Magazine article Artforum International

Conserving Habitats: Kevin Pratt on Green Design

Magazine article Artforum International

Conserving Habitats: Kevin Pratt on Green Design

Article excerpt

IF HISTORICAL ANALOGIES offer any guidance, green design will emerge as the modernism of the new century. There is more than a passing similarity between recent eclecticism in architecture and the stylistic free-for-all that characterized the early twentieth century, which saw a succession of neohistorical and decorative styles come and go rather quickly. Neo-Gothic, neo-Tudor, Beaux-Arts classicism, Art Nouveau: All had their brief moment before modernism crystallized (at least in the minds of the architectural establishment) as an "appropriate" aesthetic. It is now fashionable to talk about architectures in the plural, the techno-baroque, and exciting regional building cultures in the post-Soviet republics. But a lack of consensus about the direction in which architecture should be moving underscores a need to transcend formal typologies that have, despite their heterogeneity, become oddly indistinguishable.

In this context green design speaks to a yearning for the kind of totalizing aesthetic and ideological program the modernists embraced, a desire apparent today in the nostalgic reemergence of Miesian glass boxes and sleek, white country houses. Green design also shares with the modernist project the righteousness of a cause: improving the world through reform of its material culture. Although modernism in architecture, as in the visual arts, was underpinned by the acceptance of abstraction as an aesthetic strategy, it too was driven by the adoption of new building practices that revolutionized construction.

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By definition, green sets itself against the grain of a consumer culture that refuses to acknowledge that its continuing expansion may well be checked, disastrously, by ever-dwindling natural resources. Mainstream architectural practice in the States, fixated on formalist gamesmanship and deeply complicit in the economic and organizational structures that support such a culture, has only recently taken even token notice of this rather obvious dilemma.

In Europe, however, some spectacular public and nominally green buildings--like Foster and Partners' London City Hall (famous for being the backdrop to David Blaine's recent starvation exercise)--have been built in the past few years. They are, for the most part, produced by "high-tech" architects like Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Nicholas Grimshaw, and they share an aesthetic defined by intricately detailed structural and mechanical systems, usually expressed in metal, glass, and mechanized shading devices. These efforts have militated against the handicap of what could charitably be called green design's historical lack of charisma.

These buildings represent the leading edge of an ideological trend that looms larger than any particular stylistic inclination. The green imperative is being driven by a confluence of three important factors. First and most important, fossil-fuel consumption is largely to blame for global warming, and buildings devour up to 50 percent of delivered energy in First World countries. Second, advances in computer simulation have made the energy performance of complex building forms understandable. Finally, neobiological design theory, which looks to the life sciences--especially molecular and evolutionary biology--for means to understand and produce complex material culture, is taking root in architectural discourse. …

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