Can Green Design Be Good Design?

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THE PLANK MARCH 10, 2009

Can Green Design Be Good Design?

Does green design mean bad design? Kriston Capps, at The American Prospect, thinks so:

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. This is partly because high designers and the so-called "starchitects," who fear that new methods and materials might not comport with long-established styles, are not taking the lead on sustainability issues, leaving green innovation to younger firms with fewer resources. Both well-known firms and up-and-comers lack experience in working with new, often expensive green materials, which has forced many designers to depend greatly on singular and design-restrictive tactics such as "passive design"--essentially, lots of space and windows--to achieve sustainability goals.

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.

The list goes on. Kieran Timberlake's Yale Sculpture Building? LEED Platinum. James Polshek's Clinton library? Platinum. Sir Norman Foster's 30 St. Mary Axe in London--aka the Gherkin--incorporates an innovative natural air-flow system that significantly cuts down on energy use. All great buildings, all eco-friendly. Or take any of the recent work by Antoine Predock or Thom Mayne--gray hairs both, but also both recognized leaders in environmental 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. Adjaye's museum, like Piano's Cal Academy, has been uniformly praised for its use of space and light; that innovative use of light also maximizes the amount of indirect sun in the galleries, dramatically reducing the need for artificial lighting.

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. 

--Clay Risen

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