Green Buildings Need Sharp-Eyed Architecture Critics: 'Like Other Journalists, Architecture Critics Need to Be Inquisitive and Skeptical about What They See.'

By Gragg, Randy | Nieman Reports, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Green Buildings Need Sharp-Eyed Architecture Critics: 'Like Other Journalists, Architecture Critics Need to Be Inquisitive and Skeptical about What They See.'


Gragg, Randy, Nieman Reports


When writing about energy issues as an architecture critic, it's hard to know whether I am tackling the topic as a story about science, a political cause, a fad or religion. These days energy innovations in buildings are frequently portrayed by developers and politicians as "green design" and "smart growth," but within these movements, factions are as apt to be led by marketers, preachers and sycophants as they are by earnest researchers and farsighted practitioners. Part of an architecture critic's job is to figure out if the message is truly captured by a building's design.

Portland, Oregon, where I live and work, is considered to be the nation's most advanced practitioner of both smart growth and green design. That can be a slippery brand identity and one that an increasing number of cities clamor to claim. But Portland has a 30-year legacy of far-reaching political decisions and regulatory frameworks to back up its reputation. In the early 1970's, Oregon's legislature required every metropolitan area in the state to circle itself with an "urban growth boundary" to preserve farmland and forests. And well before most other American cities, Portland revitalized its downtown, weaning a few folks from their cars with a light rail system and one of the nation's first new streetcar lines in over 50 years. A regional authority set up to oversee garbage collection morphed into the nation's first elected regional government, Metro, and it now has extraordinary powers to oversee growth management for Portland and its suburbs.

The state also offers a smorgasbord of tax credits for the use of innovative energy systems. All development that uses any public dollars must be certified under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program, a kind of U.L. rating for energy and environmental consciousness.

If I sound like a cheerleader for the way Oregon does things, it's probably a little out of guilt. In covering (and critiquing) the city's built environment, I've written only one article specifically devoted to the city's environmental-design trailblazing. Generally, I will mention only major accomplishments, such as Portland's building of the nation's first "gold" LEED Green Building Rating System-certified historic renovation, the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center. Even as I write about things I believe in, I feel like I'm singing with a chorus that I can't quite get in tune with. Partly that is due to the "loner" instinct many journalists have, but mostly it is because a critic's news peg needs to reach beyond the newest innovation and the latest fad.

Judging What Is Called Green

A LexisNexis search of architectural critics throughout the country indicates a similar, if not deeper, ambivalence about writing on these green issues. Cross-reference these critics' names with the word "green" and what comes up are more references to parks, carpets or furniture upholstery than to environmentally conscious design. Reaching some of these critics by email, I received copies of articles they had written on environmentally and/ or energy-conscious buildings. …

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