Architecture During the Anthropocene

An Interview with Philippe Chiambaretta

This Feature interview appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Philippe Chiambaretta is founder of PCA STREAM, a Paris-based urban and architectural design firm that is leading revitalization plans for Paris’s famed Champs-Élysées. The Journal of International Affairs spoke to Mr. Chiambaretta about what it means to design for sustainability.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): How did you become interested in the field of architecture and urban planning?

Philippe Chiambaretta (PC): Architecture is not an individualistic, or purely creative, egocentric activity. Rather, it needs to be considered as a design-thinking process. I look at architecture as a fact—an object with real economic, political, and social dimensions. You have to bring together very large sets of facts and data. The challenge is how to combine this data with an idea or design and then translate it into something that is physical.

The traditional architect has been trained through a history-based education. This standard education includes design studios, the humanities, and a review of history. These subjects do not necessarily help architects prepare for the challenges of the Anthropocene, where professionals must be welltrained in the sciences and even in data science. We’re at a moment in our profession where you can no longer practice architecture as an individual. It is necessary to bring together a group of people, so you can pool knowledge, competence, and intelligence—in order to deeply understand our surrounding ecosystems and develop sound solutions.

JIA: How should designers and architects approach the challenges of the Anthropocene, such as climate change and urbanization?

PC: The fact that the climate is changing due to our activities is not an opinion; it is a scientific truth. Humans create infrastructure, which is of course influenced by architecture and design. You also have transportation and mobile infrastructure for cars, airplanes, trains, and bicycles. On top of all of this, we go about our lives and consume. We have created a massive machine, a living monster, comparable to a virus killing the planet. Cities are where populations are increasingly concentrated. These urban areas really only cover 2 to 3 percent of our planet’s surface, yet they represent about 70 to 80 percent of our global carbon footprint. So as architects and as citizens, we must be dedicated to reducing the negative impacts of our cities.

The Anthropocene has brought about the need for a common framework to define the role of the architect and urban designer. Urbanization across the planet has surfaced architectural shortcomings. Global warming, carbon footprints, and biodiversity were never part of the culture of architecture until now. We’re dealing with a new level of science that society is ill-equipped to face. These challenges have highlighted the existence of dynamic and complex systems, which the architects needs to accompany, not rethink as a demiurge.

JIA: Can you discuss the role of sustainability and environmental conservation in major urban settings, for example, the Champs-Élysées revitalization project that you are driving forward?

PC: Human populations are expected to grow exponentially. Meshing population growth with our environment is an enormous challenge that touches all aspects of our way of life. The city is, in a way, the summary of this challenge. As a species, we have to accelerate change toward greener solutions because global warming is accelerating as well. We are regularly reminded through COP21, 22, 23 and so forth, that humanity is not reaching the targets and the goals. This is the number one priority in everything we are doing in Paris and other cities across France.

We are presented with a scientific and a behavioral challenge. Our approach to the Champs-Élysées is to develop a conceptual framework to monitor and maneuver this complexity. Year after year, the public and political attention to the challenges of the Anthropocene is exponentially growing. We have a new mayor in Paris, Anne Hidalgo, a vocal member of the environmental movement who embodies the level of concern in the city. Infrastructure decisions that could have been made 10 years ago, like demolishing a building, cannot be considered today anymore. We have to renovate, recycle, densify, plant the city, and move from the car to soft mobility solutions. In 5-years, for example, diesel vehicles made before 2010 will be banned in Paris. By 2030, all diesel cars will be banned.

JIA: Has there been any pushback for the proposed changes being made to the Champs-Élysées or on other eco-conscious urban development plans?

PC: We’re not facing a lot of opposition with this proposal because it is not disrespectful to our history or to our country. We have been in this fantasy that technology and progress would make us happier—for example the idea that the car would be a tool of modernity and freedom and that everything should be sacrificed to it. We are basically paying the consequences of this now, especially in the Champs-Élysées area of Paris, which had deep roots in embodying the feelings of nature and recreation. Those were the pillars that made the Champs-Élysées famous. Today, the Champs-Élysées is more like a highway on a shopping mall. Nobody is excited about that anymore.

JIA: What are some examples of sustainable urban development around the world that could be a guide for other cities?

PC: There are inevitably different attitudes toward approaching sustainable urban development. Over the past few decades, there has been this dream about the smart city. The people who support the smart city allege that technology will enable us to address the problem, that technology can save us from any condition, any situation. For example, across the West Coast, you have people who think companies like Google will solve the problems via the internet and responsible tech. I’m not convinced by this ideology. Technology and the internet have a large impact on our carbon footprint.

Smart cities that have been in development for the past decades, like Songdo in South Korea, or the cities in Saudi Arabia, have not been successful examples of sustainable urban development. We can also look to the challenges that Google and Sidewalk Labs faced when they proposed a smart city in Toronto. These are projects that are also based on the ideology that technology will solve everything—that we can keep living with the same expenses and not care. I do not think that is satisfactory, even more so as these smart cities are very inhuman, and often harbor stressful “control freak” environments.

There’s another category of people who say we should reduce our economic growth. I do not believe most people will accept this scenario. Maybe we can be a bit wiser and reduce our consumption; there is certainly room for that. However, we certainly would not be able to force countries in Asia and Africa to stop progressing because they are developing too late.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have an existing model that can solve these issues, because each city has its own unique history and culture. We must find the right framework though global collective action and research, and make discoveries that are sharable around the world. The vision I have is that sustainable projects like the Champs-Élysées revitalization plan will develop and be experimented on over the next 10 years, and can be used as laboratories, or examples, for other cities to build on.

JIA: How do you think the pandemic will shape the architecture of the future?

PC: We have to be careful about jumping to conclusions. We’re still in the pandemic, and remote work, a notion that we have recently discovered, opens new possibilities. There are aspects of remote work that will be good for a business, in terms of reduced rents. But I think more and more people are suffering from this shift. If we push too far in one direction, we’re going to have a lot of people lost under pressure, which can be extremely harmful.

A key question will be: what is the average time people spend in the office each week? Will it be one day a week, leaving the space utilized only 20 percent of the time? Two days a week would shift utilization to 40 percent. Regardless, the share of time in which office spaces are not utilized will be significant. So, will this imply the reduction of office space? Probably to some extent, but it is a little too early to say for sure.

What will change is the shape and design of the modern office space? People will probably no longer go to the office to produce work or to concentrate. They will find this productive space at home, or in a co-working space, where there is no one that they know to distract them. The office will become a place for communicating, sharing ideas, and meeting people. The nature of the office space will be modified and its role in creating a sense of community will be very important.

However, when you’re not in the office, where will you be? Perhaps, you will be in another co-working space closer to your home. This changing nature of the office space will likely have an impact on the way we live, work, and how we consume. Every aspect of the modern city is being questioned, especially how it has been separated by different functions. This separation led to divisions in where people sleep, eat, work, buy, and have fun. People would then take a car to go from one place to another. This is a scheme we have inherited from the 20th century. In the future, we may see these functions come together in closer spaces—a 15- or 20-minute city. In this city, you could have where you live, work, and play, within walking or bicycle distance. Alternatively, we may see a reversal in which people rediscover living outside of big cities. What I’ve read recently on California, in which people are leaving Palo Alto and moving to Texas or Florida, is striking. New York City, I understand, is a real question mark as well. Towers are empty and many people have not been called back to the offices yet.

JIA: What will be the role of architects in enabling sustainable urban policy?

PC: The big question that many intellectuals, scientists, and politicians are facing is, now that we’ve understood the complexity of the situation, is what do we do? How can we make populations change their behavior and attitude? One way we may achieve this is by creating visions that inspire, through projects that reimagine the human experience in space. For example, we created visualizations and videos of the re-envisioned ChampsÉlysées so everyone can project themselves in the experience of being back on the avenue 10 years from now. There’s a beauty to this.

The architect or the designer has a capacity of turning ideas into visions. These are important tools to inspire and therefore drive changes in human behavior. Architecture and design are multidimensional and very global acts. An experiment has been recently proposed by the President of the European Commission to create a new Bauhaus in Europe. In a way, the project seeks to re-create the spirit of the Bauhaus back in the early 20s, where there was this vision of gathering people from different fields to create borderless solutions. It questions how to build beautiful, sustainable and inclusive places to live together after the pandemic. How are we going to train professionals, like designers, to create the future city? What kind of interdisciplinary knowledge do we need to teach them? We need to ensure the younger generation, this generation, and their own children, have the tools to face climate change, especially in cities. I’m not saying that architects will save the planet, but they can contribute to the solutions for our planet, by bringing forth new visions and integrating them across disciplines—not through ego and individual fantasies—but through a more scientific approach that can be useful for others.