It’s already well known that Chicago is the first major industrial city to make a total commitment to environmental practices in its municipal building and landscaping programs. But this month Dirk Denison—a member of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s design initiative and former associate dean at the Illinois Institute of Technology—breaks ground on a speculative mixed-use Gold Coast condo that carries the mayor’s environmentalist crusade into the private sector. The Culver House also happens to be an object lesson in how high-performance glass and other new technologies are preparing the way for a rendezvous between sustainable architecture and the Modernist tradition.
“I’m doing this building as a demonstration of all of the things we’re trying to do in the city,” Denison says of the project, which is part of a pilot program that expedites permits for buildings aiming for LEED certification. “The green roof is a visible expression of the education and advocacy part of our environmental initiatives. I’m taking that idea and embedding it in the facade so that the plants are not just on the roof but in the set of terraces and greenhouses that wrap around the sun-exposed sides of the building.”
Denison’s all-star credentials—he attended Cranbrook through high school, studied at IIT at the end of its hard-core Miesian period, and finished off at Harvard under Libeskind and Eisenman—wouldn’t necessarily prefigure a commitment to environmental design. But the way the design shows off the building’s green roof and irrigated garden terraces using a double-skinned facade composed of low-emission glass oriented to exploit the sun’s energy, you would think that Mies’s belief in unadorned forms as honest expressions of materials and Eisenman’s process-oriented thinking were a prelude to eco-building.
“We came up with the glass because it’s a very good material for long-term sustainability but also because of the way it allows the building to be dynamic, to show the gardens, and to reflect the sky and the park across the street,” Denison says. “The vocabulary in the building is modern, but the whole thing is about the dynamic of all these systems—the natural systems of air circulation, temperature, photosynthesis—that exist in the real world and most people aren’t even aware of.”