The Lessons Found in the Environmental Histories of Architecture

What is it to read the history of architecture through a lens conditioned by environmental considerations and impacts?

Midway through his March 9th public lecture at the University of Sydney, Daniel Barber paused. The audience joined him in listening to the hum and whir of the lecture theatre’s Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) system, as it worked to maintain a constant temperature and humidity. Barber’s simple ploy lent a palpable gravity to his discussion of modern architecture’s role in managing the internal climatic conditions of buildings, especially the profession’s implication in the twentieth century’s fossil-fuel driven “world- environment” of 18 degrees celsius.

Barber—author of A House in the Sun (Oxford 2016)—was speaking as a fellow of the Sydney Environment Institute. Apart from the lecture, his visit occasioned a day-long workshop on the question of Environmental Histories of Architecture. Participants from across Australia (and from Hong Kong and the US) joined Dr Barber of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and Associate Professor Lee Stickells of the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning to discuss what has been widely recognised as a specialised field in the history of architecture.

What is it to write environmental histories of architecture? Or to read the history of architecture through a lens conditioned by environmental considerations and/or impacts? These questions underpinned the workshop’s discussions. Considerations of form and method were joined with deliberation over the potential impact of such scholarship, with particular attention given to the question of instrumentality (a recurrent, compelling one for architectural history).

Working through a variety of historical material, participants made their case in seven-minute pitches. Philip Goad (University of Melbourne) identified an absent thread through the history of architecture, defined by the Australian response to climate and landscape. Maren Koehler (Sydney AD&P) read the importation of tropical vegetation into cold-climate settings for corporate lobbies as an extension of British historian Reyner Banham’s view of architecture as a form of environmental technology. And Farhan Karim (University of Kansas) offered a view on to a cultural and institutional history of dirt or earth as a highly mediated architectural material.

Cathy Keys (UQ) reflected on the consequences of importing building technologies into Indigenous environments and of ignoring, at the same time, the lessons offered by Indigenous shelters. Dulmini Perera (University of Hong Kong) reflected on modern modes of experimenting with architectural environments, from psychological to urban and landscape scales, posing the questions of who experiments on architecture and to what ends? Daniel Ryan (Sydney AP&D) raised the matter of historical judgment in assessing the historical passage of toxic materials: how can we write the histories of dangerous materials, like asbestos cement, without merely reprimanding the past for what it didn’t (want to) know?

Lee Stickells showed how the reduction of architecture to configurations of systems and settings that were, then, open to testing, each on their own terms, placed architecture squarely in the midst of the alternative socio-technical cultures being explored across the 1960s and ’70s. William Taylor (UWA) returned to his own classic Vital Landscape with new questions prompted by a decade’s reflections on that work, considering the Palm House at Kew Gardens in the new terms offered by an environmental history of architecture; a task, too, taken up by Deborah van der Plaat (UQ) in assessing the architectural responses of Northern Australia’s white settlers from the 1860s to the turn of the twentieth century.

All the participants’ presentations acknowledged the profound political and social effects of environmental considerations and the opportunity for architectural historians to participate in the wide-ranging environmentalization of humanist and scholarly discourses. Still, the concept of environment as it figured in these historical vignettes emerged as incredibly elastic—at once supplanting older terminology that doesn’t share the capacity of the environmental to connect to today’s broader discourses; and offering both new perspectives on episodes in the history of architecture on other terms (stylistic development, or as questions of culture or society) and new content for that same history, legitimising works that had hitherto escaped sustained analysis. In short: environmental histories of architecture present a challenge to the “complexity” principle that has shaped progressive architectural historiography for the last half century.

There would appear to be lessons in the history of architecture for the present to productively register. But how far to go in turning the past into models of action? This question was at the core of the general discussion—just as it remains an open question for the world-wide debate to which this SEI workshop made a timely and productive contribution.

Lee Stickells is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. He teaches across the areas of architectural design, urban design and the architectural humanities. Lee has a range of professional experience in urban design and architecture – predominantly in Australia and Asia – including with leading Australian practices Donaldson + Warn and Woods Bagot. Before moving to the University of Sydney in 2008, he was Senior Lecturer in Architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the West of England, where he taught in architecture and urban design as well as directing the Master of Urban Design program. Lee has also been a sessional tutor and visiting critic at University of Strathclyde, TU Eindhoven, University of Bath, University of Western Australia, University of Technology, Sydney, Curtin University and the University of South Australia.

Andrew Leach is Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney. He writes on contemporary issues in the fields of architectural history, theory and criticism. His books include Manfredo Tafuri (2007), What is Architectural History? (2010) and Rome (2016), and include the edited collections Shifting Views (2008), Architecture, Disciplinarity and the Arts (2009), The Baroque in Architectural Culture, 1880-1980 (2015), Off the Plan (2016) and On Discomfort (2016). He has held two fellowships the Australian Research Council, and grants from the FWO (Flanders). Current work concerns the historiography of mannerism and the baroque over the long twentieth century, the recent history of architectural theory, the architecture and infrastructure of the early colonial Tasman world, and the urban and architectural history of the Gold Coast.