Sustainable Pedagogies and Practices

Note: The following keynote address was delivered by Szenasy at the ACSA/AIA Teachers’ Seminar, held June 12-15, 2003, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

I’d like to start with the context and the bad news. Sustainability issues, worthwhile as they are, are competing with powerful forces that grab the public’s attention daily. For instance, there’s L’il Romeo, the pre-pubescent billionaire rap star who owns a Hummer that comes with a fireplace. (Why do I need to know this?) There’s the lingering and destructive effect of the Star System. Star architects cringe at the word “sustainable.” In fact, they’re often downright hostile to it. Star voices at prestigious architecture schools dismiss sustainability as mere dogma. Stars that are building the world over are unwilling or unable to talk about the sustainable features of their work back home. They must comply with local green laws in Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Holland, and elsewhere, but they don’t bring the understanding home with them. They’re better at making excuses. Yet, despite star power, there is an impressive growth in knowledge about green building and sustainability, but it is scattered, embedded in individual offices and schools. And everyone, it seems, is reinventing the wheel constantly.

Sustainable architecture hasn’t found the giants on whose shoulders major disciplines, like science, can stand. There were giants in architecture once, and if we examine their work, beyond style, we may even find that they were dealing with sustainability—though without the language. Then there is the general confusion about meanings: a lack of understanding what we’re talking about. Somehow it’s hard to get resonance from the word “sustainability.” It sounds difficult, mysterious, and abstract. Then there’s the debate between the biomimics and the biophilics. And there’s the hard reality of green design vs. marketing hype.

Then there’s the American public—visually illiterate and spatially unaware. But it’s no longer cool to blame the public for this illiteracy when we remember their lack of education about the built world. American children learn nothing or very little about the designed environment they inhabit. So they spend 90% of their day indoors breathing mechanical air, unaware of the sun, and freezing in summertime. We must teach the next generation that they can do something about these inhumane conditions.

Then there are the shifting winds of the marketplace. Here is a bit of disturbing news: The accounting firm Deloitte & Touche is now bidding for large corporate interior design jobs. They put together the finances, which corporations understand, and hire the staff—the designers and architects.

Let’s see where the design and architecture scholars stand in integrating sustainability theory into the course work in 2003: Today’s socially conscious, humanistic student population wants to know. We at Metropolis took a survey of design educators—a paperless survey that was entirely Web-based and email-prompted. In one month, we received 371 responses from deans, department heads, and professors, in addition to another 300-plus from students and practicing architects. We deliberately chose to survey all areas of design education because we see that some of the most innovative thinking about the design community’s role in shaping a sustainable society comes from industrial designers, communication designers, and engineers.

I will share some of our most dramatic findings, at least what I think are the most dramatic: You’ll judge for yourself when you read our August/September 2003 issue on design education. Only 10% of design schools teach cybernetics/systems thinking—the very basis of sustainable ethics, aesthetics, and processes. 66% of the studios either don’t teach the life-cycle costs of design or they aren’t sure if they teach it. 57% aren’t familiar with LEED. 63% either don’t plan to or aren’t sure if their students should have access to computer programs that simulate living systems. And my special favorite: Only 14% are currently developing lifelong learning programs for the faculty in the area of sustainable design. If you don’t know it, how can you teach it?

Clearly it’s time for a New Advocacy. We need federal legislation, we need an Environmental Bill of Rights that demands our right to clean water, clean air, and clean food—the basic rights of earthlings. We have a precedent for this kind of civil rights legislation—the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1991]. Forty million Americans were potentially helped by that legislation when it entered the mainstream. All Americans and citizens of the world will benefit from an Environmental Bill of Rights.

We need an electronic library that holds all research from universities, as well as a growing body of knowledge embedded in architecture and design firms. We know how to use this electronic library very well. Students who haven’t opened a book—who indeed see books as artifacts from another time—would hugely benefit from this networked library.

We need to infiltrate teachers’ colleges in every university with architecture and design departments. Call future primary and secondary school teachers’ attention to the joys of teaching math, science, literature, history, and sociology by studying the built environment. This infiltration by designers of teachers colleges is a necessity: We need informed citizens to make smart decisions about our public buildings, housing, and urban forms.

We witnessed the lack of this design awareness in the World Trade Center redevelopment during the public introduction of the nine plans. The architects didn’t know how to talk to the public. The public didn’t have a clue what they were looking at. The redevelopment authorities paid cynical lip-service to the great democratic process that shaped the designs. The design was determined purely and simply by financial considerations for profitable square footage.

Let’s advocate for an educational system fitted to our expanded life-spans; the current system was set up when we didn’t live as long as we do in the 21st Century. Evaluate how much time is needed to learn to be informed citizen designers who understand the ethical, social, economic, and cultural implications of our work, and create programs that serve those needs.

Let’s push for life-long learning for all design professionals and make those CEUs [Continuing Education Units] count. No more credits for manufacturers’ presentations or some party in a design-related environment. Let’s commit to an ethically based design education by evoking the Hippocratic Oath for Designers: First, do no harm to the people and the environment that supports life.

There is increasing public discussion about architecture, however flawed. The most ink and film have been spent on the World Trade Center rebuilding, which by the way has a green component. But green requirements for proposed designs have resulted in gardens in the sky, massive structures that hog the sky and shadow the earth. No one is asking how much energy will it take to put those plants on the 55th floor and to maintain them there?

The architects presenting the schemes showed a lack of understanding of sustainable principles. For instance, no one talked about orientation, siting, local wind conditions and climate, incidence of sunlight, the very unique microclimate of lower Manhattan island, and how these conditions should determine the street plan. Every architect bought into the bloated, gigantism of the developers’ square footage demands, ignoring what such massive buildings would do to the local and regional quality of life.

A bit more hopeful event is the recent exhibit “Big and Green: Toward a Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century” held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The show has been praised by the Washington Post as a clear and alarming statement of the role architecture plays in global warming and climate change. The public is being introduced to hard facts. Buildings consume 50% of the world’s energy.

“It follows, then, that to do something significant about the environment, we have to change the way we think about, construct, occupy, and maintain our structures,” reported the paper. “And we have to change these attitudes and practices in a big way.” We are apparently getting away from homely but environmentally correct architecture, according to the Post. In its assessment of “Big & Green,” the paper noted, “by concentrating largely on cutting-edge design, the exhibition underlines the extraordinary worldwide renaissance that has taken place in modern architecture in the last decade or so. And by treating buildings—even stunningly beautiful ones—as more than free-standing aesthetic baubles, the show gives a strong social context to contemporary architecture.” That’s the best news we can possible receive.

Architecture, big architecture, can be stunningly beautiful and sustainable. This is the mainstream press talking, the press that’s looking out for the guy and gal on the street. Of course, this is the same press that informs us about every move Britney Spears makes and only on rare occasions does it cover architecture as a problem-solving, essential discipline. But we’ll take whatever we can get.

When I visited Auburn [Univ. of Alabama] last fall, the dean of all design students promised to bring together speakers to teach the teachers about sustainability. What happened? I haven’t found the time to follow up.

In New York, there was a symposium recently that brought together all of the city’s design and architecture schools for a wild and wooly evening of fact-finding. Are they teaching sustainability? And how deeply do they go? We left asking all the schools to come up with one real project—it could be the graphics department figuring out how to communicate using less paper or the architecture department rebuilding a room.

Four years ago, Charlie Cannon, a professor of industrial design at RISD, initiated the Innovation Studio, known among the students as that class. “Other students just pull you aside and say, ‘You have to take it,’” one student told a Metropolis reporter. “It takes large-scale environmental or infrastructure problems and approaches them from a design perspective,” Cannon told us. This year the students brought their design perspectives to bear on New York City’s looming garbage crisis.

“As we started examining the city’s waste problem, we realized that we didn’t just want to redesign the flow of garbage, we wanted to design them out in the first place,” Jessica Leete, a third-year graduate student in landscape architecture told us. “We’re trying to show that architectural and design thinking can be valuable in a whole range of unexpected places,” Cannon said. Members of the studio say the class broadened their outlook on design. “This is the kind of work that represents a whole new direction that design should be going,” one student said; she hopes to find work remediating toxic brownfield sites after she graduates. “It’s kind of a systems planning approach—there aren’t jobs yet to do this kind of work, but there should be,” this student told us. This kid will find that job. I just know it!

At the Harvard GSD, chair Toshiko Mori is initiating a materials-oriented course of study. Some say it’s hardly architecture. In the dynamic structures they’re designing, “when you apply force it travels through the material,” Mori told a Metropolis writer, “it doesn’t just sit in one place. That means you don’t need as much material. That is the direction we are going in the future.”

This May, an announcement came. Parsons School of Design is looking to fill a full-time faculty position in design and sustainability. Parsons will develop undergraduate and graduate teaching in design and sustainability, focusing particularly on issues of urban ecology and the ecology of the artificial. The position is part of the New School’s environmental studies initiative.

You all have examples and even dramatic successes. And the culture is in your favor, language is on your side. Listen: the Internet, the World Wide Web. What comes to mind when you hear these overused terms? I hear “connectivity,” “networks,” “access,” “local,” and “global.” And it may be that the Web is where we find the statistics or obtain the research that proves once and for all that architecture and design are major players in the marketplace.

We need to document what I call the Gross Designed Product (the GDP). This figure would make the design community phenomenally powerful. With their buying power designers can remake the marketplace of exploitation into a marketplace of sustainability. But first they have to be taught.

Thank you.

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