Thursday, May 24, 2007

Green vs Modernism

What is green? Or more specifically, what makes a “green” building green? The definition is still pretty squishy.

Take for example the new Bank of America building going up on Bryant Park near the New York Public Library. According to BusinessWeek, the new BoA building, designed by Cook+Fox, will be, quote, “the most energy efficient, water-saving, healthful office tower ever built.”

This is flatly absurd. In fact, it’s observably absurd.

The BoA will be an enormous skyscraper taller than every other building in Manhattan except for the Empire State. Below is an architectural rendering of the building. Note that it is a pointy translucent slab encased in a glass curtain wall. It is, in the sacred language of the day, “crystalline.”

If effect, BoA will be a perpendicular greenhouse. The offices on the southern side of the building will not only enjoy direct sunlight all year long but will also require enough refrigeration to make them habitable by anyone other than sun scorched Saudi bedouins.

How could a building that will need to be air conditioned 10 months out of the year ever be considered energy efficient? Well, it will have a gas-fired generator in the basement to create its own electricity for cooling during the day and at night when rates are lower the building will use the public grid make ice that will assist the air conditioning system the next day. But again, how is this efficient? How is this “green?”

Just by looking at the BoA building you know it will not be energy efficient. Here is what an energy efficient skyscraper looks like:

Note the thick masonry walls, the open windows to allow air to circulate, the awnings to block out the direct rays of the sun. When Chicago’s Home Insurance Building was constructed in 1885 it was considered revolutionary. Not because it was “green”, but because it was “modern.” It was the first to use a steel frame and that allowed engineers to build tall for the first time.

Back then, architects didn’t have a word to describe a “green” building for the same reason fish have no word to describe “wet.” In 1885, engineers did not have the technology to building anything but energy efficient green buildings. And they didn’t care about energy efficiency. What they cared about was using new materials and new machines to construct totally artificial environments . . . “modern” environments that were no longer subject to the whim of nature, that triumphed over nature, that signaled an entirely new era in human development.

That’s what modernism is. 100% artificial and proud of it!

The animating spirit of modernism can only be appreciated if you live in a world where there is no alternative to the natural forces that had dominated humanity since the beginning of time.

Today, the opposite is true. Few of us even remember a time when we couldn’t totally shut out the natural environment. How many of us go without furnaces to counter the cold of winter, air conditioners to counter the heat of summer, automobiles to overcome distance, incandescent lights to illuminate the darkness, televisions, radios, and other electronic devices to stimulate our minds?

The idea that we wouldn’t use the energy-consuming modern conveniences we’re so accustomed to is so radical that we’ve had to come up with term to describe the concept. Yet the concept is as old as humanity.

Look at the Home Insurance building again.

The windows are open. The people inside the offices are wearing suits made of lightweight cotton. They have paperweights to keep the wind from blowing everything off their desks. They have a boiler in the basement making steam to heat the place in winter and at the top floors it’s still so cold they wear gloves. They might even light their work space with open flames from gas lights. There are no cars, just animals to pull heavy loads.

That’s energy efficient!

And that’s nit so bad. I grew up in New York City without air conditioning. In summer I would fall asleep to the sound of a pianist practicing in some distant garret. My father worked at the headquarters of a huge multinational corporation that had no air conditioning. He wore a suit and tie every day while he worked. In fact, I once worked in a building on Wall Street that had no air conditioning and it wasn’t bad at all. It was an old building with thick walls, big windows and cool marble floors. You could smell the sea and hear fog horns through the open windows. Today, if you work downtown in a sealed glass box you’re no longer even aware that you’re about 100 yards from the ocean.

But I digress.

My point is this: two architectural movements, modernism and green building, are wholly incompatible. You cannot have a glass curtain wall and energy efficiency at the same time.

Moreover, while one movement (modernism) emphasizes technology’s mastery over the natural world and the other is all about using technology to accommodate the natural world which is absurd because nature needs no intermediaries.

My hope is that both movements collide cataclysmically and that what emerges from the rubble is a more tradition style that takes nature and humanity into account. A good place to look for inspiration would be right across Bryant Park. The New York Public Library is a masterpiece of humane and “green” architecture.

The Carrère and Hastings building is always cool in the summer despite the heat because its walls are thick, its windows open wide, and its mass is punctured by courtyards that allow air to circulate as well as provide the sort of enclosed outdoor spaces that humans are drawn to instinctively. My guess is that Rem Koolhas will not look to this historic precedent when thinking about his next library commission. And that’s a shame.

“Green” building as we know it today is doomed not because its intent is wrong, it’s doomed because it is a desperate attempt to make 20th Century modernism relevant again. Once ideological modernism is discarded, then we’ll see truly green buildings . . . again.

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