resilience that help to reduce mobility. "Less is more" – the simple in construction, material execution and building services installation must therefore be given priority over the complicated, i.e. the elementary over the composite.

Reuse – architecture must be integrated in largely closed cycles:

Architecture must be understood as a cycle. We have to ensure that building materials are used so as to conserve natural resources. Instead Architects, Engineers and Urban planners rarely worry about ‘where from’ and ‘where to’. Their responsibility begins with the planning and ends when the building is completed. Universities need to adequately address this grossly neglected issue.

This also includes discarding short-lived solutions. The lifespan of buildings must be increased, contrary to the one-dimensional desires for profit maximisation. By extending the cycles, resources are conserved more effectively than through continuous demolition and new construction. Urban planning in particular should be oriented towards this.

Rethink – if we want to survive, now an architecture of responsibilty:

We believe that it’s time to wake up and shoulder our collective responsibility. The universities must think ahead: It is about teaching architecture that sees the central demand of people to be able to live and work in a healthy and dignified way as the most urgent and noble task. Honesty is expected. It is high time to realise an architecture of responsibilty … it is high time we Teachers and Academicians show responsibility.

Or as Buckminster Fuller put it: “So, planners, architects, and engineers take the initiative. Go to work, and above all co-operate [..].” ¹⁰

The authors:
Thorsten Bürklin, Professor of History and Theory of Architecture at the MSA Münster School of Architecture / FH Münster
Michael Peterek, Professor of Urban Development and Design at Frankfurt UAS
Jürgen Reichardt, Professor of Building Construction at the MSA Münster School of Architecture / FH Münster

[1] Buckminster Fuller (2008/2020): Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published in 1969. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers.

[2] On the question of local economic activity see Niko Paech (2018): Befreiung vom Überfluss. Auf dem Weg in die Postwachstumsökonomie. 10. Aufl., München: oekom Verlag.

[3] See Hugo Häring (1927): Formulierungen zur Neuorientierung im Kunstgewerbe und Hugo Häring (1932): Das Haus als organhaftes Gebilde. Excerpts in: Ulrich Conrads, Programme und Manifeste zur Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Braunschweig/Wiesbaden: Friedr. Vieweg & Sohn Verlagsgesellschaft, 2. Aufl., 1981, 97-99 and 117-118.

[4] See Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows (2004): Limits to Growth. The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

[5] Mies van der Rohe is always associated with this statement; see Will Grohmann (1956): Das Schöne ist der Glanz des Wahren. Mies van der Rohe wird heute siebzig. In: DER TAGESSPIEGEL, 27. März 1956, 4. For his part, he borrowed them from ancient authors such as Plato and Plotinus.

[6] See Immanuel Kant (1974): Kritik der Urteilskraft. Unveränderter Nachdruck der sechsten Auflage von 1924, Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, Erstes Buch. Analytik des Schönen.

[7] Jacques Derrida (1986): Point de folie – Maintenant l’architecture. In: Bernard Tschumi, La Case Vide. London: Architectural Association, Folio VIII, 1986.

[8] One approach to this is the international knowledge and e-learning web portal funded by the DAAD and BMBF on the subject of climate responsive architecture; see www.climatehub.online.

[9] For the concept of local economies, see Niko Paech (2018): Befreiung vom Überfluss. Auf dem Weg in die Postwachstumsökonomie. 10. Aufl., München: oekom Verlag.

[10] Buckminster Fuller (2008/2020): Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 138.