How Green Buildings Should Look: Ken Yeang

A green building by Ken Yeang with naturally vented stairways.

Jonathan Lin / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Green architect Ken Yeang may be to skyscrapers what Buckminster Fuller was to houses. The Malaysian architect's visionary approach to green building bucks the mainstream, embracing the tall building as an urban fact, a problem to be solved afresh with each new design. He seeks what he calls ecomimesis in buildings, a way to copy and paste nature into our high-rise designs. But just as importantly, he tells Wallpaper*, the building must look damn good too -- and definitely different.

Are Green Buildings Ugly?

A sustainable building part of Nasa Marshal Space Light Centre.

Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The discussion about the look of green buildings has been getting louder recently, Lloyd notes. A piece in the American Prospect wonders if architects are building green "as if design itself were an obnoxious carbon-emitter." Quite the opposite -- or at least it should be. Lloyd quotes Brad Plumer at the New Republic, who makes an impassioned case that green doesn't necessarily equal ugly: "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.

Putting aside the conflation of "bad" with "ugly," I have to agree with Lloyd that there often is a causal link between a building's look and its sustainable credentials, if for no other reason than green architecture demands a certain set of materials, economy and form. Now, this form-function relationship need not mean ugly, but let's face it: sometimes it really does.

It's worth remembering that a lot of architecture in general is ugly. And for that matter, a lot of green architecture isn't always very green. Sometimes, a very green building on paper can be undone by how ugly -- or let's say, how aesthetically uncomfortable, it is.

A Discussion With Ken Yeang

Architect Ken Yeang on stage talking about his work in front of a screen,

Harijith Sathyajith / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When I spoke to Yeang a couple of years ago I raised the question of aesthetics in green building, jumping off of something Li Hu, the Beijing architect in charge of Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid building, had told me:

Good architecture is green architecture, but green architecture isn't necessarily good architecture.

In other words, a good building should be sustainable already; environmental concerns should be baked in. Responded Yeang:

The reason why solar architecture in the 1970’s failed was because they looked like built plumbing and are ugly. If we want ecostructures to be acceptable to the public they have to be aesthetically beautiful.

Back to Yeang, who wrote the book on ecological design, in Wallpaper*:

Finally, what role do the aesthetics play in the whole process?
Our aesthetic is the green aesthetic. What should a green building look like? I don’t think it should look like a modernist building; it should be something new. I don’t think it should be pristine; it should be a bit fuzzy. The green aesthetic is something we are constantly exploring.

While it's not exactly clear here, I think by "a bit fuzzy" Yeang raises two equally salient aesthetic points. First of all, when I think "fuzzy" I think of a hillside, a tree or a rock, overflowing like a natural form, asymmetric and distinctly not man-made. An ecomimetic building will follow nature in appearance as it does in function because in nature, well, there's little difference. And a building that acknowledges nature in form might help sharpen awareness about the role that architecture plays in our often un-green urban spaces. One of our favorite examples is the California Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco.

But along those lines, "fuzzy" can suggest something else too: a messiness and ambiguity in form that needn't be natural-looking, but surprising, provocative and fun. Consider Steven Holl's work for instance, like his Sliced Porocity Block in Chengdu.

Here's a bit more from my conversation with Yeang:

What's the trouble with architecture now?
The trouble with buildings today is that they are not ecologically designed. 80% of all the environmental impacts of buildings are designed into the buildings before they have been built.
Can you describe your ideal green building?
The ideal green building is one which is ecomimetic and which integrates seamlessly and benignly with the natural environment at 3 levels: physically, systemically and temporally.
Which recent green designs -- both the completed and the planned -— make you most optimistic? And does anything disappoint you?
All and any ecodesign projects make me feel optimistic because it means that more and more designers whether they are doing it right or not are not ignoring the need to design with nature.
What disappoints is the arrogance of those who feel that they have all the final solutions to ecodesign. None of us have yet, and it will be sometime before any of us designs the truly ecomimetic built system.
Do you think "green" and "eco" design are terms that get thrown around too much?
A lot of ecodesign is essentially pretentious green wash.

Ken Yeang is the principal of UK practice Llewellyn Davies Yeang and its sister company in Malaysia, Hamzah & Yeang.