architecture books

Book review: Architecture, by Barnabas Calder

“Form follows function” is a maxim of modern design, though Barnabas Calder proposes something different: “form follows fuel.” From the earliest known archeological remains to the trends of the 21st century, the availability of energy has shaped architecture.

That’s a perspective that deserves exploring, especially since the energy constraints imposed by climate change now present “the toughest challenge the world of architecture has ever faced.” In order to design buildings fit for a zero carbon world, it’s worth understanding how energy has shaped architecture in the past. And so it’s time for a new history, a retelling of the story with energy in mind.

That’s what readers get in this imaginative and ambitious new history of architecture. We begin with structures of mammoth bone left behind by nomadic hunters, and then the earliest buildings from the dawn of settled farming. The first half of the book then investigates the architecture of agrarian civilizations. The energy wealth that built the pyramids was human power, fed by fertile lands irrigated by the Nile. Like Greece or Rome, the great monuments of the past were always “in proportion to soil fertility.”

That changes entirely when fossil fuels enter the picture. Coal opens up all kinds of possibilities for materials. Throughout the medieval era, materials were limited by their energy inputs. Stone and timber need to be cut and moved, but structural bricks need to be baked. Tiles need to be fired. Iron and glass need large amounts of energy. Anything that needs heat to produce it is prohibitively expensive until the fossil fuel era – not impossible, but reserved for very important projects. Cathedrals used glass in the medieval era. Glass windows didn’t reach ordinary people’s homes until coal brought the price down several centuries later.

The carbon content of a building or a material can seem very abstract, but setting it in a historical context brings the idea of ’embodied energy’ into stark relief.

As well as materials, the energy used in the running of a building has also gone through multiple stages. In more northern latitudes, people have always needed energy for heating – most of which was wood. The need to keep buildings affordably warm ceased to be a consideration as fossil fuels delivered cheaper energy. Coal, then oil and gas, electricity, all reshaped architecture. People began to build taller, and architects inspired by aviation and motoring had new visions of buildings as futuristic machines, with clean lines in concrete and glass.

With hindsight and a climate change perspective, it’s clear that these visions have led us astray. Modernist architecture took cheap energy for granted, resulting eventually in buildings entirely reliant on artificial light and ventilation. Huge plant rooms supply heat and air conditioning, with hugely inefficient walls of glass that waste heat in winter and overheat in summer. “There is no other architectural style in history that offers today’s students such a bad model for approaching the relationships between energy and architecture” says Barnabas.

By the end of the book, the challenge is clear. Architecture has not done enough, and “mainstream practice around most of the world remains stubbornly and culpably dependent on heavy fossil fuel inputs.” Equally, history shows us how dramatically architecture has adapted in the past, and how profoundly it could yet be reshaped for a low carbon future.

This fascinating and important story is all told through particular buildings, and I liked the way the book finds room for lesser known places alongside iconic ones. There are sections on the Dogon architecture of Mali, or Uruk in Iraq, the first known city. You’ll find details on the Parthenon or Notre Dame, but also Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, an early pioneer of plate glass office blocks. (As a historian of architecture at the University of Liverpool, the city features prominently.)

At 450 pages (excluding notes), the book might look a bit long for those with only a passing interest in the history of architecture – but don’t be daunted. There’s really no way to do the thesis justice in anything shorter, and I found it engaging throughout. Besides, there are pictures – and I particularly liked the way that featured buildings are drawn to scale with the great pyramid profiled at the beginning of the book.

There are other histories of architecture of course, but in 2021 and in the teeth of the climate emergency, this is the one to read today. And for students of architecture, engineering and planning, it really is a must-read.


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