• You are here: News

Architects risk ‘reputational Russian roulette’ over demolition projects

Architectural historian and campaigner Barnabas Calder has warned architects at an AJ100 lunch against playing ‘reputational Russian roulette’ by working on carbon-heavy projects

Delivering a challenging address at the Lighterman in King’s Cross yesterday (9 March), Calder cited the proposed flattening of M&S Oxford Street as just one example of the bad PR increasingly associated with demolition.

‘Carbon-intense options are becoming reputational Russian roulette for clients and architects alike,’ he told the room.

‘I’m sorry to pile on Pilbrow + Partners; the enormous amounts of bad publicity they’ve had from this is bad luck for them because everyone worldwide has been doing it. But we are hitting a tipping point.’


The author and academic urged the profession to meet the moment in the same way that Modernists upended architecture in the 1930s and 40s and put whole-life carbon at the core of their design.

Simon Sturgis made similar comments at SAVE Britain’s Heritage annual lecture earlier this week in which he called for a ‘Hippocratic oath’ for architects ‘where we promise to do no harm to the environment’.

Calder told the AJ100 lunch: ‘If you can provide us with a credible, beautiful vision of a very low carbon world that’s more beautiful, more balanced, happier, cleaner, and fairer [on] the other side of climate emergency then you can be the Le Corbusiers and Mieses of decarbonisation.

‘And in the process, you can be the first generation of architects literally ever to save our species. So that’s all you need to do.’

‘You can be the first generation of architects literally ever to save our species’

Calder called on the profession to look backwards to go forwards, with contemporary architecture being an ‘exception’ to centuries of precedent for low-energy buildings that helped contribute to the ‘health and happiness of the planet’.


Avoiding steel, concrete and glass where possible was one option. As was convincing clients to go for ‘radical retrofit’.

‘Obviously I can’t speak at an AJ event without reminding you to RetroFirst whenever you get the chance,’ Calder said. ‘[Talk] clients into radical retrofit rather than courteous retrofit’.

Looking at Pilbrow & Partners’ proposals for M&S Oxford Street, Calder argued that the retail chain’s chief executive, Stuart Machin, would need to take ‘cold showers for the next 680,000 years’ in order to save the 40,000 tonnes of C02 which construction of the proposed new build in the location would cost.

Source:Theo Wood

Barnabas Calder at the AJ100 Lunch

Some of the oldest structures in the world – such as the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt and Rome’s Castel Sant'Angelo –  were examples of thousands of years of reuse, he said, with the buildings still standing and adapted over time in comparison.

Calder pointed to the unsustainability of early modern design, which – while still being hugely influential to the profession – did not understand the carbon footprint involved in creating huge open spaces without proper heating.

Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus in Dessau was just one example of early unsustainability, said Calder. ‘The workshops are now abandoned because they are unheatable unless you completely change the architecture. So in order to preserve the iconic architecture, they no longer use it. You can just go and admire unsustainability at its purest’.

But Calder insisted he was hopeful that the climate crisis would be tackled, saying that change was ‘exponential when it comes’ and that massive progress towards zero carbon was already being made.

Katrin Foerster of sponsor ABB speaking to James Pickard of Cartwright Pickard at the AJ100 Lunch

And he pointed to Pakistan's first female architect, Yasmeen Lari, who went from producing large-scale Western-type office blocks to working with the poorest in her own country, resulting in a wave of community-focused projects which help train local communities to rebuild sustainably, using local materials.

‘Combining low carbon material tradition with modern understanding, she and her team have also redesigned a local oven to use less fuel. Local women earn money by building the new stoves and by teaching others to do the same. The progress snowballs’.

Calder continued: ‘The pride and skill going into the structures is something William Morris only dreamt might happen.’

The 2021/2022 AJ100 Club events are supported by headline partners ABB and Roca as well as programme sponsors Invennt, Lapitec and Schlüter-Systems

You might also be interested in…

Leave a comment

or a new account to join the discussion.

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.