Why Is So Much Green Architecture So Ugly?


Child Development Centre, Calgary, Kasian Architects. Ugly?

There is an interesting debate going on in the journals about the quality of green buildings. Kriston Capps writes in American Prospect:

The field of architecture is experiencing a design crisis, with clients ranging from private owners to cities demanding that architects prioritize sustainability above all else — as if design itself were an obnoxious carbon-emitter.

Olympic Village, Vancouver

He makes some good points, noting that the buildings in the new Olympic Village in Vancouver...

...have a default "green" look to them: blocky, all glass, covered in matted foliage. It looks as though the developers simply forgot to design the place.

Indeed, for many years the starchitects who were getting all the press in the design magazines, the Franks and Zahas and Rems, were not particularly interested in the mundane and mechanical fixings of green buildings. One also sees a lot more of lousy green buildings as it still doesn't take much more than a LEED badge to get in the press or on the blogs.

But this is changing rapidly, and there are some very good green architects building interesting stuff these days. Over at the New Republic, Bradford Plumer responded to Capps' article:


California Academy of Sciences. See Jaymi's spectacular slide show

But with all due respect, Capps must not look at many of today's highest-profile buildings. Otherwise, he'd have noted Renzo Piano's sublime California Academy of Sciences, one of last year's most widely praised buildings and the winner of a platinum rating from the Leadership in Energy and Design (LEED) standard system—the highest rating from the world's leading eco-rating program. Piano is also, by the way, among the starriest of the starchitects. The Cal Academy is proof positive that an established career and good design are no impediments to sustainable design.

But more to the point, Capps fails to show—outside of a few sniping quotes from Stefan Behnisch—that green design is locked in an "awkward stage." I've toured a lot of new, LEED-certified buildings in recent months—just yesterday I was at David Adjaye's Gold-certified Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver—and I've yet to see a tradeoff between good design and green design.

Obviously, we can debate the aesthetic merits of Piano's Academy or Adjaye's museum. But these are inarguably architects of the highest caliber and celebrity, working on the cutting edge of both design and sustainability. Yes, there are some bad buildings out there. And yes, some of them are built to the highest sustainable standards. But there's no causal link between the two.



Sculpture Building and Gallery, Yale University, Kieran Timberlake

I am not sure that I completely agree with Plumer either- There is a causal link between the two. Making a green building great is a lot harder, when you have to worry about so many additional issues. Your material choices are limited, they are often more expensive and the technologies are new. Green architecture is at an awkward stage, as architects learn how to play with this new palette. There is a reason architects are usually old when they get famous- it takes years to build a building and it takes many buildings until you really know what you are doing.

But architects are getting practice with it now. No matter what class of building you look at, from housing to hotels to opera houses, there is a ratio of quality to crap. Green architecture is not yet at the same ratio as the rest, but it is getting close.

Lousy Green buildings:
The Dumbest Green Buildings in TreeHugger
9 "Green" Monsters: Can a 15,000 SF Mcmansion be Green?

Tags: Architects | Green Building