Book Review: Modern Architecture—A Planetary Warming History

Modern Architecture: A Planetary Warming History

By Hans Ibelings (The Architecture Observer, 2023)
REVIEW Graham Livesey

Hans Ibelings’s latest publication, Modern Architecture: A Planetary Warming History, is presented as a “rough sketch of a proposed history of modern architecture.” It is a timely concept, given the role that modern buildings, cities, and infrastructure have played in causing the current environmental crisis. There is also no doubt that there is a need for new interpretations of modern architectural history: ones that would augment and challenge the well-worn narratives found in standard texts by writers like Kenneth Frampton and William J.R. Curtis. By drawing from recent literature and trawling through historical case studies, Ibelings attempts to chart a new reading of history that focuses on architecture and planetary warming since the late 18th century. 

Diagrams from Victor Olgyay’s Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (Princeton University Press, 1963).


As an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and the author of many books, Ibelings is well-positioned for undertaking this daunting task. The book in its current version is a novel-sized paperback, with 400 heavily illustrated pages set in large print. It presents several chapters that trace topics such as global warming, climate, cities, and ecology back to the Industrial Revolution. Beyond short introductory statements, the book is composed largely as a cinematic barrage of projects and conceptual proposals, some well-known, some more obscure. In PDF form, the graphic design presents a continuous reel of material. In print, however, dozens of images are disconcertingly sliced horizontally in two.

In the opening chapter, Ibelings presents various projects, books, and drawings, beginning with Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton (1784), that trace an evolving understanding of the planet as an ecosystem. This is followed by an overview of environmental alternatives to the energy-consuming environments produced by modern architecture—the background to contemporary green architecture. In two chapters on the city, the author examines climatic effects on urban environments, and presents urban schemes that integrate urban settlement and greenspace, often at a regional level. Ibelings stresses that the “Great Acceleration” and “De-colonization” after the Second World War have resulted in the Anthropocene—the current age where human activities have altered about 97% of the world’s land mass, excluding Antarctica.

Rick Guidice’s Toroidal Colony and Cylinder Interior were proposed as part of a NASA study for a settlement in space. Image by NASA / Ames Research Center

Elsewhere in the book, Ibelings tackles large and impactful infrastructure projects, key texts that foreshadow our current situation, and concepts of nature and anthropocentrism. He concludes with a section on projects that are driven by ecology, and points out that, ultimately, all buildings are ecological and can be understood as such. 

The book is a massive compendium of ideas, ranging from negatively impactful works of infrastructure to visionary “green” publications and projects. And while Ibelings challenges the legacy of modernity, it seems that at some level, he still admires its many accomplishments. The current framework for the book could benefit from both clarification and expansion, and in particular, a deepened overall discussion that is more closely tied to examples. Can the sketch presented in Modern Architecture: A Planetary Warming History be developed into a more resolved argument? We can certainly hope so.

Graham Livesey (FRAIC) is a Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Calgary.