Dear School of Architecture Community,
I usually mark the beginning of the school year with reflections on our past accomplishments and highlights for the upcoming semesters. This year, after meeting with so many new students and catching up with our returning students, I realized that I had a responsibility to all of them, and to you reading this, to address one of the most critical issues that we are facing today.
Headlines, analyses, proclamations, studies, protests, reports, manifestos, and predictions about environmental degradation and climate change fill the airwaves, the print media, our daily conversations, our nightly thoughts. Passionate and sometimes partisan debates surround us about the causes, and about whom to blame. That which divides so many of us, often acrimoniously, is the rhetoric swirling around these issues. What does not divide us, however, are the physical changes occurring around us: repeated flooding in Houston, droughts in central Texas; the depletion of fishing habitats near coastlines, the loss of biodiversity in flora and fauna; the melting of the permafrost in the Arctic circle, the calving of glaciers in Antarctica; the highest average summer temperature for the entire Northern Hemisphere in 2019, eighteen of the warmest years on record during the last nineteen years worldwide. Regardless of whether one believes the changes are man-made or part of nature’s cycle, we cannot deny that our world is changing rapidly around us in ways both seen and unseen, predicted and unpredicted. And we cannot deny that action is needed.
The School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin is one of the smallest at the university—we average around 700 students—whereas the Cockrell School of Engineering has approximately 8,000 students. This ratio reflects the employment distribution in the United States writ large where there are 1.6 million engineers, but only 115,000 architects and 22,000 urban/regional planners. When coupled with anecdotal estimates that less than 10% of new construction, and only 2% of new home building, is led by architects, it would be easy for us to stay on the sidelines and call out those we believe to be responsible for the worsening conditions surrounding us while we continue to lament how others are not doing more.
What we have not done, or have not done effectively, is take on our own responsibility for making a meaningful difference. Our professions may be small in number, but we carry the lion’s share of responsibility for the past, present, and future state of our built environment. We may only directly have a hand in a fraction of new buildings, but we are centrally involved in the most significant ones; we developed the methods that are universally used, and we determine the direction that the industry follows. We may not govern our urban and regional jurisdictions, but our analyses, plans, and proposals guide those who do as we develop the blueprints and scenarios for how our cities balance growth and equity. Every discipline we teach at the school contributes to the determination of our built environment—whether through conception, construction, evaluation, or projection—and we are one of the few schools in this country that houses the full range of disciplines that reach across all the scales of every aspect of the built environment. We are strategically positioned at the nexus of the multiple domains whose complex interactions and intersections render it nearly impossible to track a neat line of causation from problem to solution. As the world is nevertheless hungry for quick and straightforward solutions that can be easily adopted or mandated—for example, substituting a particular construction material, or rezoning to increase density, or net zero-energy building—our respective professions have tread closest to their normative path, making adjustments along the way. Unquestionably, each of these steps has nudged us along, but the world’s growth in population, the even faster growth in urbanization, the rapidly shifting industrial and economic landscapes, and the increasing inequity in our society have dwarfed the effective impact of these strategies and tactics. We can and we must do better.
The School of Architecture has a long and storied history regarding questions of the environment and sustainability. The first official record dates from 1965, when the school organized the Texas Conference on Our Environmental Crisis. Laboratories, research initiatives, projects, and courses soon followed, and sustainability was integrated in manifold ways: as one of the fundamental tenets of the Community and Regional Planning program, as the armature for the advanced degrees in Sustainable Design, as the fount for research from the Center for Sustainable Development, and as a lingua franca for the entire school. The University has similarly taken on sustainability in many of the other schools and colleges, and the Bridging Barriers program has brought us all together as a large team to address the changes facing our state in its Planet Texas 2050 grand challenge. But we can and we must do more.
Critical to making substantive progress in moving forward will be a rethinking of boundaries—the boundaries we draw around our disciplines, our practices, our problem definitions, our solutions. Every decision has consequences, many of them far afield of our purview. The choice of a building material not only impacts carbon emissions but can affect the health of miners on another continent. The direction in which a city expands results not only in the immediate changes in transportation, but the long term changes in water resources, albedo, and societal infrastructures. There are few disciplines that have the ability to analyze and weigh inputs and consequences from divergent domains over widely varying time scales, but that ability is the sine qua non of our design process at the School of Architecture. The path moving forward will be difficult; there are no heroic solutions for a quick remedy, there is no pithy pledge that can bring the needed research and action to the forefront.
Our potential impact looms large as the world takes note of what our professions do in the public realm. Our students are brilliant, responsible, ethical, and, most of all, committed to a greater good. They give me hope as we look to rethink past practices, develop implementable strategies, and chart a road map for the future of our surrounding environment. As we work inside the Forty Acres to revision our Sustainable Design program, expand our research into the impacts of rapidly urbanizing regions, and strengthen core competencies across our programs, we will also be working with other universities to build the critical mass needed for substantial action, as well as extending our reach into the community to help build their capacity for greater engagement. It is time for us to step up and make a difference.
D. Michelle Addington
Henry M. Rockwell Chair in Architecture