Pedro Gadanho. (Courtesy Actar Publishers)
Pedro Gadanho. (Courtesy Actar Publishers)

Pedro Gadanho on How Architecture Must Adapt to Our Ecological Emergency

The architect, writer, and curator discusses why architects must increasingly innovate through densification and adaptive reuse rather than building anew.
By Spencer Bailey
July 10, 2023
24 minute read

For the past 15 years, the architect, curator, and writer Pedro Gadanho has been raising alarm bells about the urgency to disrupt the construction industry’s reliance on virgin materials and carbon-intensive processes—and the role architects can play within that shift. From a 2008 manifesto he wrote arguing that humankind should stop building anew to “Eco-Visionaries,” a 2018 exhibition he co-curated at the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology in Lisbon, Gadanho is at the forefront of the climate conversation when it comes to understanding our stark present reality and potential ways forward through an architectural lens. His latest book, Climax Change: How Architecture Must Transform in the Age of Ecological Emergency (Actar Publishers, 2022), brings together his most recent research and thinking to profound and potent effect.

On the latest episode of our At a Distance podcast, Gadanho discusses some of the most pressing changes that are needed if we are to address what he calls an “ecological emergency”; why urban densification and reuse are two necessary, decidedly practical solutions (“Reuse, reuse, reuse, recycle, redo, readapt, renovate,” he says); and why he is both pessimistic and optimistic about the future.

Click here to listen to the full interview on our At a Distance podcast.

Cover of “Climax Change!” by Pedro Gadanho. (Courtesy Actar Publishers)
Cover of “Climax Change!” by Pedro Gadanho. (Courtesy Actar Publishers)

Let’s start with the subtitle of your new book: How Architecture Must Transform in the Age of Ecological Emergency. What are the major ways it must change, and how quickly do you think we might see some of this change?

The book is all about how to make that change possible. That’s the first point. Second, the level of change is enormous. It’s similar, as I write in the book, to the one that architecture went through at the beginning of Modernism, when we moved from a locally sourced system based on traditional materials to a whole new language of construction based on steel, concrete, and glass. That was a change that many people don’t realize, but it was made across maybe thirty to forty years. The system of construction totally changed. This is also a lesson for us—in a moment in which we need now to change that system—that it’s possible to make that change. But it’s a paradigm [shift] of the same level and scale.

It’s really about changing the way we build, because we’re now recognizing that those materials I just mentioned are some of the so-called weapons of ecocide. They are actually part of the big problem we’re facing now, in terms of the ecological emergency. I would also point out that that ecological emergency is there, specifically, in place of climate change. As we are coming to see more and more, climate change is but a symptom of something bigger and wider, and much more dangerous, which is the balance in which we are living in terms of the planetary system. That’s why I’m talking … or trying to anticipate the question of transformation, vis-à-vis these major ecological crises, rather than just talk about climate change—although, of course, the title of the book, Climax Change, is a pun on that—but actually, addressing the motivations and the drives that we need to gather so as to operate that transformation. Because it will not be easy. I mean, any small studio living with market forces, and what clients are asking for and so on, won’t be able to change their practice on their own. There will have to be a bigger change of context. You have to want to make that change. Many times, people are not even aware that they must change their practice.

You’ve been in this—I wouldn’t even call it climate crisis—let’s say, ecocide or environmental disaster/ecological-emergency-meets-architecture conversation for a long time now. Fifteen years ago, you wrote a pamphlet arguing that humankind should stop building anew. Could you share that argument and the viable alternatives you presented?

That text actually came out right after the 2008 crisis. We were obviously, at that moment, all a little bit scared about how our system was working in terms of economics. People were questioning the models by which we live, consume, and use resources, basically. Looking from Europe and the States, we could see that we were spreading our constructions and our cities over the territory in a way that was not really needed. There are at least two options that we should be considering very urgently, already at the time, but even more, which are densifying—really densifying cities and trying to use the advantages of more dense and concentrated series in terms of their ecological footprint—but also reuse. Reuse, reuse, reuse, recycle, redo, readapt, renovate. Because we have so much that is already built—for our population needs. I’m not talking about the developing world, of course, but for our construction needs in terms of the West, we could deal with what we already have.

But this already is, again, something that goes against the grain of what architects want to do, which is: We want to build anew. We express ourselves through innovation, through new languages, new buildings. It’s very difficult for people to conceive that their profession may also dramatically change in that sense, which is no longer about creating something new and being original and being a creator because of that innovation, but actually innovating through adaptive reuse, and through making structures live longer, and for other purposes than the ones that were initially conceived. This is happening, of course, in big cities. Rehabilitation is big and it became bigger during 2008. Actually, I could tell you that in Portugal, where I’m from, the construction system was like ten to eleven percent of the gross economic product, and it dropped down to two percent. Most of it became rehabilitation. So that shows you that that change may even happen because of market forces. But it’s also something we have to consider in terms of the satisfaction we take out of creating in those realms rather than just building anew.Of course, the provocation was there, also, to say that, again, through densification, we shouldn’t really be filling in virgin territories, virgin lands, but we could actually be filling the gaps in the cities we already have. So that’s the other option. When you look at a city like Detroit, that’s starting to happen at a very modest scale, and a very D.I.Y. scale, in which people just started taking advantage of vacant lots and giving them new purpose. That, again, is part of that idea that you wouldn’t need—of course, with a crisis like that; think of Detroit again—you wouldn’t need to build anew, but you could actually use the urban space that was already constructed before.

So fifteen years later now, how would you say the world, or at least the West, is faring?

[Laughs] Well, I would say, I’m writing more and more about ecological overshoot and biodiversity loss and extinction. These are the issues that we have severe difficulty in facing, of course, because they’re not easy to deal with, even psychologically, but also politically and collectively. We’re trying to avoid those issues and those discussions. But if you read some ecologists that were writing already forty years ago, around the late seventies, beginning of the eighties, you can be amazed at how they were already describing the world we’re living in now. People tend to read these phenomena as something else. But you could also change the lens and see them as emerging aspects of a crisis that has been announced since the 1970s, namely the publication of The Limits of Growth in ’72. So we know already scientifically that there is a limit to the resources we can use. Even if technology allows us to innovate by substitution, by creating alternatives, and so on, there is a biophysical limit to what we can do, especially when the population needs of the eight billion people that we are now are actually still growing. It’s now diminishing, the level of growth, but it’s still at a level that will start to use up resources that we consider abundant. And I think this is particularly important now, when you see these shifts to renewables, and the idea that renewables will save today. But when you start considering the resources you have to use to actually have renewables working, you start to understand that it is almost impossible, or a dream, or magic thinking to consider that we can substitute all that we’re doing with fossil fuels through renewables because of the resources needed to produce those things. And yet, I, too, believe that there is wonderful technological innovation that is always presenting new ideas and new possibilities.

But think of this: I heard about this water-based battery that is being researched in Boston. I thought, Wow, this is fantastic. We don’t have to use lithium anymore. But when you think this is at the very beginning of its investigation, probably it will become something that is available to the mainstream market in twenty or twenty-five years, and maybe that’s already too late.

We have to face things now, and this is more of a collective effort in thinking about every possibility, but also in thinking deeply about something that is [anathema], especially in the United States, which is the idea of degrowth—that we can consume less, and that we can actually adjust our level of life to less consumption. In a way, leveling it down with what developing countries are actually showing, which is a much lesser use of resources, of course. But what happens is the opposite—that, very much in their own right, developing countries actually want to raise their standards to the standards of the Western world. But I believe that soon we will realize that the opposite has to happen, [which] is the Western world actually “downgrading” to the sorts of use of resources that we’ve seen in developing countries nowadays, and not necessarily losing quality of life—and this is essential. Because people will immediately see these ideas of something Communist or life–standard destroying and so on, but, in fact, it’s more about what we value, what we cherish in terms of our quality of life. This is something that belongs both to individual responsibility, and also, of course, with politicians and collective decisions that have to be made in advance of the worst-case scenario.

You write in the book about how the construction industry accounts for nearly forty percent of carbon emissions, and that cement alone is responsible for eight percent of that. Could you speak to cement specifically here, and what you’ve learned about that particular material through your climate-study lens?

Actually, as I was saying earlier, cement was one of the new materials hailed by Modernists. Le Corbusier was defending that. Building in concrete and cement was like a true expression of being modern. Little did they know that, actually, they were contributing to a major problem, which is the fact that, both in its production and then in its deployment, cement’s emissions are huge and very difficult to bring down. Of course, part of the magical thinking, or the silver bullets with which we’re dealing on a daily basis, is the fact that you see news every day in the building industry about an alternative to concrete—a bio-alternative or an alternative that uses less energy to be produced. And again, it’s the same issue I discussed just now about the batteries: These are technologies that are only at their birth, and will take a long time before they become usable at large scale. Scaling up is the main problem that we have today.

Then there are other aspects in the industry of cement. There are ideas about collecting carbon dioxide, in the way cement is dried up in its production process. But there are also discussions about the fact that, if you break down cement after it’s been demolished, you can use it as something that, in fields or in urban arrangements, can actually keep on drawing carbon dioxide. So there are possibilities that we see now of making the use of cement more viable, more sustainable. But I have several doubts about that in terms of timing, again, because it’s also said that over the next ten to twenty years, we’ll use more concrete than we have used in the last hundred years. So, if we are not building all these quantities already with more sustainable materials or versions of these materials, then I think we are adding to the problem.

Coming back to how I see the situation today—many scientists refer to this—if you look at the numbers over the last forty, fifty years, which is roughly the period in which we started to really get conscious of what was going on, first in the scientific community and then enlarging to the media nowadays—and many people are now conscious about the problem—the levels of emissions have continued to grow and we haven’t really solved anything. We haven’t attained any goals that have been established along the last ten to fifteen years. Although we are well-intentioned, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We are not yet doing enough to respond to those issues.

That’s why I felt the urgency to actually write the book and have it as another element of consciousness within a profession that sometimes lacks this holistic view of the impacts of their activity and think that, by shifting this or that, they are already contributing to some positive scenario. The book is really to demonstrate that there is a lot more to do than just shifting one little thing here, one thing there.

What are some key projects that you might point to from recent years that you think reflect the kind of thinking or trajectory we should be headed towards in terms of more sustainable solutions?

There are a number of different examples that are important. Sometimes, also, polemical. I’m  remembering Stefano Boeri’s tower surrounded by trees [in Milan], which sounds like a very nice theoretical idea, but then has so many costs in terms of maintenance. It becomes this sort of symbol of social inequality, as well, because you would have to have huge resources to produce that sort of idea, just having these vertical forests hanging in the air surrounding your building. But at the same time, it’s an idea that is very political and beautiful, because it caters for the species around—birds and flowers and so on, pollinators—rather than just having the building as separate from nature.

One other example I mentioned in the book that, for me, is more interesting, was one attempt in Barcelona, within the context of a museum, to transform the museum into a building that would produce its own energy and would show the way in terms of buildings not actually having emissions, but actually producing negative emissions in the sense that, over time, they would produce more energy than they would consume, and they would give back to nature more than that they took through their construction process. These are really what I think are the big examples of what we should be doing. Because that’s the kind of balance that we have to find. When we build something, we have to be giving back more than what we’re taking. And this is difficult, but possible.

One of the most compelling—maybe the most compelling—things I found in reading your book was this idea of existing buildings as “banks” for materials to be reused. The E.U. even has a Buildings as Material Banks initiative, which I hadn’t realized. Do you think this idea could become a reality? Do you see a future in which architects or students studying architecture are learning and practicing in this way of how do we dismantle and reuse the existing buildings around us?

I think this is actually a core argument of what we call “circular economy” in the building industry. Because, to make it truly circular, that means that the materials that go into the construction, either they’re stuck there, and then they have a long life, and they eventually compensate for the initial investment in terms of embodied carbon, or they are already designed so as to be dismantled. This is a very important aspect. And now we do have the digital tools that allow us to track down every single material, every single bolt that goes into the building. That’s the idea of that materials “bank,” which is to track down the materials where they are and how they can be reused. That implies, again, a shift of mentality, of design conception, when you’re actually conceiving the building, because it has to be at the moment of conception that you already think of how materials will also be dismantled.

There’s one very interesting preliminary experience, which points in the same direction, but it’s slightly different from that one, an experience that actually started, in a way, conceptually with Rural Studio in Alabama, and then moved to Europe, to the Netherlands, where this team called Superuse started to make [“harvest”] maps of where resources—industrial resources, waste resources, and so on—were available to integrate into buildings. So with the idea that you wouldn’t use new materials, but you would use leftover materials from the industry. They started to create this digital mapping of whatever was left over in an industry that was building [with] some other materials, and they left leftover parts. And then you could look at those, and source from a radius of fifty kilometers to one hundred kilometers, and then start designing with the species in mind.

Actually, this is what Rural Studio made: They used car parts and carpets and so on in the conception of their buildings, just out of what was available, and this was conceptually super important. I think, historically, we will go back to these examples of something that was inspiring and inspired. So, for sure, yeah, we now have the digital technology that allows us to track things down to communicate where [they] are. And that makes it possible to make those kinds of ideas work. Because before, if we didn’t have data to analyze and understand and share, we couldn’t really implement those kinds of systems, unless it was like in the case of Rural Studio, at a very, very small scale.

Now having written this book—and you mentioned earlier that you’re still reading a lot of the latest materials and literature coming out or about the issues that we’re facing—how are you feeling about the future? Do you have a hopeful outlook, or how do you see things in the years ahead?

It’s a very different mix and things fluctuate in your mind a lot. I must say that I first became aware of the dimension of the problem when I was doing this exhibition at the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology in Lisbon called “Eco-Visionaries.” That started with an optimistic outlook, by believing that we would find the solutions and would design our way out of problems we have created. But then, as I read across six months, in a very condensed way, I realized that I was ignoring or forgetting so many issues and so many problems. This is what I believe people do. They read about one issue, and then the next day, they read about another issue, and then they forget about those two, and they’re paying attention to the other one—and they never connect in their minds that all of these issues are part of one big problem, or one “wicked problem,” like scientists like to say.

So, at that time, the exhibition suddenly turned into these contrasts between pessimistic moments and optimistic moments. I think this is the mood we are going to live [in] for the rest of our lives. Because there are moments in which, yes, I believe—and I have to believe—that there are solutions that in time will offer some hope, there is also the fact that all the predictions that we’ve been reading about normally become true later than initially expected. If you read The Limits of Growth, they were [expecting] in a window of fifty years problems we are now starting to face, and probably will extend over the next hundred years. That gives us a little time to deal with issues. That’s also the optimistic side in me.

But unfortunately, at the same time, when I read [writings by] ecologists who have been considering these issues for a longer time, I think these questions are overshoots, are really dramatic. It’s really complicated. Unless we end up having wars, and famine, and things that really reduce the population, as a sort of natural way of controlling a situation, in any case, we might face a scenario of collapse that is even bigger. If people think about populations in terms of ecology, that very basic knowledge that we get from studying ecology, you know that species, if they have available resources, they will use them all until they burst. That’s what we’re doing right now: We are already aware that we’re using many more resources than the planet is able to recycle and to reoffer us. At the same time, we are not able to consider that we should reduce that consumption of resources. It’s a sort of biological truth that we know exists, and we can’t do anything about it. But maybe conversations like these—and maybe more people becoming aware that, yeah, maybe we have a wicked problem in our hands—maybe that will start to change the system, and the lens at which we look at earth and the global system.

So it’s true, I’m much more concerned now about the ecological balance rather than just climate change. I know that climate change contributes to that imbalance, but at the same time, what I feel is that, while we’re addressing climate change, suddenly we’re forgetting when to approach and address the other pressing issues. This is where I think—again, it drives me both to a pessimistic and optimistic view: If more of us are discussing these shifts, maybe people will become aware that it’s also [within] their personal range to start changing things.