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James Soane on the role the UN Sustainable Development Goals play at the LSA

2018 Design Think Tank, New Knowledge proposed ‘Floating Exchange Rates’, drawing on the positive aspects of London’s boat-dwelling community to develop an affordable, sustainable co-living model for the capital’s waterside sites.

Many modules use the UN Sustainable Development Goals to provide a planetary framework for change, and to explore where architecture and design can intervene. As part of the RIBA’s ‘Decade of Action’, James Soane, Research Director at the LSA, contributed a piece outlining the role the UN’s SDGs play within the LSA curriculum. ‘In these uncertain times, with troubles ahead, it is important to create a meaningful connection with the natural world, rather than feel there is nothing we can do,’ he argued. Read the piece in full, below. The RIBA Decade of Action publication can be found here.

The LSA is a new post-graduate school of architecture, set up in 2015, with a clear goal: “Our vision is that people living in cities experience more fulfilled and more sustainable lives. Our school educates future leaders to design innovations that contribute to this change.” Furthermore the LSA was the first UK school to formally adopt the UN SDGs as a formal reference, and as a result was invited to participate in the RIBA’s Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission during 2018. A year later, the school joined the Climate Emergency declaration, framing our teaching and learning across all modules with this powerful driver.

As architects we see the UN Sustainable Development Goals as an opportunity to reimagine the way we live and bring to life the design elements of a new, sustainable world. Last year at a lecture to the students Professor Henrietta Moore from the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity explained: ‘We are at a point where radical new models are needed, and quickly. We need also to consider that sustainable futures mean cities and communities that enable humans and the natural world to flourish. To this end, we cannot continue to think about cities and communities as engines of economic growth. We need to think about, and design for, the health of society, inclusive political institutions, a guarantee of human capital development and civil liberties.’


New Knowledge proposed masterplan.


On the very first day of term we ask the students three questions: What change do you want to see in the world? How does your architecture contribute to that change? And who do you want to be as a designer? The school presents theories of change as models for leveraging ideas as a practice which is understood as giving purpose to architecture. Throughout the first year all students are working in practice three days a week, as well as working in the studio. A key project is the ‘Design Think Tank’ (DTT) where students and practices work together as a group on an urban proposition. Here the influence of the SDGs is key in aligning research with one or more of the goals, in order to create fundamental links between research undertaken in practice and within the school. In 2019 the school launched Citizen, a new quarterly magazine for everybody engaged in the challenge of creating the future city, which describes DTT work as: ‘Collaborative projects between students and leading architectural practices at the London School of Architecture. The UN Sustainable Development Goals address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, peace and justice. They are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.’ The project is a 10-month long thesis, which necessarily picks up on research from previous modules, moving towards a thoughtful proposition that is worked though in detail.

When it comes to the role of theory in architecture, the LSA makes a case to move beyond the formal or philosophical concerns that have preoccupied the discourse for so long, and instead seek to interrogate the levers of power in order to understand the wider agency of the architect in society. This necessarily points to asking ethical questions relating to the impact on our wider environment. As alumni Josh Fenton pointed out, ‘There is a need for us to continually reiterate our political position as architects – not in terms of parties or alliances, but with our engagement with issues that affect the public.’ We have also been exploring what Professor Jem Bendell terms ‘Deep Adaptation,’ reflecting on the likely consequences of climate change on global society and considering what kind of radical hope we can seed.

In these uncertain times, with troubles ahead, it is important to create a meaningful connection with the natural world, rather than feel there is nothing we can do. The LSA suggests that the future can be different and that change is possible. As alumni Nelli Wahlsten reflected in her writing: ‘The reasons why students decide to study architecture are many and varied, but there is often an underlying desire to contribute to the notion of common good.’