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Buildings and energy: Architectural history in the climate emergency

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Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Architecture
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 13 Oct 2020


As the current climate emergency deepens, it is no longer adequate to leave ideas of sustainability to engineers and practitioners. Ways of talking about and teaching architecture’s history must also respond. This needs to go beyond highlighting exemplars and models from the past for what they may teach us practically in terms of passive environmental conditioning. The very terms and frames of reference we use to discuss buildings in the context of history require reconsideration.

This article proposes that understanding architecture from a radical material perspective has the potential to foreground the entrenched relationship between architecture and energy consumption in the history of architecture. Energy consumption is the key factor in climate change. Making historians and students more aware of how this critical relationship shaped the built environment through time places an emphasis, and thus responsibility, on the very high energy consumption of architecture. We propose two essential questions: how has humanity’s changing ability to harness useful energy interacted with the history of architecture? And how might we understand buildings through time not as objects fashioned solely by individual genius, patronage, stylistic movements and/or theoretical considerations, but as products that also result from the powerful nexus between assemblage and energy?

This article attempts to demonstrate a possible approach, by sketching out three historical ‘scenarios’ that speak to different periods in time (pre-industrial, agrarian; industrial, coal- and steam-based; and late industrial, oil- and electricity-based). In these scenarios we trace regimes of energy consumption and their attendant networks of production, suggesting the centrality of such an approach to a full appreciation of building as a material process. We propose that this approach might form a new and complementary basis for research and teaching in the history of architecture.

    Research areas

  • architectural history, energy consumption, embodied energy, climate change, sustainability, environment

ID: 173099546