Radical Thinking

James Soane urges us to look to a future that has a healthy and circular relationship with the world we live in

James Soane
Project Orange

Can you pinpoint the thought, whether yours or someone else’s that led you to a career in design?
In the 1980s, Art A-level meant doing lots of rather banal still life drawings. While sketching a basket of apples, a very cool teacher suggested it could be seen as a study of the domed form of a city such as Istanbul. That changed everything.

In terms of the design and architecture industry, what do you consider the most radical era or pivotal moment?
I am over movements. For too long, the obsession with cataloguing newness and novelty has been the driving force of change. Today, the search for no-carbon regenerative architecture has only just begun but is the only game in town.

Image Credit: Paul Dixon

Which radical thinkers have been inspirations to you in your career?

In the past, I might have said someone like Beatrice Colomina whose work on gender and architecture remains radical and important. However today I am much more inclined to read writers such as Naomi Klein, Tim Morton and Bill McKibben who unpack the political agenda behind the built environment and advocate for a fossil fuel-free planet.
Rathbone Market is the third phase of a significant regeneration project in London’s Canning Town. Image Credit: Jack Hobhouse

Who are the radical thinkers who inspire you now? (Not necessarily forever or for a lifetime – just now!)
For the past six years, I have been teaching critical practice at the new London School of Architecture, so have had to do a lot of reading. I have been touched by the observation that architecture is a project of ‘futurity’ and so we need to find better ways of imagining the future. The emerging genre of Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) can be a really useful tool to charge the imagination. The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, paints a picture of both catastrophe and regeneration. I recommend it to everyone I meet.

Who outside the industry can architects and designers learn from?
One of the key messages coming out of Cop-26 and other global think tanks is that in order to tackle the massive issues ahead, we cannot work in isolation, and that collaboration is critical in achieving joined up progressive thinking. For too long, architects have seen themselves in control.

What will lead the way for more radical thinking in your field?
In theory, it should be political leadership that changes the way this country thinks about infrastructure and design. In practice, we are a very long way from this being the case, so we need to believe in people power. We are now talking about grassroots voices such as Extinction Rebellion and Architects Declare who dare to challenge the status quo.

Could you recommend a book/article/blog that inspired your thinking?
For anyone wishing to remind themselves about the simple truths around the climate emergency, I recommend How to Save our Planet – the Facts by Professor Mark Maslin. It is a short paperback with only single sentence paragraphs. It is devastatingly stark, though offers redemption: ‘The future awaits those with the courage to create it.’

Could you name two buildings/pieces of furniture that you consider radical designs of their time, or perhaps still to this day?
There is a danger of naming ‘icons’, which is part of the problem. And, of course, any exemplar can be shot down for not being perfect. Today, radical architecture should not be about shape-making, but about shaping society and establishing a circular relationship with the planet. I am therefore going to nominate Passive House Standards; a system rather than a building which offers a new framework for thinking about energy and our homes.

The exterior of the Grove Cottage project, showing the rear of the building and the garden. Image Credit: Paul Dixon

I think best... when writing.

I think most... when about to fall asleep (which is clearly not great for sleeping!).

I think best... when with other people holding a stimulating conversation.

The thought that keeps me up at night... is how to galvanise people to act in order to reduce the effects of CO2 in our atmosphere.

The thought that gets me out of bed... is the wonderment of the natural world.

Do you like to think with, or think against?
People tell me I am confrontational, so I guess it is against...

The exterior of Project Orange’s Nissen-type barn, a clever and dynamic ecological home. Image Credit: Paul Dixon

If you weren’t a designer/architect, where do you think your way of thinking would have you?
A teacher. Luckily for me I have been able to do both.

Could you describe radical thinking in three words?
Critical, transformational and antiestablishment.

What’s the most radical thing you’ve come across today or this week?
That a corrupt government is still clinging onto power.

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