My post earlier this week for Digging in the Driftless about has started me thinking about my impetus to devote myself to green design. I returned from my time abroad on fire with ideas about how Americans could reshape our residential architecture to be more like the places I had visited. I wasn’t interested in making houses in the Midwest look like a cottage in Cornwall or a bungalow in the Philippines; I wanted to emulate those buildings in the way they suited the lifestyles of their occupants. I wanted to make the houses I designed behave the way those homes had. I enrolled in a master’s program at a school known for its growing focus on sustainability. When I got there I found a small cadre of other students who had chosen it for the same reason but, much to my surprise, a large number of our cohort had no interest in sustainable design. To misquote Elizabeth Bennett, their feelings were so different that in fact they were quite the opposite.
The field of green architecture is changing very rapidly at the moment. In fact, its funny how rarely the words green and architecture are used in conjunction by anyone who is focused on that second word. Architects are accepting the idea of sustainability only grudgingly and seem to feel that they are being forced to tack on compromises to their designs which may “be good for the planet” but will hinder the overall aesthetic. This is an attitude shared by the majority of my fellow design students and, I suspect, by the majority of our peers currently practicing. At the same time interest in and demand for sustainable design has blossomed in the public perception, spawning articles, documentaries, magazines and websites. This popular movement really only further entrenches a large number of designers in their resistance to sustainability. Most ironically, the enthusiastic cadre of young professors who worked so hard to integrate green ideas into every facet of my MArch program often only made my classmates want to put their fingers in their ears and yell “la la la.” Humans are a highly illogical species.
Oddly just as I was thinking all this I came across this book at the library. Ten Shades of Green: Architecture and the Natural World, by Peter Buchanan deals with a lot of the issues I was just internally pondering/grousing about. I’ve barely worked my way past the introduction (its slow going when you have to transcribe every other paragraph into your design notebook) so today I’ll quote mainly from the excellent preface by Rosalie Genevro. Expect to see more of this in the near future.
Genevro cites authors Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus who shook up the American environmental movement in 2004 with their article “the Death of Environmentalism.” Their indictment of mainstream environmentalists (that this isn’t an oxymoron has got to mean something good) was that they had been distracted by technological inanities nitpicky legal issues (LEED anyone?) and “forsaken two critical tasks: fully and persuasively imagining a better world, and reaching across the boundaries of specific interests to build coalitions. Both, the authors argued, are necessary if a broad-based, powerful, energized movement sis to be built that can move society to effective action on global warming, looming water shortages, other resource depletion, and species extinction.”
“American Architecture” she continues, “ is in a parallel situation. American environmentalism in architecture, to date, has been largely focused on technical fixes, on figuring out how to build essentially the same buildings that have always been built, but to make them consume less energy. The profession is on its way to mastering the technical skills needed to improve the how of building, certainly an important step forward; but it has not yet taken on, nor asked its clients to take on, the bigger questions of what is to be built, and why. We won’t get where we need to go, in environmental terms, if we focus on narrowly technical questions and never confront, in a profound way, the cultural attitudes and appetites that have brought us to where we are. Technical mastery is necessary, but not sufficient. “Sustainability,” as Wilfried Wang has written, “is a cultural problem.” (5)
In his introductory essay, “Green Culture and the Evolution of Architecture,” Buchanan agrees with me [yes I’m aware that this is a self-serving and inverted way of putting it] that “…many architects seem unaware of, or reluctant to acknowledge, how much, and how unnecessarily, buildings contribute to the environmental crisis.” (12) Buchanan criticizes American architects as willfully ignorant of the environmental consequences of their designs and stubbornly obtuse in failing to recognize the advances being made by European designers in creating less energy intensive buildings. A great deal of our problem can be attributed to the basic building method of “deep plan, air-conditioned buildings, hermetically sealed with tinted glass skins” which he laments as having become “almost the contemporary American vernacular.” (12-13)
He continues to support my arguments, saying that green architecture is “stigmatized as untrendy, regressive and even reactionary. (Some academics have gone so far to refer to eco-fascism). A stereotyped notion of green buildings conjures up images of muesli-eating inhabitants with bears and sandals, and rudimentary forms of back to nature lifestyles – a caricature of the counterculture that pioneered much green experiment – as well as of crude and ugly buildings with which no urbane sophisticate or academic would wish to be associated. “(13) I take offense at this view in my fellow architects – even though I work in a green design firm so fringe-y that our corporate bathroom is an outhouse across the pond from our design studio!
Anyway – I’m clearly not done with Peter Buchanan. Stay tuned for further updates on the eco-facsists.