In 2008, as part of its commitment to design research, architectural and urban design company Architectus coordinated a practice-based ideas think tank on Retrofitting Cities for Climate Change. It is a compelling example of industry and design leadership in response to climate and environmental change: it is also a way of recognising that architects and designers have a major role to play in realising sustainability in the built environment. The Architectus Think Tank involved more than 40 prominent Australian urban designers, architects and planners working in an immersive and interdisciplinary solutions-finding environment for two days.
Director of Architectus and Convenor of the think tank, Caroline Stalker, produced a comprehensive publication and in her introduction, Stalker said that
various scenarios were considered and solutions offered to deal with the implications of climate change in our cites”. Engagement of planning, design and engineering practitioners, while not the whole picture or system, are necessary to reducing the vulnerability of our cities. Stalker observed that “despite the strategic importance of adapting our cities there is a notable absence of specific ideas about how planning and design should contribute. Indeed this was the primary context for ‘Retrofitting Cities for Climate Change’ think tank, as Architectus perceives an urgent need for revised design and planning policies. How will these changes impact society? What can the city-makers of this generation do to minimise the risks of the well-being of future generations?
The think tank organised as project team to address retrofitting for coastal edges, urban buildings, urban spaces, urban fringe and infill/brownfield sites. The publication also documents the scenarios that were workshopped in small groups. These scenarios were actual development projects/sites located in different contexts from urban fringe to coastal edge, each presenting challanges to defence, density, connection, greening, retrofit and energy. Propositions for energy and water efficiency, renewable energy, food growing, density through infill, and land management emerged through the discussions.
Several keynote speakers also presented their ideas during the Think Tank. Lindsay Johnson, Convenor of the Architecture Foundation of Australia and Conjoint Professor for the University of Newcastle, presented a case for urban densification and called for radical ideas for new residential typologies that could be located over transport arteries, such as the “living bridge”. David Fullbrook, Managing Director of eCubed Building Workshop, advocated ‘cradle to cradle’ as a means for approaching retrofitting, regenerating and employing new building infill, noting that technology will change over time but that the underlying environmental strategies need to be sound. George Cole, Primary Analyst for Kinesis, discussed the Climate and Environment chapter of the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030. It calls for a reimagination of the way we produce and use energy in the urban environment. A major component of this is the creation of a network of ‘green transformers’, based on cogeneration. These keynotes were intended to inject new ideas as well as stimulate creative problem solving.
The think tank was a timely and useful response to sustainability and climate change, offering a platform for asserting a thoughtful contribution about the future of our settlements. The individuals involved in the think tank were drawn from policy, design, engineering, environmental, education and others backgrounds and this provided the base for a broader interdisciplinary collaboration than exclusively built environmental professionals. As a collaborative effort, this means no single professional knowledge set was privileged. Developing languages and practices of retrofitting across professional interests expands the sometimes constrained and formulaic approaches to planning and design that have afflicted our cities.
Changing circumstances can often trigger a need to reassess the roles we play and the jobs we do. For example, new technologies are changing the landscape of media and journalism. While the think tank publication provided insights into the processes and outcomes of the exercises, it did not reflect on how this may be inflected in the everyday working life of the practitioners involved – how do we, as Tony Fry also asks, retrofit and adapt built environment practices? What role does interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity or postdisciplinarity, if any, play in that process? This may imply transversality, as Felix Guattari defines it, “as a dimension that strives to overcome two impasses… [and] tends to be realized when maximum communication is brought about between different levels and above all in terms of different direction.” Transversality requires movement to initiate new connections and openness while resisting constraining forces. Labs, roundtables, hothouses and think tanks can provide a way of negotiating that tension between constraint and openness.