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Form follows facts: Why modernism must die for architecture to survive

“…while modernism as a cultural ideology did indeed die, we have failed to notice that the necessary death has not yet come, for carbon modernity has not yet died, and – as Walter Benjamin said of capitalism – it will not die a natural death.” (Iturbe, 2019, p. 17)

In a world that is perched on the precipice of collapse, architecture is a reflection of humanity's dance with the elements, choreographed by the insatiable hunger for fossil fuels. The materials shaping our skylines—concrete, steel, glass—bear the stain of coal, oil, and gas. The iconic structures of the 20th century, with their insatiable consumption of resources, are monuments to an era where the environment was an infinite, passive backdrop to human ambition.

These buildings hide their energy-guzzling innards behind their facades, presenting a paradox of beauty born from burden. As ignorance lifts, revealing the reality of our climate crisis, we find ourselves gazing into the abyss of ecological catastrophe. The science is unequivocal, the imperative to transform inevitable, and the repercussions have already arrived.

Contemporary architects stand at a crossroads. Stark, modernist structures cast sterile shadows across our urban landscapes, while whimsical towers of postmodernism rise like mirages, elusive in their purpose. This essay is a call to visionaries and dreamers: to embark on a bold odyssey towards a future where buildings do more than signal a style – they breathe life, whisper stories of ecological harmony, and embrace the human spirit. Future architects will look back in embarrassment at a time when their craft was more about serving the whims of the wealthy for short-term profits, rather than addressing the needs of people. A new vision is needed to legitimize the continuation of our craft.

Past: beyond the concrete and the myopic lens of modernism

Modernism, anchored by its credo "form follows function," has myopically reduced architecture to soulless, utilitarian husks. In its hymn to industrial power, modernism has forsaken the human touch, erecting structures that march in time with machines rather than the human soul. This relentless pursuit of sterile functionality has blinded modernism to humans’ intrinsic yearning for beauty, connection, and meaning in our built environment. By adopting industrialization as an excuse to standardize everything, modernism attempted to compensate for this lack of soul through manipulating proportions and scale. Yet, it failed to recognize that human-centered design cannot be standardized, for the beauty lies in the bespoke. This mindset drags us into a whirlpool of economic expediency, where structures rise and fall at the whim of finances, neglecting the true purpose and potential of our built environment. 

Present: the discordant symphony of postmodernism

In our common narrative of architectural evolution, postmodernism waltzes to the beguiling rhythm of "form follows fiction," flirting with architectural anarchy. This movement marked the emergence of buildings as monuments to self-indulgence, where the caprices of starchitects overshadowed communal welfare. The legacy of our most recent era is a fractured landscape, punctuated by structures that choose form over function, and where the pursuit of stylistic innovation eclipses the imperative for environmental stewardship and societal welfare. These bold, eclectic postmodernist monuments serve as totems of a culture entranced by the allure of opulence and as poignant symbols of our collective downfall, should we persist in maintaining our current trajectory.

Green growth: a pipe dream

“Let’s face it: in ecological terms, postmodern architecture has never really happened. From an environmental point of view, architects have never moved beyond modernizing mantras. Even if we questioned modernism’s formal rules, and briefly replaced their shapes and vocabulary, we have never… dug deep enough into notions of growth and development underlying high modernism.” (Gadanho, 2022, p. 92)

Caught in the inertia of the neoliberal cultural maelstrom, architects find ourselves swept up in an endless-growth paradigm that is reluctant to see any limits on a finite planet. Projects like NEOM, with their grandiose aspirations of constructing a utopian society ensconced in concrete, steel, and bathed in neon lights, are often lauded as visionary endeavors that herald a brighter future. However, upon closer inspection, one discovers a thin green veneer, beneath which lies a vision neglectful of its negative impacts. This crafted illusion of a better world is, in reality, only accessible to a selected few.

To persuade us that a utopian society like this benefits everyone, the elites continues to propagate the myth that we can construct our way out of a crisis. This masks the root cause. We dream of technical fixes that absolve us from overspending, but we do not reduce the consumption that caused the problem in the first place. We construct cities that look like sci-fi movies where only the elite can live, but we neglect the ones we already have, where the majority struggle to survive. Postmodernism materializes into an architectural landscape that alienates rather than uplifts, leaving us marooned in a sea of confusion. 

Welcome to The Overshoot Era

At the core of our unfolding ecological crisis lies a stark reality: the urban landscapes we've created stand as unwitting monuments to our own environmental downfall. Our current path is marked by a profound amnesia, a forgetting of the ancient wisdom that once taught us to live in harmony with nature. We have become estranged from the rhythm of the seasons, the language of the animals, and the healing whispers of the plants. 

In our pursuit of dominion, we've built a maze of concrete and steel that shields us from the vibrant world beyond. Yet this self-imposed seclusion is a mirage, a delicate barrier that collapses with nature's slightest fury. 

The architecture of our age has become an accomplice in an ecological crisis of unprecedented scale, a crisis that unfolds before our eyes in a tableau of raging wildfires, devastating droughts, catastrophic floods, and record-shattering heatwaves. This demands a fundamental shift in how we design and build, urging us to move away from futile fossil fuel dependency.  Architecture must choose to either become part of the solution or remain entrenched in practices that perpetuate the problem.

The allure of "net-zero carbon," a seductive yet flawed promise, dangles the possibility of technological salvation without demanding the immediate, drastic emission cuts our planet so desperately needs. This narrative, steeped in the perilous optimism of "negative-emission technologies," tempts us with a future fix that absolves the present of accountability, entrenching a paradigm that favors economic continuity over the pressing imperative of environmental stewardship. Experts caution against this risky gamble on future solutions, advocating for a moral compass that guides us towards immediate and substantial emission reductions. The architectural vision of "net-zero," while noble in aspiration, often veils the true carbon cost of building new buildings behind a fog of offsets and substitutions, sidestepping the hard truths of our absolute environmental impact. 

“To propose that any building could function without emitting carbon requires a spreadsheet so steeped in speculation that the resulting calculations are a form of fiction.” (Barber, 2024)

Despite numerous COP conferences, congressional testimonies, a plethora of publications from the IPCC, and books like 'Limits to Growth,' our progress towards a more sustainable world has not just been slow; we have regressed, and emissions continue to rise. This regression is fueled by carbon-dependent development practices and economic models that privatize the benefits while socializing the losses. Against this backdrop, architecture is challenged to forsake its historical allegiance to carbon and to embrace the art of reuse, retrofit, and thoughtful renovation. We must face the fact that all material and energy efficiency gains have been outpaced by the expansion of built area and our growing appetite for energy-intensive luxuries. We must shift from efficiency to sufficiency — embrace a lifestyle defined by moderation, repurposing, and a conscious downsizing.

At this critical juncture, architects can be the pioneers of innovation, to reimagine the act of creation within the constraints of a planet. Simply doing no harm in a system that is already harmful does not solve the problem. The only pathway to a genuinely sustainable future lies in embracing regenerative actions deployed at a sufficient scale and pace. This concept moves beyond merely restoring equilibrium within our existing framework.

As we look to the future, let's not be seduced by the siren song of 'business as usual' with a green veneer. Let's not be content with simply slowing down ecological collapse. Let's be the ones to stop it.

New architectural vision: form follows facts

In the architectural world, something is stirring – a growing collective consciousness that dreams a better world is possible. Yet, despite this shared aspiration for a brighter future, the profession finds itself caught in a downward spiral towards ecological collapse, struggling to transcend the half-hearted efforts that barely scratch the surface of potential change. The building industry clings to antiquated paradigms that glorify the act of creation over the duty of stewardship, and the allure of the novel over the nobility of restoration. Our reluctance to sever ties with a carbon-intensive legacy reveals a profession hesitant to leap into a future where the spaces we inhabit enact a radically different ethos.

In the face of the ecological crisis, a call sounds for a new worldview: "Form follows facts." It demands an understanding of a fundamental truth—that we inhabit a finite planet—and, more deeply, our responsibility towards the Earth and all living being that inhabit it. This new terminology is based on meeting the needs prescribed by the Earth systems boundaries, guiding the trajectory of architectural industry towards a more profound understanding of the consequences of its actions.

"Form follows facts" is more than a design or a style – it's an ongoing dialog between the traditions of the past and the innovations of the future. It represents a new way of thinking about buildings, one that respects social and planetary boundaries, while embracing the principle, "I am because we are."

"Form follows facts" means recognizing that our resources are finite and that the ecological impact of construction and architecture must not only minimize harm but actively contribute to the health of the environment. Therefore, giving back more than we take becomes a foundational aspect of this approach. 

It casts architecture not just in the role of stylist, but as a living ecosystem, woven seamlessly into the fabric of the natural world and grown by custodians of our fragile biosphere. Architects, in this paradigm, emerge as stewards of space that resonates with the human condition, crafted with mindfulness, responsibility, and a profound reverence for both nature and cultural legacy. 

An architectural awakening

In the overshoot era, where our architectural practice takes place, lies not a call to despair but an invigorating challenge. For experienced architects and students alike, this moment is ripe with opportunity—an opportunity to pivot hopelessness into innovation, and degeneration into regeneration. In this era, we must redefine our role by designing buildings that not only emerge from the ground but also mend our ecological and social fabric. The course to a genuinely sustainable society unfolds not through incremental steps but through a bold leap into net positive, regenerative practices. This shift necessitates a radical and immediate overhaul of how we plan, design, and build the world we inhabit.

Architects shouldn’t be like the speedboats racing ahead but like the lighthouse showing the way, pointing towards a better future for all. Putting human needs above the pursuit of wealth, architecture must pivot towards sufficiency. We must transform our current solutions into tools for a post-growth world. 

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Lorde, 1984)

Sufficiency is the cornerstone for architecture’s survival. It understands the need for using local, fast-growing, biobased, and reused materials. It draws inspiration from vernacular traditions while steadfastly championing inclusivity, accessibility, and affordability for all. Sufficiency has no style – rather adapting to match local climate, ecosystems, and social needs.

Achieving this vision requires us to view our architectural heritage not as relics of a misguided past but as vital components of a sustainable future. By reimagining and repurposing our existing building stock through a lens that prioritizes the health of our planet, we set the stage for an architecture that nourishes and regenerates the ecosystems it inhabits.  The future of architecture lies in its ability to treat regeneration not as a goal to be achieved but as the foundation upon which all else is built. It is a future where buildings and communities are designed to contribute positively to their environments, fostering resilience, promoting biodiversity, and enhancing the wellbeing of every inhabitant on the planet. 

The future of architecture has to go beyond the confines of style, evolving into a discipline that champions the welfare of all life on Earth. This architectural renaissance demands deep introspection and a radical reimagining of the act of building. It is a pilgrimage towards creating sanctuaries, not merely structures. This is the challenge, the promise of this new epoch in architecture: an era of empathetic and regenerative creation, where "form follows facts”.

This is not just a dream; it is our task, our commitment, and our future is to become a catalyst for change. This is why Modernism must die, for architecture to survive. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


Barber, D.A. (2024) ‘Drawing the Line’, Places Journal [Preprint]. Available at: (Accessed: 12 February 2024).

Gadanho, P. (2022) Climax Change!: How Architecture Must Transform in the Age of Ecological Emergency. New York, Barcelona: Actar.

Iturbe, E. (2019) ‘Architecture And the Death of Carbon Modernity’, in Log 47: Overcoming Carbon Form. New York.

Lorde, A. (1984) ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, Calif: Crossing Press, pp. 110–114.

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About the authors

Kasper Benjamin Reimer Bjørkskov is an architect who specializes in converting complex environmental and social challenges into innovative, sustainable architectural solutions, promoting inclusive design that spurs societal change. He has actively engaged in numerous architectural projects dedicated to minimizing CO2 emissions, demonstrating the feasibility of constructing buildings and simultaneously reducing CO2 with no additional costs.

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Dani Hill-Hansen is an architect who specializes in sustainable design engineering and architectural solutions. She has actively participated in architectural projects dedicated to minimizing CO2 emissions.

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Alex Ianchenko is an architect and researcher working with climate action within built environments, life cycle assessment, urban food systems, and political stewardship.

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