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While the authors build on insights from science and technology studies, environmental history, and human geography, they also return to concepts, themes, and even entire fields of enquiry that have been important, and indeed intrinsic, to architectural history. We would even go so far as to say that this particular theoretical approach is something that architectural historians and theorists can contribute to the larger debate.

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Throughout the 20th century, a great number of architectural actors — designers, builders, critics, and theorists — have sought to make sense of the complex relationship between humans and the environment when they theorized buildings, technology, landscapes, and territory. In fact, we believe that well-known architectural ideas, especially of the 20th century, anticipated many of the themes outlined above, although they pose specific historical and historiographical problems. Kurg asserts that studying environmental debates among practitioners in the Soviet sphere allows us to account for alterity in global modernization processes, and to recognize environment as a horizon of mutual yet different experience.

Significantly, environment operates here simultaneously as a theoretical and a historical concept that is socially and politically constructed. In a sense, these positions speak to the call to historicize the concept of environment within architecture in the face of heightened urgency.

Tradition versus style

These texts were never conceived as a final commentary but as a provisional record — a snapshot of a moment in an ongoing conversation that also highlights potential avenues for further research. At times, this consensus will appear in the form of repetition, as well as overlapping, parallel, and crossed arguments. Given the rapidly evolving discourse, we have sometimes deliberately resisted the urge to fully synthesize propositions into conclusions. The following texts can be read piece by piece, by theme, across positions, or in full. Needless to say, each one stands on its own merit.

Along the way, readers may encounter neologisms, notions of newness, and even buzzwords, all of which point to a shared excitement for the transformational power of the questions at hand. After all, neologisms mean that there is something in the making; repetitions, we hope, imply that something is taking shape.

Exposed to ontologies of ecological science, systems theory, complexity theory, or thermodynamics, the objects of study inherited from the 20th century will be appraised against a shifting horizon of concerns: cities, neighbourhoods, and buildings — environments in themselves — will require new tools and categories of assessment; scale will lose its graduated linearity; time will become indistinguishable from form; and contingency will gain its place as perhaps the only force of history that matters. Indeed, to historicize a concept like environment, it is crucial to question what it means to our thought in the present since it is the present that gives urgency to any particular concept in the first place.

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Instead, we may find that what the 19th century gave visibility to was a conceptual inflection of environment whose careful study may open other ways to interrogate this concept in the present. Indeed, these shifts may be registered less in what we study than in how we frame our research: the fact that not only are we compelled today to write histories examining the forces that produce architecture, but that we also anticipate how these histories contribute to explorations outside our discipline is arguably an outcome of our broader encounter with environment itself and the challenges it poses to 20th-century epistemological frameworks.

Precisely for this reason, the limitations of building an intellectual edifice around a term understood solely in its relation to modern science may become clear.

The promise of reframing architectural historical knowledge in light of environmental pressures solicits an engagement with a number of epochal shifts. It is self-evident that architecture will look differently now that there is wide recognition of the impact of fossil fuels — including those burned to manage the air-conditioned interiors of modernism — on the planetary climate and on the future of the species.

Narratives and methods of architectural history offer a potent window into the environment as a collection of historical agencies, especially insofar as scholarly engagement with methods and intentions evident in the built environment offer compelling evidence of cultural attempts to understand and shape collective relationships to earth systems. In other words, architecture has long been an essential site of conceiving of and enacting social relationships to the biotic sphere; architectural histories open up compelling opportunities in tracing these relationships and their effects.

The two greatest methodological challenges of the emerging field of the environmental history of architecture are a critical engagement with science and technology and a continued, though revised, approach to architecture as media.


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Broadly speaking, architectural history has yet to assess the impact of the social construction of technology on its methodological frameworks. Technological innovation, especially around sustainability, is too often framed as triumphant and unequivocal, rather than conditioned, complex, and often fraught with unanticipated consequences.

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Similarly, the shift in media theory toward a framework of cultural techniques allows for more focused analysis of architectural concepts and ideas as formulating material substrates that elaborate on historically and culturally contingent distinctions between interior and exterior, on visual, material, and conceptual terms.

The potential here is for architectural history to reframe itself as a site for convening these discussions and exploring their relevance to the ideas, concepts, and figures that drive socio-environmental change. Environment and sustainability are ciphers for a number of ideas focused on rethinking relationships between political, cultural, and biotic systems. The discourse of architectural history greatly expands and enriches this discussion by recognizing that all architectural activity has registered, or directly engaged, environmental issues both by professional necessity and as an expression of cultural desire.

Architectural history helps substantiate the promise of the emerging framework of the environmental humanities: at stake is not the addition to the canon of a new set of objects but, rather, the integration of knowledge about environmental conditions and their relationship to social collectives. Environmental histories of architecture thus address both the material and the symbolic means through which the field has mediated discussions of cultural change over the past few centuries.

They can thus reconnect with hi stories and utopian imaginations that tell alternative stories of living with Gaia; stories that, because they were considered odd, unrealistic, or inconvenient, went unnoticed, or were silenced. What do we include as actors in the history of the environment? There is thus a need to question the categories, methods, and concepts through which historians are accustomed to think such as epochs, canons, oeuvres, geographical relevance, and seminal works , and which are possibly still locked in the first history.

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In doing so, they contribute to the imagination of other environmental futures. But it requires a laborious, combined, effort: historiographical category work and the painstaking identification and narration of environmental counter-histories. In the light of anthropogenic climate change, we might want to reconsider how we narrate and teach architectural history as an environmental history. Coming from architectural history, geography, sociology, and cultural studies, I tend to integrate critical concepts of culture and nature, environment and ecology, with institutional critique and the sociology of the profession, to analyze how architecture and the environment have been coproduced.

Disciplines such as history, geography, and sociology have put forth critical historiographic viewpoints to reflect upon present-day consequences of developments since the industrial revolution. Moore It is in the manifold production of the built environment, e. Clearly, the energy question is a critical issue, although not the only one, and by analyzing the socio-spatial nature of the environmental problematic, we would first of all historicize shifts in energy base — from wood to coal, to oil and gas, to nuclear — and their relation to architecture, the metropolis, and national territory, in relation to the invention of modern building typologies, materials, techniques, and technologies.

Still, these transformations must be seen in broader terms of political economy and colonialism, population growth and food security, biopolitics and geopolitics, limits and depletion, scarcity and austerity, etc. Moreover, architectural historians should try to approach unanswered questions by exposing spatially fixed regimes of production and consumption, but also by highlighting the effects of pollution and toxicity; or by analyzing the environmental impact of architecture and urbanism, especially with the Great Acceleration in the West, as in the East, since the s, as witnessed in architectural manifestations of petrocultures Szeman et al.

Finally, we might investigate new geological stratifications on the basis of technofossils, in terms of the building material industry and its reliance on stable, high-energy, at times toxic materials, such as asbestos, concrete, chemicals, metals, or plastics. Fields of Tulips, Lisse, The Netherlands. It seems clear today that the particular eruptions and expansions of modernity are inseparable from the adoption of fossil fuels.


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Demographic growth and urbanization, among other accelerations, hinged upon a shift from organic energy wind, water, photosynthesis to mineral energy beginning with coal that gained momentum around the turn of the 19th century Wrigley While the drive toward expanding markets as well as class and colonial expropriation preceded this energy transition, those activities, alongside others, were propelled at ever-greater velocities and scales by a new force — that is, fossil fuels at the disposal of certain human societies.

In broad terms, the changing built environment both reflected and captured motivating sources of energy, as buildings and infrastructure came to express and perpetuate these new fuels. These transitions took hold at different times in different places, and distributions of political, economic, and energetic power remain uneven. Artefacts of architecture and infrastructure are perhaps the most pervasive evidence of our supposed separation from nature. Consequently, the re-inscription of this seeming artifice within a natural history allows us to reassess this divide and, with it, a central paradox of our present moment: that we have constructed a natural world in the process of fabricating an artificial one Purdy ; Daston The work of early modern historians indicates that establishing where or when capitalism began is a predictably blurry business.

If their logics have proved complementary Malm , we should explicate how and why particular combinations of political economy and motive energy have affected the creation and destruction of buildings and infrastructure. While the political and social analysis of architecture remains vital, the history of energy provides an additional framework that illuminates why certain patterns governing the built environment were able to expand, intensify, and proliferate.

A long history of the relationship between spatial structures and changing energy regimes might, in turn, provide examples from the past that point toward new ways of considering the present and future. Despite its ubiquity in contemporary discourse, the notion of the environment has yet to be analyzed as a central category of thought in architectural history.

The Importance of Environmental Architecture

Environmental perspectives of both historical and contemporary architecture are currently being put forward, but what is lacking is an analysis of how environmental thinking underlies the very emergence and development of modern architecture. In the course of the 19th century, the professional and disciplinary field of architecture developed in a constellation of environmental ideas and practices, which ranged from natural philosophy and evolutionary biology to settler colonialism and urban reform. To excavate this constellation requires a historical approach that, instead of taking the environment as a given, recognizes both its material and intellectual production.

Our current — North Atlantic — definition of environment, which entered dictionaries in the midth century, emerged at the intersections of modern sciences, such as biology, geography, and anthropology. Yet it was also based on older, deterministic convictions — such as that climate determines race, or miasma bring disease.

New science and old conviction were in turn reshaped by practice in at least two different ways: through the practices of colonial expansion, governance, and resistance, and through planning and reform efforts in the rapidly transforming cities and countrysides of the metropole. Such intersections suggest a close relationship between what are usually considered to be separate intellectual traditions: a romantic strand of philosophy focused on the experience of nature and a much more rigorous, instrumental belief in the determining influence of the environment on human culture and behaviour.

In light of this relationship, the rise of modernism at the turn of the 20th century might be understood as the reversal of the deterministic relationship between humans and their environment, a reversal in which the environment becomes recognized as being constructed architecturally and humanity itself is increasingly understood as a geographical factor.

Such an argument might contribute to our understanding of one of the central paradoxes of modernity, namely that the modern violence towards nature and humanity that pervades much of 20th-century history, including the history of architecture, can be seen as integral to a vitalist worldview that understands humanity as an intrinsic part of nature.

The Anthropocene is often either exalted for its technocratic character or condemned as another theoretical trend that has rehearsed the age-old perils of climate change. The shaft drill, crucial for open-pit mining, is similarly depicted with retractable pneumatic pistons, topped by a poppet head that creates cavities underground.

That mankind has been depleting natural resources since the time of the Altamira Cave is not new. Originating from Australia, Chile, India, Peru, and South Africa, some of these other environmental histories remain equally pertinent for European precedents and likewise demonstrate how the extraction of mineral resources leads to detrimental effects.

The ecological footprint triggered by mining practices has incorporated everything from town settlements, regional churches, roadways, and underground tunnels for transportation. Contemporary mining camps in Australia are even better known as fly-in, fly-out establishments FIFO that form temporary housing centres for off-site workers, but they often leave behind permanent infrastructure that goes unused for several decades. These objects of the Anthropocene, in fact, represent essential architectural questions that position human interventions as an extension of design and technology.

Against ever-expanding global narratives that touch upon colonial and imperial undertakings, the environmental histories from the so-called periphery are no longer limited by access or geography, but only by the self-imposed shortcomings of historiographic interpretation. Designed by Charles Eisen. What are the pre-histories and conditions of the resurgent neo-organicism of contemporary urbanism? The notion of the built environment, salient to the development of urban planning in the late 19th century, highlighted the irreducibility of the city to architecture.