Thursday, July 17, 2008


Just when we thought we were safe…just when we thought we had bright green and beautiful futures, it turns out that sustainable, or green, or eco-friendly, or whatever it is you want to call the branch of design that wants to do less harm to the environment (which, on a side note, should not be merely a branch but THE WHOLE STINKING KIT AND KABOODLE, but I digress)…just when you thought there might an alternative to all the doom and gloom dystopian futures out there, it turns out that sustainable design has been pulling the old “cloak and dagger” trick on us the whole time. Well, maybe not the whole time and maybe the primary practitioners are not even aware of what they are doing, but they are doing it.
THE CLOAK: Sustainable design = good design.
That’s it. No questions asked. If it’s environmentally friendly, it’s allllll goooood.
Not all sustainable design is good design. This is something I think is generally known among most architects, but not all, and certainly not the public at large. But two recent articles have highlighted only a couple of the myriad critiques against the sustainable mythology: First, that just because it is hurts less, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt at all, and the label “eco-friendly” may mask some irreparable harm caused to ecologically sensitive areas. Case in point: Norman Foster’s proposed eco-resort in Bulgaria. The second critique is potentially more damaging to the sustainable design movement and our architectural pride: that many “sustainable” projects are just down right UGLY.
First, let’s deal with Foster. The proposal by Foster et co. uncovers a whole host of problems about sustainable development. The Guardian's description of the project makes it sound quite pleasant and benign:

Having been considered ripe for development since the collapse of communism 19
years ago, the area is set to be turned into a luxury €1bn (£780m) settlement.
Dubbed the Black Sea Gardens, it will include five new hill towns, artificial
lakes, a marina and an extensive leisure area and will be self-sustaining,
thanks to biomass power and construction from local, natural resources, say the
And from Foster’s website, this quote should make us all feel warm and cozy: "a series of car-free hill towns in an unspoilt setting of oak forests, meadows and river gorges."
Unspoilt…humph…For now, maybe. Beneath that cloak of sustainable niceness lies a cruel dagger for those people who currently enjoy the area’s environmental exceptionality:

On Karadere beach, in north-east Bulgaria, a smattering of families have set up
camp for the summer, as they have done for years. But this year the
happy-go-lucky mood has been punctured by fears that the small corner of
paradise is under imminent threat by Bulgaria's first carbon-neutral resort…They
say it will destroy the Black Sea coast's last remaining virgin stretches of
beach and will have a devastating effect on the rich biodiversity of an area
which has environmental protection status under the EU's Natura 2000 programme,
which aims to protect endangered species and habitats.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Now that doesn’t sound too sustainable, now does it? Should sustainable design be a veil that covers our eyes to the destruction of virgin habitats? No matter how incredibly ‘green’ this project is it will cause ecological damage for sure. My feeling is that developers and politicians are jumping on the sustainable bandwagon to pony projects through a tricky political and planning process for proposals that would otherwise not get the go-ahead.
Georgi Stanishev, the director of Projects Ltd. Stanishev has stated “‘What we as the Bulgarian team of architects and Foster and Partners are doing is absolutely adequate to the legislation and the laws of this country,’ he said, adding that the construction would be sympathetic to its surroundings.” Begging the question: Just because it’s legal, does that make it right? And shouldn’t we, as sustainable architects, urbanists, and developers, take a higher moral and ethical stance than just following what is legal? Sir Norm—take a stance man, I implore you!! It’s not like you need this project—your coffers are already quite deep, I am sure.

Now, on to the ugliness critique. An article in CSM has made public a dirty little secret about sustainable design that some of us have known for quite some time: despite their ecological necessity sustainable buildings are typically not very easy on the eyes.
The article raises the question
“How can architecture most effectively offer us the beauty we crave in our
everyday lives – while being protective of the environment? Global warming is
catalyzed by greenhouse gases, nearly half of which are generated by creating
and maintaining architecture. Given that reality, it might seem downright
superficial to care about whether our buildings can be beautiful.”
But James Wine, directore of SITE and one of my most favorite artist/architects cuts to the heart of the matter when he said ““[W]ith-out art, the whole idea of sustainability fails. People will never want to keep an aesthetically inferior building around, no matter how well stocked it is with cutting-edge thermal glass, photovoltaic cells, and zero-emissions carpeting.”
How true—see, we can’t forsake and aesthetics and cultural relevance just because a building doesn’t pollute as much. Balancing these issues maybe difficult, but it’s something that architects have dealt with from day one. Vitruvius’ firmness, commodity, and delight is so fundamental to architecture and sustainable design is something that fits into all three categories and must be addressed as such. The article states that “A beautiful green building requires a team effort to juggle the potentially conflicting values of utility, beauty, cost, durability, and sustainability.” Hey, that’s just architecture baby!!

The article lists some common aesthetic critiques of green buildings, and I must say that to me they all sound kind of interesting. So, maybe the era of sustainability will need some aesthetic judgment adjustment on our parts, much like the transformation of architecture during the modern period demanded. Here is a list of their critiques:

• Industrial shipping containers starkly stacked in a Mondrian-like maze with
minimal ornamentation.
• Building exteriors highlighting extreme, rough-hewn
surfaces that suggest neoprimitive cave or mud dwellings, or high-tech buildings
with sci-fi-scaled jutting rooftop solar collectors.
• Structures imitating
animal or geological forms that are aesthetically at odds with conventionally
designed architecture in the area.
Well, to me that all sounds pretty cool. But maybe not to you. Anyways, we’ll have to work on that. To close, let me close with the article’s closing (cuz I’m lazy like that):
What these examples share is a repurposing of ancient symbolic forms – quilt, straw roof, ark – blurring stylistic distinctions between folk and professional design, between low and high technology. To paraphrase the English poet John Keats, if architectural truth is beautiful, these alluring creations are the true soul and substance of artful sustainable architecture.

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