OAT 2019 Curator interview: Degrowth and its relevance to architecture

The 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale will explore new ways of shaping our society through debating, questioning and experimenting with the ideas of Degrowth.

In this interview, two of the curators talk about how they define Degrowth from an architect’s point of view, and how the movement might affect architectural practice.

For centuries our society has been seduced by the idea that growth is always good. Today, we are familiar with the cost of that growth: Global warming, social inequality and vast migration, to mention a few. The curatorial team of Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019 are inviting us to explore a new way of thinking under the banner of Degrowth – the idea that by radically reducing our consumption and production we might in fact be happier and more capable of taking care of our planet and ourselves. The 2019 team consists of British architects Maria Smith and Matthew Dalziel of Interrobang in London, British critic and think tank director, Phineas Harper and Norwegian urban researcher and artist, Cecilie Sachs Olsen. We spoke to two of the curators about what Degrowth means from an architect’s point of view and how it affects architectural practice.

The Austrian social philosopher André Gorz first introduced the term Degrowth in the 1970s. How do you define the term today?

Maria Smith: Degrowth is a movement around the world calling for a profound change in our social and economic systems from industrial production and material consumption to cultural richness and social justice. It’s a huge question: could a society without growth not only support us, but also radically improve our lives?

What initially motivated you to choose this as a theme?

Maria Smith: I think as architects, the way we work often looks very different from the work we aspired to. Yes, there are a few colleagues whose practise has some humanitarian relevance, but by far the majority among us are not agents of social change. Instead, we become cogs in a vast value-producing machine. We know infinite industrial growth is impossible, we know that money can’t buy happiness, yet as architects we keep contributing to economic expansion and to the pollution of our planet.

So Degrowth is also about building less. Isn’t that an unusual proposition coming from a team of architects and urban researchers?

Cecilie Sachs Olsen: My initial response when Maria suggested Degrowth as a theme for the Triennale was: What do you mean not growing? Are you serious? But Degrowth is not about a recession in the economy. Rather it confronts the association of growth with “good” in order to open up alternative ways of organizing society. We want to explore these alternative ways through architecture. Degrowth is not necessarily about building less, it is about building differently, according to social need rather than economic profit. With OAT 19 we will propose alternatives to our current unsustainable status quo and explore how architecture can help shape a new economy.

What role can architects play in changing the values at the core of our society?

Maria Smith: Architects are in a unique position to contribute to this shift because on the one hand, we work in the property industry at the frontline of capitalism, but on the other hand, so many of us are not motivated by money at all, but rather by social, cultural and artistic concerns. Many architects already crave a Degrowth society. For example, they wish to challenge the development of high-growth cityscapes in favor of cultivating shared spaced that foster social bonding among people of varying classes, generations and backgrounds.

A frequent criticism of Degrowth is that it is possible only to the overdeveloped economies of the Global North. Doesn’t poorer countries still need to grow to develop?

Maria Smith: We need to move beyond the ancient idea of high-growth societies as superior models to be imposed on so-called ‘underdeveloped’ countries. Degrowth acknowledges that there are many different forms of development and that the Global North has just much to learn from the South in organizing social relations and defining human well-being.

At OAT 2019 you propose to build a temporary theatre and curate and host an exhibition with the title Fifty Futures. Why are such activities important, do you think?

Cecilie Sachs Olsen: The term degrowth is quite abstract and can be hard to grasp. We want people to come and explore the possibilities with us. Performance arts such as theatre have a special potential because they allow you to enter a space with your body and experience what it actually feels like. As citizens we are often led to believe that urban spaces are pre-fixed by experts and that there is no alternative, but space is constantly produced and invented by the people who use it every day. Performance art make visible this performativity of urban space itself.

If the architect is not drawing and building housing in the future, what will be his or her role?

Maria Smith: I think the architect will always be a maker. If homes are considered places to live rather than financial instruments, then our practice will change, but the essence of our role will always be relevant: to work with our fellow humans to design and shape our environment. Architects will still draw and construct, but they will also play a civic role in the creation of new culture and political ideas. Tomorrow’s architect does not face a diminished profession, but a radically enriched one.