Big and Green

Large-scale buildings—skyscrapers, apartment houses, convention centers, and shopping complexes—are spreading from the West to locations around the world. Mario Gandelsonas called them “colossal architecture” in 1990; four years later Rem Koolhaas singled them out for their “bigness”. Both architects claim that these structures emerge from the economic forces of globalization—forces that demand universal architectural solutions for living, working, and for the production and consumption of goods. Bigness is described as architecture disconnected from its surroundings; architecture that typically uses structural steel frames and air-conditioning to realize a limitless interior space.

Architects known for their environmentally sensitive work have also directed their attention toward large-scale buildings, but with entirely different observations. They claim that large-scale buildings consume enormous amounts of energy, release large amounts of carbon dioxide, use the most wasteful construction techniques, and have poor air quality that can cause numerous illnesses. They believe that we are approaching an ecological crisis and that future bigness must incorporate an understanding of the environmental approach to building.

Architecture firms such as Sym van der Ryn Architects, Foster and Partners, Richard Rogers Partnership, Croxton Collaborative Architects, and William McDonough + Partners embraced the environmentalist agenda of the early 1970s, which focused primarily on the single-family home, and re-directing it towards much larger and more commercial buildings. Pioneering buildings such as the Willis Faber Dumas headquarters (Foster and Partners, 1977), Gregory Bateson Building (Office of the State Architect/Sym van der Ryn,1978), and Audubon House (Croxton Collaborative, Architects, 1992) revived passive environmental approaches from early office buildings and pave the way for more recent “green” structures such as as Eastgate in Harare (Pearce Partnership, 1996) and Four Times Square in New York City (Fox and Fowle Architects, 1999).

With the recent completion of several environmentally sensitive skyscrapers it has become clear that architecture can make a conceptual connection between bigness and environmentalism. The AIA Committee on the Environment’s annual list of top green buildings includes commercial buildings over 100,000 square feet; many of the sustainable projects currently in development around the world will be the largest structures ever built in their cities.

Firms like MVRDV, SITE, and T.R. Hamzah and Yeang express the new scale of environmentalism by imagining entirely new types of living and working environments. Multilevel gardens, amorphous shapes, and high-tech imagery dominate their recent sustainable projects. Other firms with a newfound interest in architecture and environmentalism, such as Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Cesar Pelli and Associates, and HOK, incorporate sustainable technologies more discreetly, without any noticeable change in the exterior or interior environment.

Despite these aesthetic differences, recent large-scale sustainable projects share many similar features. The use of operable windows, sky gardens, solar cells, wind-turbines, water reclamation systems, and sun shades adding up to a “top down” rethinking of bigness and illustrating a new commitment to the environment, technology, and design—a search for an architecture that can be both big and green.

David Gissen is the curator of architecture and design at the National Building Museum. He is organizing the catalog and exhibition “Big and Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century,” an examination of recent large-scale environmentally sensitive buildings. The catalog for the exhibition will be published by Princeton Architecture Press to coincide with the opening of the exhibition in January 2003.

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