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Less Meat Now, More Future Later
How does a plant-based diet complement the architecture of today?
Documentary: The Rise of Vertical Farming
- Views on Architecture
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to come from the expansion of our population and our cities is the disconnection between what we eat and where we harvest it from. Carolyn Steel’s two significant books to expose this dilemma—Hungry City (2008) and Sitopia (2020)—chart in exquisite detail and with razor-edged insight the growth of urbanism and agriculture as increasingly distinct and divided fields. The bigger the city, the bigger the increase of crop intensification, and the greater the distance between harvest and the dinner plate.
As a result of this disconnection there is a pervading ignorance over how food is sourced and produced, and its corresponding impact on our landscape, our health, and our societies: what we don’t see, we simply don’t think about, or care about. So, it seems sensible to suggest that one radical, but attainable solution, is to put the field back into the city, a movement often referred to as agritecture, urban farming, or urban greening. However, the inherent flaw in this solution is that rather than posing the problem as one for an outside body or organisation to solve, it is the collective responsibility of everyone to solve it through what we choose to eat. The problem requires a two-pronged attack: political and economic leadership along with individual responsibility and action.
In August 2017 my wife, Elly Ward, and I both turned vegan, an overnight decision that soon came to shape our view on many other matters related to how our lives impact others and the environment, including what to consume, what to wear, and how to travel. It has challenged us to engage in questions we’d previously avoided, and forced us to find new ways of doing things. Inevitably, the moral and ethical questions that have arisen from veganism are just as critical when it comes to being an architect. Indeed, the construction sector and industrial agriculture are two of the three most toxic industries when it comes to environmental damage and climate change. If we want to protect lives and reduce our carbon footprint, the way we put buildings together has to change; the way we think about construction has to change; the way we think about architecture as a language has to change; and the way we eat and live our everyday lives has to change with it.
With this in mind, we embarked on a programme we now call SITE. The original intention of SITE was to bring architecture to the high street. It was launched as a design studio in a small shop unit on Columbia Road, East London. The thinking at the time was to use ethically sourced coffee and plant-based milk to lure members of the public into the space, whilst behind the scenes facilitating events relating to architecture, design and the built environment. However, the demands of an expanding vegan audience propelled the space into becoming an “all things plant-based experience” including food, drink, film, research and product design. We quickly outgrew the space, and in late 2019, we managed to purchase a dilapidated terraced building on Hackney Road with the vision to rehouse SITE and expand its potential.
On the 2020 August bank holiday, after months of heavy lifting, the more ambitious SITE #2 opened, with us living above it. During the ten-month retrofit, we were mindful to work with the fabric of the building organically and intuitively, living in the building as we reconstructed it, spending every day on site, and reacting to matters as they evolved, helped by a small team of two carpenters. We peeled back layers; opened up walls; exposed the structure; repaired damage and—through an intensive love-hate relationship—brought the building, slowly but surely, back to life. During the process, we introduced secondhand and reclaimed materials and fittings alongside new materials from recycled sources. For example, we used EKOPLY a fully recycled plastic replacement for traditional plywood, as well as highly sustainable building materials, such as cork.
As for the programme, SITE now has its own kitchen serving a British menu of locally sourced ingredients and homemade plant-based dishes, and a lower-ground-floor materials and research laboratory, which is developing a system of processing and composting all waste matter from the kitchen. It also has a garden rich with biodiversity and edibles, and close to 20 m of raised rooftop plant beds to grow as much of the produce we can for the kitchen on-site, plus rainwater harvesting from every roof level.
In fact, the project has become a natural extension of our submission for the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019 as part of the project by the research collective Londonon, Degrowth Degustation, which explores sustainable systems for production, transportation, preparation, consumption and waste.
The building, and our lives, are now a living experiment in circular existence. The project is a working example of how it is possible—against every possible excuse—to fully engage with and implement a sustainable, ecological and planet-centric lifestyle through design, research and action, which we hope to continue to develop and learn from.
Main Image: Not a single item on the food and drink menu at SITE contains any ingredient derived from animals or animal by-products. Photo © Joe Morris