The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

But Should Green go Unseen?

Witold Rybczynski, the insightful architect/writer/professor, has another of his slide shows up at Slate, this one called Green Unseen, and subtitled "Environmentally friendly buildings don't need to look like cheese wedges." Well thank goodness for that, I suppose.

There isn't much meat here, which surprised me at first. But I'm pretty sure what we're seeing is yet another manifestation of the Dirty Fucking Hippie syndrome. When Rybczynski was young and idealistic in the early 70s, he designed and built some overly-earnest eco-sensitive buildings that he's now ashamed of. He hasn't abandoned these ideals - he repeatedly lauds them - but he is embarrassed by their obviousness. And certainly, much of the first generation of eco-architecture was flawed, in a variety of ways (Same thing can be said for Modernism, incidentally).

But his conclusion - his takeaway from his own experience - is that buildings shouldn't give any evidence of greenness. Robert AM Stern's yet-again Georgian dorm is praised for energy efficiency without detracting from its up-to-the-minute 18th Century style, and Witold's glad that the banal 7 WTC tower (think "glass box," and you've pretty much got it) betrays no hint of its Gold LEED rating.

I have some sympathy for this viewpoint - I would rather every building be LEED rated and look traditional than only wacky buildings be green, and almost no one builds them. BUT. A lot of green things aren't particularly easily done in traditional forms. If you start a project with a commitment to an aesthetic, and then shoehorn green into it, that's where you get extra costs for going green, because it's not actually organic to the design.

I'm a strong believer that buildings should express their intent. This can be interpreted broadly, but what it really comes down to is that I'm pretty disdainful of generic architecture, whether "green unseen" or neotraditionalist when it needn't be. Maybe only the best architects (Wright, Foster) are really effective at really expressing their function through their form, and so maybe we're better off if the rest of us stick with tried-and-true. But I can't help but think that we're actually better off with all of us designers and builders trying to do more, not less. It's what got us out of the caves, after all.

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