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Sustainable? Maybe. Architecture? Not So Fast!
“Dirty White Trash (with Gulls),” 1998, by Tim Noble and Sue Webster (Marc Manack)
In his column Beyond Buildings from the October 2012 issue of Architect magazine, Aaron Betsky unapologetically announces, “I am so bored by boxes.” Betsky’s remark comes in response to a proposed Norman Foster project for 425 Park Avenue, a developer driven “sustainable” (LEED Gold projected) office tower. The new Foster tower replicates the form of the tower currently on site (now scheduled for demolition): a tiered pile of boxes with setbacks to oblige Manhattan’s now century old zoning laws. What bores Betsky the most is not merely the rectilinear shapes, but the expressionless, lifeless, and expected architecture. I agree with Betsky -- architecture is first and foremost an aesthetic discipline that should provoke and excite.
But beyond the shape of the building, it’s the Foster’s claims of sustainability as design inspiration in 425 Park Place that I find mind numbing. At first glance, the project brief is exciting: use the base of the existing building that allows for increased square footage exceeding New York’s current zoning code and augment it with a new visually dynamic, efficient, and higher performing tower. Unfortunately with Foster’s design, the new thing we get is just the old thing with a little polish and green-wash. What Foster’s design, and Betsky’s formal criticism reveal, is that sustainability is yet to have substantive implications for architectural design -- to expand modes of architectural form and space making. And until sustainability offers architects a new sensibility, I am bored with it.
I’m not ignoring that climate change is one of the most important issues facing our planet. Architects just need to put sustainability in its proper place: as duty rather than desire. Our responsibility as professionals, citizens, and humans is to pursue the collective good, to leave the planet better than we found it. Sustainability implicates issues that are matters of fact: the outcomes are measurable, definable, and prescriptive. Compact development, proper siting, and resource conservation are no different than life safety and accessibility issues, and they must be implemented through legislated codes and enforced laws. However, architecture transcends and often transgresses the pragmatic; and no architect would argue for the virtuosity of their design work through the faithful application of building or zoning codes. Sustainability should be no different. As new standards for efficiency and conservation are developed, architects should welcome them with open arms. But sustainability is not a distinguishing characteristic, nor a guarantee of, compelling design; it is simply fundamental to the ethical practice of architecture.
So what is sustainable architecture? Does it resist obsolescence? Is it timeless or timely? Ultimately, we should aspire to design works that are so uncontestably moving that no one will ever want to tear them down. And as practitioners of small projects it is often challenging to view our storefront renovation, residential addition, or interior tenant build-out in the same league as the great projects from our discipline’s history. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to design something significant with whatever opportunity we are afforded. Great architecture persists, and green design isn’t necessarily good architecture. So for now, forget the crutch of sustainability, just do architecture.
Marc Manack, AIA is Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Principal of SILO AR+D. Manack also serves on the advisory board of the Small Projects Practitioners Knowledge Community.