Is there an Environmental Modernism?


Kenny Cupers
Statement in: Lili Carr, ed. Vegetation under Power. Heat! Breath! Growth! (Leipzig: Spectors books)
, 2022

Architectural modernism is fundamentally environmental, but its environmentalism is ill-suited to address current crises of planetary ecology. The origins of those crises are in the entwinement of colonialism and capitalism over the past four centuries. This entwinement has wrought such havoc on our planet that the complicity of modern design is beyond question. After all, architects, designers, urban planners, and engineers have provided some of the blueprints for how new modes of dispossession, extraction, fabrication, transportation, and consumption were implemented. Decolonial activists and scholars have shown us how dominant orders of power and knowledge are rooted in the coloniality of an unequally shared global modernity. What if the very conviction that we can design our way out of ecological crisis is equally bound to colonial ways of inhabiting the earth? Modern architecture has not only been a terrain of experimentation with artificial constructions of the human environment; it has also been a field for their conceptualization. When humans are normatively conceived as organisms immersed in environments that can be precisely qualified or quantified, their behavior may be predicted and potentially transformed by altering those environments. Modernist ambitions to govern by design are thus based on a way of thinking that weaponizes environmental determinism for the purposes of environmental determination. To address the current crises of planetary ecology, we need a theory and practice of design that instead fosters environmental autonomy. As Arturo Ascobar has powerfully argued in Designs for the Pluriverse, such design entails collaborative and placed-based approaches that start from the “radical interdependence of all beings.”