Beyond Rhetoric

I’m reading about how architects need to pay special attention to nature—they must learn where wind and sunlight come from, know how their designs relate to water tables and vegetation, and find appropriate materials and building methods to make healthy environments that support life on Earth. These thoughts dominate the many design competitions I’ve been judging, including our own Next Generation prize.

I’m thrilled about what these concerns signal: a new consciousness developing among designers. But when the words don’t quite mesh with the design proposals—and this happens too often—I think about how little we actually know and how much preaching we do to cover it up.

Consider, for instance, the ideas competition run by two AIA committees, one on the environment (COTE) and one on design (COD). It called for a scheme that would house an ecologist living in the woods and working on the grounds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The competition organizers—the same environmentally aware architects who devised “The Architecture of Sustainability” conference held this past May on that preserve—hoped for beautiful designs that would take green expression to a high aesthetic level. Indeed three out of the 79 entries—the winners—met that requirement, almost. They were good-looking, smart, eco-conscious, and succinctly presented. One of them, by Bowen Architecture, was revolutionary; it rethought the program and proposed an entirely fresh idea of building by placing the ecologist in a pod, like a high-tech tree parasite, on the underside of an existing bridge. Only a few entries, however, showed the kind of humane and peaceful room that a tired ecologist might want to retreat to at the end of a long day.

Throughout all this judging a nagging thought kept humming in my brain: Will I ever see a time when the design community soars beyond the rhetoric of sustainability and begins to show a deep understanding of such complex concepts as “living lightly on the land”? The AIA jurors also selected six “mentionables,” including the glass-and-concrete Invisible House. Putting an elegant transparent structure that seems to disappear into nature was a good idea when Mies did it, but is it appropriate for an ecologist who lives and works in nature? Granted transparency, when it’s achieved by using energy-efficient glass, is worth reconsidering. But to place this prism on top of a subterranean room seems to subvert the concept of living lightly and leads a juror to ask, What kind of energy (with its accompanying pollution) would be needed to excavate the site for the proposed underground living space? Where would the earth be moved and to what effect? What would heavy construction machinery do to the land and vegetation? Is concrete the appropriate building material here?

And ultimately what makes a good space for habitation? I’m hoping to find some answers in the next competition I’m on my way to view. The Smart Environments Awards, organized by the IIDA and Metropolis, sets out to examine how well interior designers and architects serve human needs for healthy, safe, accessible, comfortable, and beautiful rooms. The significance of this attempt should be weighed with a dramatic statistic in mind: Americans today spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors.

If you’re as interested as I am in making the interior experience better than it’s been, I hope you’ll join the important conversation we began at NeoCon last month, where we debuted Smart Environments and helped redefine design for the twenty-first century. Whether we call it sustainable, smart, green, or accessible, it’s becoming clear that design today is not your father’s design.

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