Tracking Sustainability in Architecture

A chat with William McDonough, Ray Kappe, Glen Small, and others on the history of sustainable architecture.
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Buckminster Fuller's Montreal Biosphère. Photo via Flickr/Muninn

Few architects today design without sustainability in mind. Yet for several decades in the last century, this wasn’t always the case. To tell the story of sustainable architecture today we venture first to the architecture of the postmodern era.

Most successful architects of the postmodern period (which began in earnest in the 1970s) tended to play the compliance game, jumping through the necessary hoops mandated by city plan checkers and coastal commissions under pressure to employ environmentally friendly materials to reduce waste and conserve natural resources.

“These architects weren’t bored, but intimidated by environmental and social problems. They were seduced by the idea of creating an awe or aura about themselves,” says Steven Nielsen, a Bay Area healthcare architect. Nielsen attended the prestigious Southern California School of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles in the mid-Seventies when mainstream academia began abandoning modern tenets in favor of freedom of expression architecture.

“Besides cars, there’s nothing more energy sucking than buildings, and as people who were designing fundamentally ecologically unfriendly things which threaten our sustainability, we should have been leaders of a green movement,” says Nielsen. “Instead, we were pseudo intellectuals trying to please one another, creating our own design problems to solve and doing work which had nothing to do with a social concept or worldly citizenship.”

This focus on historic pastiche prompted Nielsen to ditch his studies at avant-garde SCI-Arc, where deconstructionist Frank Gehry lectured and Glen Howard Small titillated students with innovative hands-on studios. The once-promising think tank of big ideas seemed to be changing its stripes along with other respected institutions.

“When I was at Yale in 1975, Richard Meier was one of my teachers and he looked at one of my drawings and said, ‘young man, solar energy has nothing to do with architecture,’” laughs William McDonough, who went on to become Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia and founder of William McDonough+ Partners. McDonough is considered a giant in sustainable design and authored the "Cradle to Cradle" approach to global developments.

“I think Meier took the sole practitioner view and didn’t understand how pursuing solar energy as a power source affected a building,” says McDonough. “Meier was building structures with giant collapsed walls and lighting facing west and I couldn’t live with that. The issue had to do with our culture becoming so timelessly mindless and it was time to become timelessly mindful.”

Energetic but devoid of widely adopted energy strategies, the education milieu of the ‘70s turned away from ideas like Buckminster Fuller’s Montreal Biosphere, which wowed audiences at the Expo ’67. Based on the climate-proofed geodesic domes of German engineer Walther Bauersfeld, the imaginative approach addressed rising problems in housing and urban planning surfacing in the mid Sixties.

“Modern architects of the early and mid-twentieth century were politically idealistic and their architecture expressed their faith that modernization and progress would bring a better world,” wrote the Preservation Institute's Charles Siegel. “Today, this technological optimism has faded, so our avant-gardist architects strain to create novel high-tech forms but have no social ideal to give these forms meaning.”

Critics of the postmodern direction felt the modern movement should never have been aborted because the modern thought process would have embraced and addressed ecological problems head on. Instead, the word style came into being, a temporary pleasing of the eye as opposed to a permanent solution to real problems.

The new style makers informed us of the value of a “decorated shed” in Learning from Las Vegas, a book written in 1972 by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour analyzing the buildings of the Vegas strip. Translated into 18 languages, the book had a huge impact on the emergence of postmodernism.

Learning from Las Vegas Revised Edition Robert Venturi
Learning from Las Vegas - Revised Edition by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown

“Most of the intellectuals of the time—Eisenman, Pelli, and Tigerman—gave very short shrift to the entire ecological movement, yet these were the people giving the lectures and setting the tones for design,” Nielsen remembers.

That’s not to say that ecological pursuits were inaccessible, according to internationally recognized modern architect and urban planner, Ray Kappe, who co-founded SCI-Arc in 1972 in Santa Monica along with a group of other faculty and students from the Department of Architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Serving as the school’s first director until 1987, Kappe envisioned a more experimental perspective, conceiving “a college without walls.”

While Kappe taught alongside creative colleagues vying for fortune and fame without any visible green considerations on their agendas, he says his own work remained site sensitive, oriented to the sun and the wind to maximize energy efficiency and strike a harmonious balance with nature.

“Some of my colleagues had been concerned with environmental response since the ‘50s, using overhangs and trellises for shading and working with climate and what was happening,” he says. “The California Prescriptive Standard dealing with glass-to-floor ratios was introduced, and at that point, everybody in town was looking at how to do energy responsible buildings and re-evaluating their earlier work.  When the government no longer subsidized any of that, or gave rebates to clients, the clients weren’t interested.”

If solar panels, replacement windows, and shading devices are sometimes dismissed as too costly by homeowners today, the price tags seemed all the more frivolous and exorbitant to misguided clients and real estate developers in 1975, when Kappe and his ilk were losing the battle.

After all, while architecture was understood to be a service industry, architects needed commissions to eke out a living, and postmodernists found their audience among elite patrons.

“The problem with people consumed with style is they are looking to make a mark in the present.” McDonough says. “Openness and humility are not characteristics of certain design practitioners looking for their claim to fame.”

For the Modernists who were closer to the Depression, the Bauhaus School and Freud’s revolutionary theories on the thinking of self, progress was defined as simple and functional dwellings with iconic flat roofs and mathematical solutions to construction challenges, spaces described by Le Corbusier as “machines for living”. Postmodernists were closer to pop art, the Reagan Eighties, and disco fever. Their living machines segued into reflections of one’s appreciation for “artistic” ingenuity along with personal status—which inevitably gave way to the three-garage McMansion.

“These buildings weren’t about anything,” says Nielsen. “The first truly glass house was designed by Mies van der Rohe as an exploration of what you could do with new materials we had out there like expansive glass panels and steel. But Philip Johnson made the glass house famous years later, stealing the concept. It was a non-intellectual intellect. The best thing about Johnson was his advocacy for other architects but he did nothing to contribute to the evolution of the true design process and nothing for ecology. If anything, he detracted from it.”

As an example of this, Siegel points to Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall of 2003 as typical of avant-gardist architecture trying hard to draw attention it itself without expressing any social ideal. “Avant-gardists sometimes play at being radical by claiming that their architecture ‘subverts’ conventional 'paradigms,' but they are just professors talking to other professors,” he argues. “They are not part of a larger movement to reform society, as mid-century architects were part of the larger progressive movement of their time.”

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Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. Photo by: Flickr/MadKnits
 

What these works ignored and in fact detracted from, according to Nielsen, were signs that the earth was being stretched.

Among those remaining genuinely concerned was Glen Howard Small. Another co-founder of SCI-Arc who was very popular with some students, he was ousted in the mid-Eighties when the school shifted gears under the new guard of Thomas Mayne and Michael Rotondi, founders of the firm Morphosis.

The removal of professors like Small and the reduction of the impact of thinkers like Kappe was a synecdoche for what was happening in architecture throughout the western world.

Small, often likened to the unyielding Howard Roark of The Fountainhead, refused to bend to what he dismissed as “fashion design architecture,” and was branded a misfit. Small’s intricate Biomorphic Biosphere and Green Machine communities were never realized, yet his concepts for air purification, collecting water, and planting rooftop gardens would surface in systems derived by current luminaries like McDonough, Wes Jones, and Bjarke Ingels of BIG, to name a few.

Small was hailed as the young talent to watch in 1965 at age 28 when he was awarded a national scholarship to study architecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.  He was told to do as he pleased and embarked on radical infrastructures influenced by what Fuller had proposed in the Sixties.

“I read Toffler’s predictions of what was coming, a population explosion, and realized the earth couldn’t take the impact and the statistics triggered my concerns about food and the environment,” he recalls.

His own tormented journey, as depicted in the documentary, My Father the Genius, serves as the most compelling evidence that greed superseded social responsibility in the teaching and application of architecture—until the past decade when the tables turned and LEED Certification and green innovation emerged as the calling cards of the newly informed, earning the respect of the industry and boosting status. Al Gore, James Lovelock, Gaylord Nelson, David Brower, and other green campaigners have helped change the blueprint of the carbon footprint, turning back the clock.

“Society only reacts when things get obvious and profitable and I’m scared we have gone too far,” Small confides from his home in Oregon, where he blogs about the industry and admittedly barely gets by on social security, having refused to play the game he argues must be played for architects to succeed financially.  

Small agrees with former colleague Kappe that the government needs to step in and subsidize alternative energy because for clients, the dollar will always remain the bottom line. But he also agrees with Nielsen that it is imperative for architects to be at the forefront of change, to educate clients and make them aware of the need to do the right thing with or without government rebates. (In fact, he is suspicious about setting standards that are used as marketing tools, such as LEED Certification.)

It seems to boil down to how invention will be used by future architects to solve problems. What will ensure designers bearing dichotomous sensibilities of the artist and pragmatic engineer will stay on course as the creative problem solvers the next century desperately needs?

Should we reclaim the impulses of earlier visionaries who separated art from architecture? Such was witnessed in the engineering feat of The Falling Water masterpiece of Frank Lloyd Wright, where previously untapped technologies were utilized to create cantilevers as a unique way to solve a problem; or Jorn Utzon’s groundbreaking use of precast thin concrete panels resembling shells as an integrated structural element in his inspiring Sydney Opera House to respect and celebrate the essence of a unique locality.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” House in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Photo by: Flickr/irasphotos

Small says that if he was able to return to SCI-Arc as an instructor today, he would stress the moral responsibility to use architecture in a positive way for improving the world, the natural evolution of dealing with nurturing, inspiring spaces focusing on sustainability and ecological issues.

As for McDonough, he believes our green standards cannot be the lowest common denominator but rather an industry-wide striving for excellence. “It’s not about certifying what you did yesterday but a celebration of your good intentions for tomorrow,” he says.

As we sit here in 2013, smart-growth urban architects are revisiting their roles as stewards of the planet able to guide clients and reframe values and principles while addressing suburban sprawl, global warming, energy conservation, and the sensible path to sustainability.

“I don’t use the word sustainable but I talk about sustainable growth, about Cradle to Cradle and its rich agenda of biological materials, about turning solar energy into things that grow and are green rather than asphalt, all that is fecund and delightful,” explains McDonough. “Ultimately, it’s about materials used again and again with energy from the sun, an endless resourcefulness for our children and what connects all of us together in good will. Design is the first signal of human intention.”

Stay tuned for our follow-up piece Wednesday exploring progressive stories of sustainable architecture.

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