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Questioning Technology in a Time of Global Upheaval

Roberta Morelli et Jean Souviron
Cet article est une traduction de :
Penser la technique à l’ère du dérèglement global [fr]

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Questioning technology in a time of global upheaval: Issues and controversies in architectural and urban practice

  • 1 William Morris, “The Arts and Crafts of To-day”, in William Morris, The Collected Works of William (...)
  • 2 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2010 [original (...)
  • 3 Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times”, in The Works of Thomas Carlyle, Cambridge, Cambridge Universi (...)
  • 4 Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Apocalypse joyeuse. Une histoire du risque technologique, Paris, Seuil, 20 (...)
  • 5 David Edgerton, The Schock of the Old. Technology and Global History since 1900, London, Profile Bo (...)
  • 6 Hans Jonas, “Technologie et responsabilité. Pour une nouvelle éthique”, Esprit, sept. 1974, p. 163- (...)
  • 7 See: Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Chicago, University of Minnes (...)
  • 8 Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, New York, P (...)
  • 9 François Jarrige, Technocritiques. Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences, Pari (...)

1Over the last two centuries, the place and role of technology in the organisation of industrialised societies has raised controversies that have continuously questioned the impact of human activities. The criticism of industrialisation—underpinned by the thinking of William Morris1 (1834–1896) and Lewis Mumford2 (1895–1990), among others—emerged with the advent of the “age of machinery,”3 leading to a reconsideration of the history of technology at the crossroads of human societies and cultures. Nowadays, in a context marked by the acceleration of global disruption, this criticism challenges the very concepts of progress4 and innovation,5 and interrogates the relationships between our societies and their technical objects through the “imperative of responsibility”6 and the notion of ethics.7 Controversies have arisen between advocates of technological solutionism,8 for whom technical progress can provide effective responses to the problems facing modern societies, and the technocritics,9 who have various ways of arguing against the sacralisation of technology and the resulting alienation of individuals.

  • 10 Fanny Lopez, Cécile Diguet, Sous le feu numérique : spatialités et énergies des data centers, Genèv (...)
  • 11 The concept of a “construction model for energy and environmental performance” (“modèle constructif (...)

2Ecological upheavals, increasing social vulnerability and the promises of the digital revolution, all raise questions about how infrastructural choices10 and architectural, urban and territorial practices impact the environment and our societies. The growing scarcity of material and energy resources, along with the urgent need to retrofit and renovate existing buildings, are transforming the very notion of technology in these fields. As a result, new issues have arisen concerning, on the one hand, the environmental, health and social impact of building systems; and, on the other, the division of labour between the design and construction phases. Examples include controversies raised by construction models addressing energy performance based on thermal insulation and the mechanical ventilation of buildings;11 the limits of industrialisation and “low carbon” labelling of timber construction; the challenges of waste management in response to the call for a “circular economy”; and the impact of urban planning models based on smart grids and mass electrification.

  • 12 See in particular the thematic dossier “Culture constructive,” in Cahiers de la recherche architect (...)

3Almost thirty years after the Cahiers de la recherche architecturale et urbaine published its last issues devoted to the material dimension of living space,12 the coordinators of this dossier wish to revive scientific debates on technology. The latter is understood here in a broad sense to encompass material and energy resources; tools, knowledge and skill; production and design processes; as well as construction work and the maintenance of structures. The objective of this thematic dossier is to contribute to a critical analysis of changes in the material conditions of our built environment in a time of global upheaval.

4This dossier explores the interdependent relationships between the historical, social, political and cultural dimensions of technology, and aims to grasp the changes that characterise contemporary professional practices. Why and how is technology defined in architectural and urban production? What political and social projects does it embody? What are the related issues and debates? What are the resonances between past and present controversies? How can they help us to develop a critical approach to technology in the face of socio-environmental issues?

5The six articles that structure the dossier, and the interview concluding it, integrate these questions from a broad perspective. They are based on a range of objects and fields, reflecting the richness of the questions and approaches addressing the place and role of technology in cities and architecture The authors’ investigations focus on the controversies and practices that are redefining conceptual and constructive thinking, as well as means of action in the built environment. Bringing together contributions from a range of disciplines, this thematic dossier puts forward the hypothesis that technology today represents a space of differentiation and a place for negotiating plural and conflicting interests, directly impacting material production, the organisation of work and labour, the definition of space and the relationship with the environment.

6To address this hypothesis, this dossier is divided into three parts. The first takes a historical perspective, emphasising the importance of situating contemporary approaches to technology within their long-term evolution. The second focuses on the current reconfiguration of architectural practices and their relationship with so-called sustainable technologies under the influence of new normative frameworks—understood here in both a legal and a social sense. Finally, the third part examines the issues surrounding the appropriation of technologies, raising essential questions about their transmission, maintenance and adaptation to the changing contexts in which they are used.

Questioning technology over time

7Based on historical studies of the twentieth century, the two first set of contributions provides a critical analysis of the issues involved in integrating ecological considerations into contemporary technological and material thinking.

8Robby Fivez’s article focuses on the evolution of discourses and criteria regarding the evaluation of building materials in the colonial and post-colonial history of architecture, particularly that of the Belgian Congo. Because the colonisers had little regard for Central African building techniques, Congolese materials were initially described as “primitive”. The institutionalisation of this judgement later led to the inclusion of a supposedly scientific distinction between “matériaux durables” and “matériaux non-durables” in building codes. This article examines how this colonial binary continues today in Western architectural practices in Africa, albeit with an inverted hierarchy that now favours “local” materials at the expense of those derived from industrialisation. By highlighting the limitations of this dichotomy, the article demonstrates the extent to which building materials, and the value judgements attached to them, are historically situated processes that cannot be captured by the adjectives “local”, “sustainable” and “ecological”.

9Following a different trajectory, Antoine Perron examines the construction of reflexive thinking about technology, in particular through the history of critiques of its social and environmental impact. The author focuses on the work and thought of Gaston Bardet (1907–1989), a twentieth-century French urbanist and theorist renowned for his contributions to urban planning and his critique of mechanisation. Bardet developed a complex thought process and tortuous path in a century marked by fascism, the acceleration of industrialisation and growing warnings about the unsustainability of economic and material development in the West. In this context, he denounced mechanisation and modernism as dehumanising and environmentally destructive, putting forward proposals for more humane and ecological urban planning. Despite being marginalised in professional circles after the Second World War because of his proximity to the Vichy government and his inclination towards esoteric research, Bardet influenced later generations of architects and urban planners with his ideas of decentralisation, a return to natural materials and the need for a balance between human societies and their environment.

10In this sense, Bardet’s work shows a certain topicality, in particular his early awareness of ecological challenges and his radical critique of technology and industrialisation. To leave it at that, however, would be to overlook the limits and contradictions of a thought marked by a utopian vision combining Catholicism, reactionary ideologies and fascist influences. By presenting the complexity of this trajectory, the article invites critical reflection on the political dimension of ecological and technological thought, underlining the importance of moving beyond utopian or apocalyptic ideas in order to develop realistic and politically viable ecological strategies.

The social construction of technology

11This second set of articles explores the ways in which regulations and standards influence architectural practices and their relationship to contemporary technological issues. The first two articles focus on the reconfiguration of architectural practices in France following the implementation of the first environmental regulations (RE 2020), which has come into force gradually from the 1st of January 2022. They examine the changes brought about by these regulations with regard to the ways in which bio- and geo-sourced materials can be integrated into building projects. A third article looks at seismic risk in Istanbul and how this essentially technical issue is being influenced by changes in the economic, social and political context at national and local levels.

12The tensions between innovation and regulation arising from this new context are at the heart of Stéphane Berthier’s article. In particular, he analyses the contradictions that occur when architects seek to reduce the carbon footprint of a project by using bio- and geo-sourced materials. Current regulations, which promote safety, durability and comfort, are based on performance criteria designed primarily for reinforced concrete structures, which limit or even prevent the use of more sustainable construction systems. This duality is explored through two case studies: the steps taken by the timber industry to align its materials with the regulatory framework, particularly in terms of fire resistance; and the Messageries school project in Paris, which, despite its environmental ambitions, encountered regulatory constraints that restricted the use of bio-based materials and indirectly increased its carbon footprint. The current regulatory framework would therefore tend to hamper the environmental exemplarity of buildings by requiring high levels of comfort and safety, particularly in terms of fire hazards, resulting in increased design complexity. This article highlights the difficulty of promoting sustainable construction innovation due to constraints imposed by regulatory requirements and contemporary comfort standards. This regulatory and normative framework reflects a social consensus that hinders the rapid adoption of greener building solutions. Moreover, the current approach—which is limited to considering construction materials as the main means of reducing buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions, without reviewing social standards related to comfort—is proving to be at best an obstacle and at worst a dead end in the fight against climate change. The author calls for a broader reflection on architectural practices and a critical assessment of the impact of technical equipment on the carbon footprint of buildings, demonstrating that compromises on modern comfort will be necessary to achieve more ambitious environmental goals.

13Mathilde Planchot, Céline Drozd, Ignacio Requena-Ruiz and Daniel Siret continue these reflections by exploring the transformation of architectural design methods brought about by the increased use of wood for social housing construction in France. They examine the impact of this trend on architects’ professional practices, with wood representing a technical challenge, a useful material for decarbonisation and an opportunity for innovation, both in terms of discourse and policy. Through interviews with eight architects who have gained considerable experience in this type of project, the article highlights the need to define a new approach to the design process, in which the specific characteristics of wood enrich and complicate the design process. The use of wood, with its physical properties and regulatory constraints, requires early anticipation of construction choices and a shift in the way in which those involved in a project work together. At the same time, it seems essential to renew the construction culture of architects so that they can rediscover a technical way of thinking, closely linked to the physical properties of wood. This rediscovery, according to the authors, leads to a more integrated and considered approach to design, where technology is not just a means but an integral part of the design and construction process. The article underlines the importance of continuing to study developments in the building sector in order to provide architects with the best possible support in adapting to the current challenges of sustainable construction.

14Youenn Gourain examines the complexities and dilemmas surrounding the regulation of construction techniques in the urban context of Istanbul, Turkey. Questioning the evolution of the material choices, the article analyses the reforms to building standards imposed since the 1999 earthquakes in the Marmara region. Changes in the regulation of building materials reveal the complexity of managing seismic risk in a context of intense urban development. The article highlights the successive reconfigurations of construction choices, understood in terms of complex assemblies of actors who negotiate the assumption of responsibility for seismic risk in relation to their involvement in the urban fabric, revealing a shift in responsibility in a complex landscape of urban and individual vulnerability. New tensions are reshaping technical responses to seismic risk, between safety imperatives, economic motivations and political issues. Finally, the author explains that this reconfiguration contributes to the creation of additional vulnerabilities, gradually diluting seismic risk in a broader and more complex set of socio-technical challenges.

Questions of appropriation and adaptation

15The third set of contributions examines the interactions between buildings and the people responsible for their design and maintenance. It explores how socio-technical dynamics influence architectural practices and the life of buildings, taking into account issues of adaptation and appropriation of spaces and technical devices.

16Through a study of two student residences, Marion Serre, Agathe Chiron and Chloé Perreau highlight the essential, but often underestimated, role of maintenance activities and the issues raised by the appropriation of techniques. In particular, the article looks at an experimental approach developed through a partnership between the École des arts décoratifs de Paris and the Centre régional des œuvres universitaires et scolaires (Crous), which faces major challenges in managing its building stock. The status of “designer coordinator” (“designer régisseur”) was created to strengthen collaboration between students and technical staff in order to facilitate and strengthen the maintenance process. By combining co-construction and skill-sharing, this initiative has helped to identify practical and sustainable solutions to common repair problems, while encouraging student residents to become actively involved in the maintenance and appropriation of their spaces. The authors show how targeted interventions and technical mediation can transform students’ relationships with their space and help better the daily lives of the communities gathered in these residences. It highlights the collective skills developed through this experiment and puts forth a broader reflection on the role of maintenance in improving and upholding the quality of student life. This article invites us to rethink maintenance practices as a central element of housing, proposing an alternative model based on care and exchange in the specific context of university residences.

17Eugénie Floret explores the evolution of air control in architecture, highlighting how envelopes have become more complex. Successive innovations in air management, accompanied by the introduction and modification of standards, have profoundly changed the roles and practices of architects, integrating increasingly sophisticated technologies to meet increased regulatory requirements. This article analyses these changes by highlighting the process of airflow engineering, from the initial design stage through to practical adaptations on site, and offers a critical reflection on the impact of standardisation and mechanisation on architectural practice. It reveals the tension between performance objectives and the reality of implementation conditions, and examines the compromises and adaptations that sometimes compromise the integrity of architectural solutions and raise questions about the durability and real effectiveness of these systems. The analysis focuses on the dialogue between the various actors involved and the “bricolages” that arise in air management solutions, suggesting an urgent need to reassess current methods and approaches to better integrate aeronautics into architecture.

18Finally, an interview with Jacques Anglade, engineer and carpenter, concludes this thematic dossier. Looking back at some of the key stages in a career devoted to wooden structures, he describes in detail his approach, which combines traditional knowledge with contemporary challenges, emphasising the importance in architectural design of understanding building materials and the conditions in which they are used. The interview traces the evolution of his relationship with construction techniques, between a desire integrate socio-environmental issues and respect for the material into the building process, and a critique of the industrialisation of the timber industry.

19This critical view extends beyond wooden structures to the industrial practices of architecture and construction, which distort materials and distance professionals from their craftsmanship. This profound reappraisal argues for a revaluation of traditional techniques which, according to Jacques Anglade, are particularly well suited to contemporary needs. He also stresses the need to reintegrate empiricism and direct experience with materials into the design process. He advocates an approach that reconciles the use of local resources and traditional artisanry in order to promote truly sustainable, environmentally friendly construction methods. More generally, he calls for a redefinition of the role of technology in architecture, not as an end in itself, but as a means at the service of human and environmental values. Further, he stresses the need to reintegrate empiricism and direct experience with materials into the design process. His account invites us to consider how architects and engineers can contribute to to renewing our thinking about technology by reconsidering our relationship with tools and know-how in the face of contemporary challenges.

20This dossier brings together complementary articles, with research results arising from a variety of methods. The authors trace the history of concepts and ideas, analyse discourses, examine industrial sectors, study regulations, conduct interviews and question the political and social dimension of architectural theories and practices. This diversity reflects the plurality of approaches needed to deepen our understanding of the current state of technology. It is somewhat regrettable, however, that there are no contributions that explore in greater depth the controversies and paradoxes that the coordinators of this dossier believe are central to understanding contemporary technical issues. These include, in particular, the growing heterogeneity of technical bodies, the increasing standardisation of products and construction methods, the diversification of players involved in the act of building, the economics of construction and land, the acceleration of digitalisation, and the inequality of the socio-economic conditions of production and maintenance of the built environment. Similarly, two lines of enquiry initially proposed by the coordinators were not met with the expected response: the building site and the challenges of materialising a way of thinking about technology; waste management techniques and practices. These are all avenues for further research, which should encourage us to pursue and extend the ideas set out in this thematic dossier.

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1 William Morris, “The Arts and Crafts of To-day”, in William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021, vol. 22, p. 356–374. First delivered in Edinburgh before the National Association for the Advancement of Art in 1889.

2 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2010 [original edition: 1934].

3 Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times”, in The Works of Thomas Carlyle, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010, vol. 27, p. 56–82 [original edition: 1829].

4 Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Apocalypse joyeuse. Une histoire du risque technologique, Paris, Seuil, 2012.

5 David Edgerton, The Schock of the Old. Technology and Global History since 1900, London, Profile Books, 2006.

6 Hans Jonas, “Technologie et responsabilité. Pour une nouvelle éthique”, Esprit, sept. 1974, p. 163-184. This article was later expanded in The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984 [original edition: Das Prinzip Verantwortung. Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisationpremière, 1979].

7 See: Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Chicago, University of Minnesota Press, 2016 [original edition: Du mode d'existence des objets techniques, 1958].

8 Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, New York, Public Affairs, 2013.

9 François Jarrige, Technocritiques. Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences, Paris, La Découverte, 2016; “A genealogy of technocritics”, in Karim Benyekhlef (ed.), AI and Law: a Critical Overview, Montréal, Thémis, 2021, p. 17-45.

10 Fanny Lopez, Cécile Diguet, Sous le feu numérique : spatialités et énergies des data centers, Genève, MétisPresses, 2023.

11 The concept of a “construction model for energy and environmental performance” (“modèle constructif de la performance énergétique et environnementale”) was developed by Christophe Beslay and Romain Gournet in the study “La Filière du bâtiment face au Grenelle de l'environnement”, conducted in 2011 on behalf of GDF-Suez. See also: Christophe Beslay, Romain Gournet et Marie-Christine Zélem, “Le Bâtiment économe : utopie technicienne et résistance des usages”, in Jérôme Boissonade (ed.), La Ville durable controversée, Paris, Pétra, 2015, p. 335-363.

12 See in particular the thematic dossier “Culture constructive,” in Cahiers de la recherche architecturale, n  29, 1992, and the dossier devoted to the “Imaginaires techniques,” published in the 40th issue of the Cahiers de la recherche architecturale et urbaine in 1997.

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Roberta Morelli et Jean Souviron, « Questioning Technology in a Time of Global Upheaval »Les Cahiers de la recherche architecturale urbaine et paysagère [En ligne], 20 | 2024, mis en ligne le 17 mai 2024, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Roberta Morelli

Roberta Morelli is an Associate Professor in Architectural Science and Techniques at the ENSA Paris-Belleville and a researcher at UMR 3329 AUSser. She is an architect and engineer and holds a PhD in construction engineering and territorial planning. Her work focuses on the analysis of design and production processes for buildings and cities in the face of contemporary socio-environmental issues. She has been responsible for a number of research programmes, including “Urbanisme de projet” (2011-2013), “Temporalités et développement durable : un nouveau système de valeurs pour le logement ?” (2014-2015) and “La Requalification : état des lieux et perspectives des travaux universitaires en Italie” (2015-2016) ; she has also taken part in other research projects, including “L’Habitant et la fabrication énergétique des écoquartiers. Processus, conception, réception » in the program “Ignis Mutat Res” (2013-2015) and “Évaluation des immeubles d’habitation à cour couverte” (2016-2018). She has contributed to several books, including “La fabrique de la ville en transition” (2022), “Densifier, de-densifier. Penser les campagnes urbaines” (2018) and “European Housing Concepts” (2009). Between 2017 and 2021, she was co-director of the Urban Futures LabEx, supporting cooperation between researchers in the humanities and social sciences, architecture, engineering sciences and the environment, in order to produce original knowledge on urbanisation processes and contemporary urban societies. Since 2021, together with Bruno Tassin, she has headed up the seminar on “Urban environments and global disruption: the challenges of the 21st century”, which forms part of the “Urban Futures” Graduate Programme (Graduate School UGE).

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Jean Souviron

Jean Souviron holds master's degrees in architecture (ENSA Paris-Est, 2013) and civil engineering (ENPC, 2016) and a PhD in architecture and urban planning (Université libre de Bruxelles, 2022). He is a lecturer at the ENSA Paris-Belleville, a researcher at the UMR AUSser and a permanent member of the Ipraus laboratory. His teaching focuses on the uses, techniques and physical phenomena involved in the construction of indoor environments, with particular attention to the issues raised by climate change and ecological upheaval. These themes are also central to his research, which focuses on 20th century building techniques and their relationship to indoor climates and the environment. In particular, he analyses the ecological, social and architectural impact of energy and industrial policies by tracing the trajectory of building materials and products, crossing history of technology, territorial ecology and science and technology studies (STS).

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