Magazine article The American Prospect

Green Building Blues: Is "Well-Designed Green Architecture" an Oxymoron

Magazine article The American Prospect

Green Building Blues: Is "Well-Designed Green Architecture" an Oxymoron

Article excerpt

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THE OLYMPIC VILLAGE IN VANcouver will be a marvel of the 21st century once it is complete. Currently under construction for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the 1.4-millionsquare-foot, 16-building Village will be outfitted with passive solar panels and green roofs and heated by a recycling apparatus that captures the heat emitted by sewage and redirects it back to the residences. Every building in the complex is designed to outlast its temporary use, and every building is made with its long-term carbon footprint in mind. For its efforts to leave no good turn unrecycled, the Olympic Village is hauling home enough Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold and platinum medals to make an Olympic contender green with envy.

Yet for all its lauded environmental ingenuity, Vancouver's Olympic Village has limited ambitions when it comes to design innovation. Despite assurances from Village project manager Hank Jasper that "you don't need sod walls and 30-foot trees on the roof to make it sustainable," the project's higher-ups rejected ambitious architectural designs for fear that they did not look green enough. Renowned postmodernist architect Robert A.M. Stern was originally chosen to lead the project, but his proposed design for the waterfront community center and other sites met with significant resistance from Vancouver. The city's senior urban designer, Scot Hein, declared to The Vancouver Sun that Stern's design was "not expressive of sustainability." Stern, the dean of architecture at Yale University, was asked to leave the project, and a locally based architecture firm, Arthur Erickson Corporation, was hired in his place. But Erickson, too, was given neither the time nor the mandate to pursue lofty design goals. "There's not much play there," Erickson partner Nick Milkovich told The Globe and Mail in January 2007.

With function prized above all else, the Olympic Village building designs have a default "green" look to them: blocky, all glass, covered in matted foliage. It looks as though the developers simply forgot to design the place.

The field of architecture is experiencing a design crisis, with clients ranging from private owners to cities demanding that architects prioritize sustainability above all else--as if design itself were an obnoxious carbon-emitter. This is partly because high designers and the so-called "starchitects," who fear that new methods and materials might not comport with long-established styles, are not taking the lead on sustainability issues, leaving green innovation to younger firms with fewer resources. Both well-known firms and up-and-comers lack experience in working with new, often expensive green materials, which has forced many designers to depend greatly on singular and design-restrictive tactics such as "passive design"--essentially, lots of space and windows--to achieve sustainability goals.

As a result, much green architecture reflects a quality that Ford's Edsel possessed: It looks like the future, but it doesn't look good.

ONE REASON THAT EMERGING GREEN

architects and their clients have come to see design as part of the problem is that the most lauded design projects in recent history have made virtually no attempt at sustainability. "Look at the architecture of the last 15 years," says James Wines, a professor of architecture at Penn State University and the author of Green Architecture. "It's been more flamboyant and more wasteful than it's ever been before. To build any of these buildings by Frank Gehry, it takes, what, 60 to 80 percent more metal and steel and construction than it would to enclose that space in a normal way. So you're talking about incredible waste. Mind-boggling waste."

As "green" becomes an increasingly valuable term to associate with any new building, architectural projects are claiming the label, whether or not they have paid attention to sustainability. …

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