On Default: A Conversation with Elisa Iturbe
What is the default that you believe is the most pressing to address/ that you are most interested in?
The default that I’m most concerned about is the underlying concept of carbon modernity, which is a form of modernity that is based on fossil fuels and has a very long history. The possibility of extraction has been a fundamental premise of social form since the emergence of the state, and the transition from nomadic societies to agricultural society. The question of energy transition solidifies with the state form because state forms engaged in harnessing material resources in a way that was different from simply engaging in agriculture as a means of subsistence. The idea that society can harness resources from its environment to grow without limit—that has been a default, for a really long time. Insert fossil fuels into that in the 17th century. There has been no looking back since then.
One of the reasons why it’s really hard for us to deal with climate change is because we’re not dealing directly with a real problem. We need to study and understand carbon modernity so that we can understand what that default is. The real problem is hard to see because it spans across many centuries and many cultures and many regions, but for far too long, the default has been an underlying assumption of exploitation and extraction in order to build. This becomes a particularly sticky question within the context of modernity, because we have a narrative in our heads that modernism died, then in the 20th century it became something totally different, and then, the digital turn changed the whole scene again. But if you look at the underlying premise that gave form to the modern, it came from the possibility of extraction and abundant energy. When modernism as a cultural ideology died, all of those basic premises—that the economy could grow infinitely, that we basically had to organize society around industrial production—all of those became default. We created a default of carbon modernity. Carbon modernity is a subset of another default: an extractive ideology that we continue to replicate constantly. You could put trees on a building and solar panels on top of a building, and still be replicating the same default of carbon form and carbon modernity.
How do we operate with the default?
I think it becomes really difficult to build, given the defaults that we have, because they not only are ideological, but are also physical and material. They give form to how we practice architecture and to the profession as well. It involves certain dynamics of power, and a certain amount of extraction from the environment, no matter what. Often in the current form that the profession takes, we are just hired at the end of the line, so it becomes very difficult to be an architect because you are constantly operating within the default—no matter what.
One thing I would add here [around the Green New Deal discourse] is that there are a lot of people working in the energy sector, and if the fossil fuel economy is shut down, then all of these people will be out of work. So one of the solutions for transition is a just transition. We give these people job training and we help them move into other sectors. Architects need a just transition because architects make their livelihood from an extractive economy as well. We can’t design our way out of that default through a single project. If we think about the way that architects make their livelihood from architecture, we think about what we get paid for, 99.9% of them replicate carbon form, carbon modernity, extractive economy. They perpetuate climate change. They worsen climate change. Architects need a just transition as well.
How should we operate with the default?
One way is to engage the spatial expression of the default as a critical project. That’s where we can engage with it as architects, as people who have a particular training that allows us to see spatial dynamics, to see how things are positioned relative to each other within a spatial or social structure.
The other is a more direct challenge to the structures that we operate within as a profession and the working conditions that we participate in. I think that architects should refuse to build some of these things. But we have to be conscious of the fact that to refuse that kind of work means to put our livelihood at risk. And again, to me, that’s why we need a just transition. It’s not that we don’t want to build, it’s that we don’t want to build that. That’s also why we need to be in collaboration with other members of the building sector. But it’s easier, in many ways, to self-flagellate and say, “we have no power.” But if you think about it through this other lens, we’re actually a very important piece of the system.
How can we operate with the default?
It’s hard for me to think of examples in which the default has been successfully subverted because I find it so pervasive. I see these environmental problems are so big and so systemic that it’s really impossible to think of a single project that takes that on in its totality, because the totality is so much larger than the project itself.
But I think solidarity between architects is really important, having these really difficult conversations and coming to terms with what it means to build a building. But again, this is where we are looking at that double path of harnessing the architectural imagination projecting different visions of the world onto a piece of paper. [Corbusier] did not build the Plan Voisin, but make no mistake, it was built in the end. It was an idea that was so powerful on paper that it proliferated, and in the end, it ended up redefining carbon modernity more than we could have ever imagined. But if an architecture on paper has that kind of power to help us reorganize society entirely in space, that’s what’s needed again. The space of the paper is also a space where subversion can occur in a way that it can’t in the physical and material world.
I think one thing that I’ve tried to do is to focus on writing and teaching as one aspect, to make sure that I am able to retain critical aspects of my work, that’s important to me. I think of academia less as a silo, but more as a place where detachment can allow for different kinds of thinking. And in my own practice, we’ve always held the belief that space has a certain power within this conversation. We’ve mostly just done hypothetical projects because of this concern over the actual production of the built environment and the problems that entails, but right now, we’re working with a community land trust in San Diego to help them visualize the potential of how common ownership can transform the dynamics in their community. We’re trying to harness our own architectural imagination to give representations, images, plan drawings, certain ideas about what they can build and where. Our hope is that we are simply participants in the communities’ own process of building. And of course, the relationship to the default itself is always extremely complicated, because the default is so pervasive. In any moment where we’re talking about the engagement of “building a building,” we have to set aside some of the other ideas to make sure that the building is possible, and you have to engage with some of the aspects of the default to make sure the building is possible.