PRINT February 2004


green design

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.

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. To put it simply: We have a serious problem, and the necessary tools and theoretical frameworks appropriate to their use are finally becoming available.

This turn toward green could entail a turn away from the commercially celebrated art-meets-architecture love-in of the ’90s, and not only because we’ve built all the venues for contemporary art we’re likely to need for the next fifty years. During the early part of the twentieth century, avant-garde art and architecture found common cause in the socialist movements (and the reaction to them) that defined the politics of the era. Although modernist architecture, especially in the United States, was rapidly purged of socialist overtones, a powerful alliance was established between modern art and modern architecture. They have often since found themselves bound by common aesthetic and political objectives. The relationship has morphed to a point where now (ironically, given the origins of the marriage) big, expensive, sculpturally daring buildings like Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall function as little more than propaganda in service to the promotion of mainstream contemporary arts culture and its decidedly consumerist values.

Green architects, on the other hand, tend to be motivated by operative and humanistic rather than formal concerns. The building typologies that interest them have been neglected lately: dense housing, office parks, brownfield reclamation developments—the run-of-the-mill buildings that make up most of the construction happening across the globe. They’re more interested in keeping you comfortable without turning on the AC than in creating a tourist attraction. This raises the question: How important or necessary is aesthetics to green architecture? One of the charms of modernism was that it could claim to be astylistic while remaining easily recognizable. The close association of many modernist architects with their contemporaries in the visual arts probably explains why what started out as an anti-aesthetic developed into such a remarkable, plastic architecture.

A similar link between the visual arts and green design has yet to develop. In fact, there’s a pronounced antagonism between green design and a perceived “arty” architecture that obsesses over the familiar tropes of the neo-avant-garde. Perhaps this adversarial face-off has its origins in the engineering background of many green designers; perhaps it springs from the constraints green design imposes that preclude unfettered formal experimentation. Whatever the cause, it’s unfortunate. Bruce Sterling, one of the original cyperpunk novelists and founder of the Viridian wing of the green movement, would argue fairly convincingly that since rhetoric determines reality in our society, the issue isn’t just making green cheap or even terribly functional, it’s making it cool. If he’s right, proponents of green design had better start thinking about how to bring art into the mix. Otherwise, green design risks being drowned out by the sound and fury of the consumer culture it aims to challenge.

Kevin Pratt is a London-based architect and critic.