Nonmodern architecture: on alternative frames of reference
A conversation with Kiel Moe on the agency of unbuilding bad building practices.

During the last three months, Koozarch has engaged in conversations with bold architects and visionary scholars on the agency of architecture in the 21st Century. Convinced that the only way forward is to disrupt the status quo, to shake up detrimental ideas and harmful ways of doing, to initiate change through provocative action and agitation, a dozen of Agents Provocateurs have shared their ideas, resources, drawings and projects with the intention of redefining and mobilising architecture’s role in the context of current social, ecological, political and environmental crises. To finalise our first issue on the value of agitating normality, we interviewed Kiel Moe—one of the most radical voices in both academia and practice—and talked about adaptation as agency, the urge for alternative models, the potential of unbuilding as a way of practice and the need of establishing frontlines to start moving forward in the right direction.

KOOZ In respect of climate change, and following Wainwright and Mann, there are only three path's forward: mitigation, adaptation or suffering. "With mitigation long gone, we must adapt." What is for you the agency of architecture in defining and pursuing this adaptation? What is the fundamental role that architecture and architects should play?

KIEL MOE In a nonmodern understanding of design and building, architecture’s primary agency is adaptation. It was only in this bizarre amalgam of modern practices that architects construed the purpose and potential otherwise—as designers of novel objects. In a nonmodern paradigm, a designer’s primary activity and agency is adapting, tending, nudging, swerving, etc. There is still tremendous novelty in all those acts and operations of adaptation. However, novelty is just no longer constrained to delusional claims of compositional and rhetorical “newness”, or, even less interesting, of problem-solving and solutionism. Instead, novelty is merely the next state of the social and ecological systems. Adaptation is the art and technics of anticipating those next states. So, with a gush of goodwill and optimism, nonmoderns adapt, and thereby ride all the exasperation and ecstasy that accompanies change and next states.

In a nonmodern understanding of design and building, architecture’s primary agency is adaptation.

Courtesy of Kiel Moe.

KOOZ Sustainability, resilience and architecture's autonomy are pervasive myths supporting the structure of climate change denial. However, they are still taught in almost every architecture school. Could you share ideas on how alternative pedagogies that go against traditional architectural curriculum can help dissolve these myths?

KM I do not know of any school that has an alternative pedagogy to the prevailing tropes of sustainability and the inbred progeny of architectural formal autonomy. No building is sustainable and no building is autonomous. Period. So what are these schools peddling, and why are they charging so much tuition for their disabling lessons? You refer to myths, I would call them exhausted, parochial traditions; enormous distractions to pedagogies better fit for this century. It is not a matter of tweaking a couple syllabi or courses. The schools and the universities are broken. So, it is less a matter of alternative pedagogies as alternative models. We should no longer confuse and conflate education with established schools and their traditions, their baggage, and titanic momentum. The idea that what needs to be learned can be delivered solely on campus, in studios, seminar rooms and lecture halls by overly tenured faculty is preposterous. The return to campus after the pandemic was the wrong direction of pedagogical travel. Other models, more liberatory and relevant models, are necessary.

No building is sustainable and no building is autonomous. Period.

Education and learning are socially shared and environmentally situated. Neither happens in a school. What is needed are models that get learners out, doing real things, engaging ponderous circumstances and contingencies, models that help them learn how to get by in this century in the most ecologically and politically sane way possible, that help them sort out how to adapt in the most cunning and sublime ways to received conditions. What that looks like in western India is very different than in East Los Angeles or Chile. There are a few minor models out there, hints, but no one has fully developed such a model yet. There is no more necessary or adventurous pedagogical project than developing such a model. The schools do not want, nor will they support, such models. Their routines, administrative conveniences and contrivances, their curricular habits, their unimaginative servility to accreditation, and their glacial pace of change all strain against such alternative models. Climates are changing faster than our schools. If you want a live history lesson on the preoccupations and operations of schools in the 1990s, drop $60,000 a year and enrol in a professional degree in architecture. If you want to know about design, energetics, and adaptation then drop what you are doing, drop your assumptions and get out there, pick your frontline, and get to work on this century.

Climates are changing faster than our schools.

Kiel Moe, Unless : the Seagram Building Construction Ecology, 2020. New York, NY: ACTAR.

KOOZ You have talked about lagrangian coordination as a frame of reference to better represent and organise the ecological and political dynamics of architecture and also about the energetics and materialism of ecosystem science (emergy) as the best epistemic and methodological equipment with which to move beyond modernist abstraction. Can you tell us more about these tools—and their implications—and how you use them in your practice and teaching?

KM Alternative frames of reference and ecosystem methods are rigorous ways of seeing beyond architecture’s central obstruction and contradiction assumption: architects are trained to conceive of buildings as composed objects rather than terrestrial operations and systems. Emergy and energetics helps one see systems and their next states in rather revelatory ways, but only if you have the courage to see beyond the habit of treating energy as fuel, as a commodity. Langaragian frames of reference shift the focus from Cartesian-constructed objects to dynamic systems, and again, next states. Some might construe this as science, but it is a fundamentally formal project for me: nothing has taught me more about formation and appearance in this world than energetics and ecology—alternative frames of reference. These methods entail the radical step of involving time in a non-trivial way into design and questions about how something might appear, about its formation in this world. As such, these methods are our best way to see beyond the fetters of architectural objects. I remain deeply interested in architectural artefacts, but only if considered in a dialectic with the systems that engenders that artefact. Why does this thing appear the way it does? If you are not responding with deeply researched, systemic responses about the terrestrial realities of that question, then you are likely just debating taste preferences for one object over another, which is a pathetic reduction of what architecture is and can do in this world. I think architects can elevate their formal, ecological, and political ambitions, but to do so requires methods, concepts, vocabularies, and frameworks that are not native to traditional schools of architecture.

I think architects can elevate their formal, ecological, and political ambitions, but to do so requires methods, concepts, vocabularies, and frameworks that are not native to traditional schools of architecture.

Kiel Moe, Unless : the Seagram Building Construction Ecology, 2020. New York, NY: ACTAR. Kiel Moe / Courtesy Actar Publishers

KOOZ Unless: The Seagram Building Construction Ecology (Actar, 2021) describes and analyses the social and ecological dynamics of the Seagram Building, merging energetics, ecology, world-systems analysis and the politics of building, making visible a lot of otherwise hidden or unknown material and emergetic aspects of one of the “most modern” of modern architecture icons. How can the terrestrial description of already built architecture inform the design process of buildings that have not been built yet? How can it transform the very practice of building?

KM I did the Empire, State, & Building and Unless books to sort out some methods, to develop a framework that substantively integrates a range of ecological and social concerns. I have limited patience for how shallow many environmental and political claims prove to be in architecture. I wanted a method that had sufficient analytical robustness that could explicate the scales and details of social or environmental impacts of building and urbanisation processes. So the historical examples served as ways to develop the methods that underpin my design and building practices. The forest-first approach to my building work is the projective, design-based application of the methods you see in these historical books. Forest-first runs the method in reverse, and helps me anticipate and adapt design and building assumptions to understand how geology and disturbance shape forest-stand dynamics and forest ecology; how those stands and silvicultural prescriptions suggest certain harvested species; which in turn suggest certain harvest intensities of those species and what type of timber building components might be possible to use in a given building season. All these forest traits and dynamics—when intersectionally checked against local economic, social, and technical potentials—suggest a specific type of building assembly, building size, etc. The aim is to devise a method of working with a forest in such a way that design and building amplifies the ecological functions of the forest, amplifies local economies—through design of building practices—and buildings as artefacts of all these concerns. This may entail no building at all, or the unbuilding of extant structures. But in some cases, it allows for the design and construction of a building. This reflects a method of design and building based on donor values of the forest system, as opposed to the receiver-centric value model of conventional architectural practice, which is highly extractive and colonial in its dispositions.

Unbuilding is a forward movement, an optimistic take on the aftermath of modernity.

Stack House (Mountain Chapel), Kiel Moe with and for Ron Mason, FAIA Granite, Colorado 2008. Courtesy of Kiel Moe.

KOOZ In your recent lecture on the Twilight of Models, while speculating on broken world thinking as analternative to modernity models of stability, growth and progress, you talked about un-building as a type of architecture, a process and even an architectural act that can help envision next states on the existence of our practice. Can you elaborate on the potential of un-building and how it relates to your current and future research?

KM Unbuilding is a forward movement, an optimistic take on the aftermath of modernity. Perhaps we already have enough building—buildings, building materials—and what is needed and most novel at this point is rearranging, reorganising what already exists. This is essential to a nonextractive, or less extractive, practice of design and building. In my work, there is the literal unbuilding of certain building structures for direct re-use, as mentioned in that lecture. But there is the parallel and just as literal practice of unbuilding bad building practices: its habits of extraction, unbuilding the neoliberal transformation of the industry which in the late twentieth century began to assemble buildings out of proprietary products rather than materials, and, for example, unbuilding deleterious forestry practices (thus unbuilding the forest). These are all examples of unbuilding activity. Each is an active, forward movement of the discipline of architecture. Each constitutes a frontline of active labour, politics, and practice. If you don’t have a frontline, then there is no way that your work is avant garde.

If you don’t have a frontline, then there is no way that your work is avant garde.

Bath House Kiel Moe, AIA w/ Decentralized Design Lab Portland, Maine 2020

KOOZ As part of our editorial series Agents Provocateurs, agitate normality, we have engaged in conversations with several architects, designers and researchers whose work challenges the norms and pushes the boundaries of architecture. As we are closing the series with this interview, we would like to ask: moving forward, where do you envision the agency of your practice and scholarship going?

KM I am not sure my work has any agency beyond the places that I live, labour and build. My work is at best an annoyance to most schools and architecture practices. So it has limited agency there. I imagine that my work only truly resonates with those who are out in the world, who understand how broken most schools and practices are and are searching for some alternative. If my work can help in any way, great. But I do this work so that I can more fully understand the forests in southern Vermont, so that I might engage that place—its forest stands, its people, its politics—in a more robust way than I ever could while I was centrally involved in schools. The agency I cultivate is inextricable to my developing knowledge of how this land is evolving and how building can, or cannot, help amend and adapt humans to that land, its diversity, and its plenitude. And we might more artfully get by given extant and future conditions. I see this as deeply enchanting and architectural, though I fully recognise that many peers will not and they might thereby dismiss the agency involved. However, I am committed to working and living in a place outside the isolating, divisive political islands and neoliberal developments of the cities and coasts. I am committed to working in what my peers might see as nothing more than an extractive fly-over zone, but this is where I can act on my research methods most immediately and develop novel building and unbuilding practices. If the schools in the cities could offer anything but commentary on such places, I would have remained there.

Where is the agency? It is out there, far away from the screens and screams of the schools.

But the horizon of this century is elsewhere, its frontlines are elsewhere. None of this work is just an idea, a clever studio brief, or a pandering book proposal. It is a situated realm in which real alternatives can be enacted, tested, failed, rethought and adapted. So where is the agency? It is out there, far away from the screens and screams of the schools, and their witty, aloof abstractions that routinely pass as discourse and practice. That is where my agency is, where it is going. You would do well to also ask about the temporal equivalent of that agency. I am sorting out how to tend land and building in such a way that I can get by in the decades ahead; to survive and thrive in a broken world characterised by adaptation. So the agency I am developing is for years, decades, ahead. Whatever agency the work of my recent past or present might enjoy, it is all in service of future agency and capacity.


Kiel Moe, FAIA, FAAR, is a practising architect, researcher, and author. In recognition of his design and research endeavours, he was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Helsinki, the Gorham P. Stevens Rome Prize in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome, the Architecture League of New York Prize, and the American Institute of Architects National Young Architect Award. He has published several books on architecture including Empire, State & Building; Wood Urbanism: From the Molecular to the Territorial; Insulating Modernism: Isolated and Non-Isolated Thermodynamics in Architecture; and Convergence: An Architectural Agenda for Energy.

28 Jul 2023
Reading time
15 minutes
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