Non-Extractive Architecture manifesto calls for buildings that are “not intrinsically dependent on exploitation”

Non-Extractive Architecture manifesto

Italian research studio Space Caviar has released a manifesto for a new type of architecture that does not deplete the earth’s resources.

Called Non-Extractive Architecture, the manifesto calls on architects to design buildings that avoid exploiting the planet or people.

“Non-extractive architecture questions the assumption that building must inevitably cause some kind of irreversible damage or depletion somewhere – preferably somewhere else – and the best we can do as architects is limit the damage done,” said Space Caviar co-founder Joseph Grima.

“Our goal as architects is not to limit carbon emissions,” he added. “It is to come up with an idea of architecture that is not intrinsically dependent on some form of exploitation.”

Space Caviar co-founder Joseph Grima
Top: the non-extractive architecture book. Above: Space Caviar co-founder Joseph Grima

The manifesto consists of a book and an exhibition, both titled Non-Extractive Architecture: On Designing Without Depletion.

The book was published by cultural foundation V-A-C and Steinberg Press last month while an exhibition on the same topic opened at V-A-C’s Venitian headquarters was installed in March and will open when Covid regulations allow it to.

Non-extractive architecture exhibition
An exhibition was installed at V-A-C’s Venetian headquarters in March

Running until January 2022, the exhibition will be a live research platform that will run alongside the Venice Architecture Biennale, which is due to open in May after being postponed from last year due to the pandemic.

“Both the project and the [exhibition] project are an attempt to question some of the assumptions underlying contemporary architectural production from a material and social perspective, and rethink the construction industry in the belief that better alternatives exist”.

Non-extractive architecture exhibition
The exhibition aims to explain non-extractive architecture

Taking place at V-A-C Zattere, a renovated palazzo on the Canale dell Giudecca, the project will generate research for a second book due to be published next year.

“At the most basic level, non-extractive architecture is an architecture that does not produce externalities,” said Grima, who is also creative director at Design Academy Eindhoven and chief curator of design at Milan’s Triennale di Milano museum as well as co-founder of Milanese design platform Alcova.

“The goal of the coming year of research and programs at V-A-C Zattere in Venice is to investigate the material, social and theoretical dimensions of this idea,” Grima said.

Non-Extractive Architecture exhibition
The Venice show will run until January 2022

Grima said that while ideas such as increasing energy efficiency of buildings, designing for reuse and reducing the carbon footprint of construction materials are important, “unless it is part of a larger strategy that has a clear goal there is a risk of it becoming little more than a damage-limitation exercise.”

“Zero-carbon buildings aren’t going to be much help, even if they’re made out of carbon-capturing cross-laminated timber, if their production is dependent on massive monocultural reforestation that depletes ecosystems or displaces communities and then needs to be hauled across continents by trucks that require massive infrastructural projects to make transportation cheap.”

Grima added: “I think the long-term goals of the project are to propose an alternative model of what it means to be an architect, especially to young people getting into the profession now.”

Based in Genoa, Space Caviar is a research studio that explores architecture, technology, politics and the public realm. It was founded in 2013 by Grima and Tamar Shafrir.

Below is an interview with Grima about non-extractive architecture:


Marcus Fairs: What is non-extractive architecture?

Joseph Grima: At the most basic level, Non-extractive architecture is an architecture that does not produce externalities. In economics, externalities are costs that are imposed on a third party who did not agree to incur those costs. The most obvious example of an externality is pollution: if I drive from A to B by car, I pump a certain amount of NOx, CO2 and various other gases into the atmosphere. The benefit of travelling by car is mine alone, but the “cost” – in terms of the damage done – is equally shared by all of humanity, because CO2 doesn’t much care about borders.

One of the key innovations of highly productive industrial economies was to become really effective at making their externalities invisible – relocating them somewhere beyond the horizon of perception of the societies or individuals benefiting from their productivity. And somewhere along the way, it somehow became accepted that there wasn’t much choice: the price of modern civilisation was a certain amount of depletion and devastation, but as long as it was limited, and it happened somewhere else, the tradeoff was acceptable.

It’s indisputable that technology and modernity have improved the quality of life for much of humanity, and that is true of the construction industry too. But the same construction industry is responsible for close to 40 per cent of carbon emissions, exploitative labour conditions, depletion of natural resources, and the irreversible transformation of landscapes and communities. Usually, most of this is completely invisible to those who benefit the most from it. Non-extractive architecture questions the basic assumption that this is unavoidable.

At a broader level, we believe that there can be no singular definition of Non-extractive architecture, and we realise it’s an incredibly complex and nuanced question. The goal of the coming year of research and programs at V-A-C Zattere in Venice is to investigate the material, social and theoretical dimensions of this idea.

Marcus Fairs: The book comes across as a manifesto. Is that the intention?

Joseph Grima: I guess in some ways it is a manifesto. “Manifesto” is a word borrowed from Italian that literally means “billboard” or “placard”, partly because manifestos have always referred to an open call to the person on the street or a broad appeal for support on a matter of vital collective importance.

We believe that the question of how we build, what we build, how we source our materials, what happens to them when a building is no longer needed, “who builds what and why” you could say, is just such a matter of vital significance. The kind of change we need, and which we advocate with Non-Extractive Architecture, is more cultural than technical.

It’s an invitation to think about the long-term consequences of building, not just locally but in places usually far beyond the horizon where materials are sourced and where they’ll end up. Or the consequences for individuals and communities whose labour is necessary to build in a certain way.

One of the ideas that drives this project is that in order to address the massive impact the construction industry has on the environment, the public’s expectation of what architects do needs to be reframed, and this is where it’s incredibly helpful and important to have the support and visibility an international foundation like V-A-C Zattere is able to offer. Specifically, it needs to be understood to stretch well beyond the currently accepted model which runs from strategic definition to handover.

So yes, I guess in a certain way this book is a manifesto, in that it attempts to bring together a wide spectrum of thought and practice, channelling the work of many others who are thinking along similar lines right now in many different fields (many of whom generously contributed to the first of the two volumes we will publish on this topic, which just came out).

As for the question of a movement, I personally prefer the idea of the network to movements – those tend to be rather dogmatic, which can lead to people feeling that they need to act as the gatekeepers of an orthodoxy. There is no orthodoxy here – our goal is not to prescribe the way things should be done.

Marcus Fairs: There are a lot of ideas circulating currently about how to lessen architecture’s impact on the planet. How is non-extractive architecture different from them?

Joseph Grima: Because architecture and the construction industry are so carbon-intensive – by some measures they’re estimated to account for some 40 per cent of total annual carbon emissions – there’s naturally a huge amount of research going into making buildings more energy-efficient in order to cut down on emissions deriving from climate control, for example.

Others are looking into technical solutions for cutting down on emissions released by concrete as it sets. Others still are looking at “material passports” that track the full lifecycle of building components, or modular designs that allow them to be reused in other buildings once decommissioned.

All of this is incredibly important, but while each of these approaches is commendable and vital in its own way, unless it is part of a larger strategy that has a clear goal there is a risk of it becoming little more than a damage-limitation exercise. Non-extractive architecture questions the assumption that building must inevitably cause some kind of irreversible damage or depletion somewhere – preferably somewhere else – and the best we can do as architects is limit the damage done.

Zero-carbon buildings aren’t going to be much help, even if they’re made out of carbon-capturing cross-laminated timber, if their production is dependent on massive monocultural reforestation that depletes ecosystems or displaces communities, and then needs to be hauled across continents by trucks that require massive infrastructural projects to make transportation cheap.

Engineering for efficiency is crucial, reuse is crucial, reversibility is crucial, but unless they’re all part of a strategic toolbox that operates at a much higher level – at least at an urban scale – and thinks much more ambitiously, they won’t shift the needle enough.

What we’re arguing is that our goal as architects is not to limit carbon emissions – it is to come up with an idea of architecture that is not intrinsically dependent on some form of exploitation (of resources, of people, of the future).

It’s important to point out here that there is a broad field of contemporary discourse around the concepts of extraction and extractivity that analyse and define it at many different levels – not just material but also sociological, economic and geopolitical.

For example, one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read recently is Martin Arboleda’s Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism, which offers an incredible and unvarnished account of the violence of extractive practices and the ways in which mines in the Atacama Desert of Chile have become intermingled with an expanding constellation of megacities, ports, banks, and factories across East Asia and onwards towards Europe and elsewhere.

Marcus Fairs: Is the name “non-extractive architecture” and the concept new?

Joseph Grima: The idea of non-extractive architecture is absolutely not new, and it would be tempting to argue that it’s always been there – there are plenty of studies into the ways in which vernacular traditions all over the world have evolved to establish a balance between the needs of a community and the equilibrium of the environment it is situated in.

In Non-Extractive Architecture: On Designing without Depletion vol. 1 there’s a beautiful essay by Elsa Hoover, an amazing young Anishinaabe/Zhaaganaash architect, writer, and mapmaker who talks about architecture in terms of thousands of years of stewardship and the overlapping layers of land use, history, and governance that can be traced in the landscape around Lake Huron.

But it’s important to point out that we’re not advocating a return to past practices or the dimension of the vernacular. We live in a deeply technologically empowered society, and our tendency is to solve the problems we cause through bad planning and exploitative use of technology with more technology.

What we and many of the authors in this book advocate is not to step back from our identity as creatures of the post-atomic age, but to think harder and longer before resorting to technology. We might not need to adopt the specific techniques or practices of the Anishinaabe, for example, but there’s a lot we could learn from their ability for long-term thinking and deep awareness of how their environment works.

Aside from that, there are many people doing amazing work that’s very relevant at all sorts of levels, and which we plan to document extensively in volume 2 – from economists thinking about alternatives to GDP as a metric of prosperity, which is one of the root causes of a mindset of exploitation and waste, to companies developing 3D printers that can make buildings out of something as universally available as mud. We really see the idea of non-extractive architecture as an opportunity for exciting and ambitious new possibilities, rather than a form of renunciation.

On a more theoretical level, the project was at least in part inspired by the writing of Ivan Illich, who was a fierce advocate of the need to question modernity’s pathological dependency on technology, and often argued that a more socially and environmentally equitable society could only be built if one is willing to start from first principles and embrace long-term thinking, rather that getting caught in the negative feedback loop of solving the problems caused by the thoughtless use of technology with more technology. In many, we try to intersect his ideas with one of the most technologically-driven thinkers of the 20th century, Buckminster Fuller, who was equally preoccupied with environmental issues but approached the problem from a diametrically opposite angle.

Marcus Fairs: Are there any contemporary practices or individuals doing work that could be described as non-extractive architecture?

Joseph Grima: As I mentioned before, we like to think about this project as an attempt to build a network of people, practices, companies, thinkers, activists, philosophers, designers and also members of the public who share the belief that architecture could and should liberate itself from its dependency on depletion in various forms. We don’t see this so much as a standard or a badge to attach to a finished building, like Passivhaus for example – it’s more an approach to design that attempts to acknowledge and pay attention to a number of things that are often not thought about.

So examples of what we might consider “non-extractive” range from the design philosophy of well-known studios like Lacaton & Vassal, who are in the press a lot these days as the recipients of this year’s Pritzker prize awarded at least in part in recognition of their policy of designing only when strictly necessary and reusing whenever possible, all the way through to the work of groups such as Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?), a coalition of architects, activists, scholars, and educators that examines the links between labour, architecture and the global networks that form around the industry of building buildings.

I guess our long-term goal is to build this network as a sort of repository of complementary ideas, none of which is in itself a silver bullet, but each of which can be part of the architect’s toolkit as they attempt to make architecture slightly less damaging to the world around it.

Marcus Fairs: How did this project come about?

Joseph Grima: There’s an amusing story told by Tim Ingold about how in his Ten Books on Architecture, Leon Battista Alberti defines the role of the architect by specifically pointing out that an architect is not a carpenter. Apparently, the reason this distinction is necessary is that in Alberti’s day, carpenters had come to be known as architects due to a mistranslation in an ecclesiastical document of the year 945, in which the translator from Latin had mistaken the verb “architecture” for a compound of “arcus” (arch) and “tectum” (roof), jumping to the conclusion that an architect must be a specialist in the construction and repair of vaulted roofs.

In many ways, Alberti’s urge to define the role of the architect by exclusion, by listing a series of activities they are not responsible for, is the beginning of a long trajectory of hyper-specialisation in which the purview of the architect gradually shrinks as the complexity of the final product increases.

I’ve personally always been fascinated by the idea of the architect as a full-spectrum designer who actually does know at least the basic principles of how to repair a roof, or pick good lumber, but is also capable of strategic thinking around multi-century material procurement strategies integrated into the urban landscape, or non-depletionary stewardship policies for production and reuse of buildings, and at the same time is driven by curiosity and the impetus to research and continually widen their horizon of knowledge.

Both Illich and Fuller were almost maniacally convinced of the need to de-specialise to survive, and this influenced the genesis of the project a lot. Non-extractive architecture is in many ways an invitation to zoom out and zoom in at the same time, and in any case to get away from screens a little more. This is something we attempt to practice ourselves at Space Caviar, where we always hang on to a certain hands-on engagement in all of our projects.

Marcus Fairs: What will happen at the Venice exhibition?

Joseph Grima: The project will be articulated through several parallel initiatives that will simultaneously activate V–A–C’s Palazzo delle Zattere on multiple levels, transforming it into a research lab in which we will work together with resident researchers who we’re recruiting through open calls. These parallel strands of research, residences, public programs, publishing and broadcasting will intertwine and overlap throughout the year, alternating levels of intensity, and will all be part of an exhibition that will take form and evolve over the course of the year.

We like to think of the palazzo as an open-door design studio, in which the public can enter and witness the research process firsthand (or rather, will be able to enter once the lockdown is lifted). The year’s work will culminate in the publication of Non-Extractive Architecture Vol. 2, which will be focused on collecting and documenting case studies and the network of people around the world who are already working on these ideas.

Marcus Fairs: What are the long-term objectives?

Joseph Grima: I think the long-term goals of the project are to propose an alternative model of what it means to be an architect, especially to young people getting into the profession now. Architecture and design schools tend to be locked into a certain understanding of the architect’s role in society and the heroic, modernist model they hold up as an example for young designers tends to be self-perpetuating, with consequences that are not always desirable (for society in general, but also for architects themselves).

Rather than addressing design challenges from a programmatic or compositional perspective, as schools tend to train students to, we want to start from the very end of the story: how can I solve this design problem in a way that will not simply shift the problem, perhaps in a different form, somewhere else?

It sounds simple, but in fact, it’s incredibly difficult because much of the prosperity we have achieved as privileged Western societies is simply a function of externalities we’ve created elsewhere, usually in poorer countries further south. Unpicking the supply chains our daily lives depend on and rethinking these productive activities so they weigh on our own shoulders and not the shoulders of others is going to take a very long time – we literally have to unlearn what we’ve been taught and in some cases start over. This project will definitely evolve and take many different forms in the coming years, and it’s an incredibly exciting challenge.

Non-Extractive Architecture will run at the V-A-C’s Venitian headquarters until January 2021. For an up-to-date list of architecture and design events, visit Dezeen Events Guide.

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