Five years ago I complained about Herzog and de Meuron's design for 56 Leonard St. in the Tribeca district of New York City, particularly how hard it was going to be to clean the windows. I thought that it signified the end of the condo boom in Condo Design Jumps the Shark. Sure enough, the crash came and the project went away.
Now it is back, and so are my concerns. Only this time is is much more than just the window washing.
Ever since David Owen wrote the Green Metropolis, followed closely by Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City, It has become acceptable to say that everything tall and dense is green. It's got to the point that Jeanne Gang can justify building her aqua tower with floor to ceiling glass and radiator-fin balconies by saying:
The most important thing we can do for the environment is live in compact cities with mass transit,” argues Gang, “that reduce the reliance on the car and other resources.
She's right. But that doesn't give architects carte blanche to ignore energy. But that doesn't mean that architects should design those dense buildings as if they were trying to maximize the surface area and heat loss. Not only do the units at 56 Leonard all have floor to ceiling glass, but there are so many pushes in and out that there are top and bottom surfaces for almost every unit as well. It is almost an intellectual exercise in how much extra surface area can you design into a building.
In their defense, most of the balconies are not radiator fins, they are the tops of units, so they will have to be insulated. That makes them less of a heat loss problem and more of a maintenance one.
It isn't just vertical extravagance, a typical unit grabbed at random has six glass corners to increase surface area and heat loss.
Urban density is a wonderful thing, but it is not a Get Out Of Jail Free card, you still have to design like you give a damn, to borrow a phrase, about the problems we face, even if the purchasers of these units are rich enough to throw money out the windows.
We can't, as a society, afford to build like this any more.