You heard it here first. NO NEW BUILDINGS. The future of architecture hangs in the balance–a balance of energy and environmental constraints that will profoundly alter the way humans interact with their environment. For centuries architects have seen themselves as creators of the built environment–almost exclusively new buildings, landscapes, infrastructure, transit systems. For the first time the profession is being forced–against its collective will–to consider the unthinkable. Can the earth sustain an entirely new infrastructure under present conditions? If not, how much of the built environment will be “new” architecture during the next century?

In my recent lectures and writings, I have begun to consider a startling alternative vision for the planet and its human-made environments. What if, in the name of resource and energy conservation, the most energy and waste intensive endeavor, building, was limited to the alteration, conservation and reuse of existing structures? I am not the only person to have this vision, but I suspect most other proponents are environmentalists, not architects.

Conservation of the biosphere, according to pioneers such as Ian McHarg and Aldo Leopold, must account for a “right relationship” between all human endeavors and the planet’s fragile ecosystems. If building new bridges, highways, and larger buildings consumes too much energy and generates too much waste, why not consider repairing and conserving what we already have, much as our brethren in ecology have done with existing “natural” systems? Does this sound revolutionary? If the answer is yes, avant garde architects should be pleased, because revolution has been the watchword of our “progressive” artists for more than a century.

I suspect, however, that those contemporary architects who see themselves as occupying the “cutting edge,” like the team recently assembled by Frank Gehry for his new technology lab, are heavily invested in the status quo of wasteful, energy hogging high-tech wonders. They won’t want to forego years of “research” into absurdly expensive building systems simply to answer a pressing need for real solutions to the energy crisis that might be considered “low tech” or even “no tech.” As Jens Braun put it in his Quaker blog, it may be time to look at all new construction technology as un-green, or better, time to consider low tech alternatives to what we have been building for a century or more.

Should architects abandon the search for new built form in order to address the environmental crisis? Perhaps not, but looking at this presumably extreme alternative would be refreshing, useful, and maybe even revolutionary, in the way that Kuhn’s “scientific revolution” hypothesis described paradigm shifts. I am going to stay with this idea until I run out of reasons to abandon it. Building conservation has a lot to offer the architectural profession, and architects are certainly going nowhere with the current program.

Big AE and BIM

September 2, 2011

We’ve all heard of Big Ag and Big Pharma. Have architects and designers ever considered their relationship to the industrial system that produces building materials and components the way critics have dissected the food and drug cartels? I suspect that, with very little digging, investigators would turn up the same kind of monopolistic, greed-filled and anti-competitive system in our part of the capitalist ecosystem that exists elsewhere. Would we also find a conspiracy to delude the public about safety, efficiency, and the transparency of the marketplace?

It is perhaps too soon to tell whether the current reorganization of architectural and engineering firms has yielded more quality, less waste, and a better work environment for design professionals. Now that AECOM has risen to the top of the food chain by buying up hundreds of smaller AE firms around the world, someone should ask whether mega-firms like it and Arup are indeed providing better design and engineering service to the world at large. Big Ag put millions of farmers out of business, and has diminished the diversity of crops available to the public. Will we see fewer choices in the building industry soon?

With the current economic slump, it seems clear that only the strongest, and largest, AE firms will survive to compete in the global market. We already have giant construction companies like Bechtel, Brown and Root (under the Halliburton umbrella) and Turner dictating the terms for big projects worldwide, not to mention similar nationalized companies in China. It is only a matter of time before these AE Walmarts snuff out their competition in the largest markets.

Another, more insidious trend has entered the design marketplace through a clever and apparently benign technology–software. Building Information Modeling, which one of my students anticipated years ago in a masters thesis, has crept into the mainstream with little fanfare. Though “high design” architects pretend it isn’t an influence on their creative output, the construction industry isn’t waiting to be told whether or not to adopt a cost-saving and logistical tool that can increase profits. Like AutoCAD’s primitive Architectural Desktop, BIM reduces the assembly of building components to a standardized palette, forcing designers to exclude hand-crafted, low tech, or custom elements from their built work.

Moreover, the largest manufacturers and holding companies in the construction marketplace can now insert their products into the palette via BIM, making it too easy to accept a limited number of choices among say, glass, brick, or curtain wall brands. Soon, the kit of parts we manipulate will be reduced to a kind of fast-food menu in the supermarket of industrial and technological products controlled by an ever shrinking group of multi-national companies. Already, longstanding manufacturers like Baldwin Hardware, Morgan Millwork, and several lighting brands have been acquired by such rapacious giants. The result: less service, poorer quality, longer lead times.

We’ve grown fat and lazy on plastic, fast food produced in giant industrial plants, taking little notice of the harmful effects on our bodies. Modern technology made such miracles possible. It’s time we woke up and looked around at what this system is doing to the built environment too.

Bogus LEEDERS

August 7, 2011

The Canadian architect and theorist George Baird has spent his career analyzing the meaning behind architecture and its propaganda. That he should be alarmed by the emergence of LEED hype should be a caution to the profession. An opinion piece in the latest issue of Architectural Record offers a chilling critique of the latest fad in design.

Baird, who ran the school of architecture at the University of Toronto, has attended his fair share of academic conferences. That he chose 2011 to comment on two recent “sustainability” themed ones seems prescient to me. He notes that many “younger” architects are starting to doubt the efficacy of high tech buildings that claim LEED silver or platinum status. He also notes the emergence of architects who are actually following up on performance claims made for such buildings, often documenting their near of complete failure to measure up. “It is clear that we will need to redouble our future efforts in three important ways: first, to ensure successful fulfillment of technically based environmental ambitions for our buildings; second, to be more rigorous with regard to our predictions of performance — especially parameters of performance that are only partly within our own professional control,” he concluded.

More disturbing than the unsubstantiated claims, however, is the fact that our most recognized high-tech “green” buildings are now under fire from the government and clients, sometimes in the form of lawsuits. Baird noted that the first LEED platinum building in the US has never met its projected performance targets, and that the architects are being sued over the failure of its wooden structure, an odd exoskeleton of timbers [Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland, designed by SmithGroup (2000)].

In the same issue of the magazine, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle took a second look at Thom Mayne’s iconic San Francisco Federal Building, with commentary scarcely less scathing. He notes that the shading system is on the fritz, the cafe can’t attract patrons, and the main public space is so dreary most Social Security customers feel as though they’re in a prison. John King still feels that his city benefits from the architectural tourism that the building brings in, but he’s scratching his head about the much heralded green technology that makes it [not] work.

Architects are facing a barrage of challenges to their credibility in 2011. The last thing we need is criticism about our concern for the environment.

Building Brains by Hand

April 1, 2011

A century ago John Dewey introduced a radical idea in American education, then dominated by instruction in the “Three Rs.” At his Chicago Laboratory School, teachers gave elementary school pupils “the materials of life” and asked them to work with their hands to learn skills that their parents had practiced as farm hands and laborers. In a modern industrial society the idea seemed counter-intuitive–why bother with old fashioned hand tools when the machine would make such labor obsolete?

Modern neuroscience has proved that learning through hand skills is fundamental to building the circuitry that young brains need to develop higher order reasoning. Moreover, society needs citizens who are capable of solving practical problems that require more than just a knowledge of Microsoft Windows. Children spend an increasing amount of their time in front of screens, meaning less and less exposure to the outdoors, to the pleasure of manual labor, and an increasing lack of practical knowledge that sustained previous generations. Faced with budget cuts, our public schools are giving up on courses in music, art, and hand skills–even basic auto mechanics and wood shop.

It should come as no surprise that parents in some affluent areas of the country are trying to enrich their children’s education with programs that have fallen by the wayside in most schools. More surprising, perhaps, is the trend toward bringing what used to called “manual trades” education back into the lives of younger kids. The New York Times Home Section on Thursday featured an article, “Big Tools for Little Hands,” that documents this phenomenon. It appears that Dewey’s methods are re-entering the mainstream.

I wrote a book on Gustav Stickley’s educational program at Craftsman Farms, and have written in this blog about hand craftsmanship. It makes sense to me that Americans, indeed most post-industrial citizens, are rediscovering the necessity of hand craftsmanship and so-called “manual” skills in education. I won’t go into all the reasons why this is so, but seeing children enraptured by making things out of wood at Construction Kids in Brooklyn fills my heart with joy.

It is  ironic that our society is dismantling an education system that was the envy of the world, while small groups of Americans rededicate their lives and careers to bring such wonderful experiences to the lives of young children. I am a believer that little things make a big difference. This is one seems to be doing just that. Hooray for hammers.

Out On A Limb

October 26, 2010

The mind-boggling decision by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to cancel the largest infrastructure project in America has brought much-needed attention to a problem that is worsening by the day–infrastructure collapse. One commentator suggested that state and federal transportation agencies were facing a Solomonic choice: cut spending for pension programs, or neglect the needed repairs to roads, bridges, rail systems, and other vital pieces of the infrastructure that are wearing out. Talk about a “lose lose” situation.

The impressive infrastructure that everyone is talking about was constructed largely between the heyday of the Progressive Era after 1900, and the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Even during the darkest years of the Depression and the height of the war effort in Europe and the Pacific, America’s large infrastructure projects were maintained with wide public support.

That is not true today, and hasn’t been for decades. Not only has the country shrunk from building new systems such as the light rail and high-speed trains that are now common in Europe and Asia; it has also neglected needed repairs and upgrades in the fine but aging systems that our forefathers provided. As a new book by Barry LePatner, a New York attorney, points out, public officials are putting this country on a track to  disaster that is unprecedented.

A recent piece on the NTSB findings about the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota is startlingly clear about the political and social malaise that has prevented needed action on these issues. Rather than analyzing the myriad causes of the disaster, and identifying all of the pertinent agencies and actors who contributed to it, the “official” report blames the collapse on a single flaw: the thickness of a few gusset plates. Le Patner even points out that the engineering profession, already in the doldrums, will be hurt by the report’s conclusions, just when we need competent professionals the most. The same has been true of the status of architects, planners, construction companies, and all of the important players in a potential infrastructure renewal initiative.

The shocking thing about the NTSB report, and the boneheaded Christie decision, is that our politicians are bent on blaming others for their own failures to act in the interest of citizens. Our environment is in peril, and not just the natural one. We are out on a limb that is severely bent and ready to break. Rather than helping to support or repair it, our leaders are busy sawing it off.

Back in the 1960s, when humans thought it would be possible to colonize the moon by the year 2000, architects began designing cities that might be built as if they were huge buildings, using advanced technologies that were “just around the corner.” The Metabolists in Japan, Archigram in London and Paolo Soleri in the Arizona desert created wonderful visions of this Buck Rogers future, many looking as if they had leaped from the pages of a science fiction novel. By the 1980s, following the first great energy crisis, nobody expected these utopian colonies to see the light of day. They were too big, too expensive, and wildly wasteful of energy.

Curiously, as the earth faces a second energy crisis much scarier than the first, one of these “megastructure” cities has in fact been realized on a scale even larger than futurists dreamed would be possible. Its designer, Sir Norman Foster, still believes that technology will lead to happiness and man will conquer the natural environment with machines. He ought to be driving one of those mechanized creatures that attacked the natives in “Avatar.”

The elevated streets of Masdar, a new city in Abu Dhabi, U.A.R. will make one feel as if transported into a Star Trek movie, albeit in the desert regions frequented only by the likes of Jabba the Hutt. Touring the new city prior to its “opening,” Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times was skeptical for a change. He compared the place to a giant “gated community” in southern California. Will Foster’s natural cooling towers really create a temperate microclimate in a desert that can reach 120 degree F. on an average day? Will a city built like a shopping mall on top of a parking garage really prove sustainable when oil reaches $400 a barrel? Can a few brown stucco walls with picturesque balconies convince Arabs that they are living in a traditional village when they are surrounded by alienating technological gimmicks? How will residents take to riding in tiny cars that are based on Bucky Fuller designs of the 1950s when they are used to luxurious Mercedes limos?

Like most of the obscenely expensive mega-projects that starchitects designed during the real estate bubble, this one is already a white elephant. Only a small fraction of the infrastructure is complete, and it looks as if the one residential building in town will not attract a big crowd. As of March, 2010, only one tenant had leased commercial space in town. The solar energy plant was producing a fraction of its projected power(too many dust storms), forcing the developers to buy electricity from other sources. Foster has laid off 2/3 of his staff during the downturn, so it appears he will not be designing the rest of Masdar anytime soon. The oil rich U.A.R. has run out of cash, and building a Foster megastructure takes a lot of dough, as the Hong Kong Bank found out in the 1980s.

In short, there is nothing “sustainable” about this colossal folly 20 miles from the Emerald City of Abu Dhabi. The money for its construction was waste of resources. As economies shrink and architects confront a new ecological imperative, small projects will proliferate while megastructures languish, eventually becoming ruins. To find our way to a balance with nature during the next century, humans will need to “design with nature,” as Ian McHarg put it. This tragic enterprise, based upon wildly conjectural concepts and bogus science, may well convince the architectural community that Masdar’s 20th-century concepts of the future were as unrealistic as the fictional inventions of Tom Swift, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. The only things  “mega” about Masdar will be its price tag, and its eventual downfall.  Paradoxically, during the next century, to think big we will have to build small.

Paralysis

September 14, 2010

It has been two years since the financial collapse that nearly toppled all the world’s banks. Paul Krugman, in his trenchant and increasingly dire editorials in the New York Times, has pointed out more than once that things ought to be better by now. For one thing, Americans aren’t supposed to lie around and mope in the face of crises–we fought World War II after a devastating Depression with pluck and iron-willed determination. And, despite the frustrations of the democratic process (letting the people voice their dissent and all that), America’s constitutional system has always produced leaders capable of dealing with things that would topple the average parliamentary government (say, Italy’s, for instance).

Why do things seem so different now? Why are our leaders stuck in a quagmire that looks as if it will drag everyone down into a hellish abyss that will take decades to crawl out of? If Obama is the next Lincoln, why can’t he act passionately and skilfully to lead America back into the light after years of dark corruption and greed? Why are things darker now than ever?

The nation is suffering from paralysis in nearly every sector, community, and institution. It isn’t just the state and federal government, the primary and secondary schools, the universities, the churches, the local clubs, and the sports arenas. The deep freeze has struck every family, individual and living thing on this continent. Only “reality TV” seems to have missed the signs, but we never expected the media to notice anyway. “American Idol” is ready to mint the next superstar to foist on a music industry that is sinking into oblivion. Outside the T-party types are mad as hell and ready to take it out on our politicians with hellish vengeance, replacing them with complete idiots.

The reason that I have not been able to write about architecture, urbanism, or preservation lately is that there appears to be  nothing on the horizon to comment about. Architectural Record saw fit to publish an “Oasis” issue on the obscene “City Center” in Las Vegas and the Burj Kalifa (Dubai) skyscraper. Better to have made toilet paper out of the pulp expended on these glossy spreads. No doubt, in communities throughout the nation, courageous architects are working for community groups, schools, and small businesses and proving that it is possible to do a lot with diminishing resources. A lot of small firms are hanging on, trying to do good work that will mean something to sustaining their towns and cities. Who will notice? Who will encourage, support, and give voice to these efforts? Certainly not the architectural media, who continue to follow starchitects around the world, in search of genius.

How do we wake up the bureaucrats, the banks, the venture capitalists, the philanthropists, the intellectuals, the old movers and shakers, who seem to be in a deep sleep? China is sprinting ahead in developing green technologies that will be needed for the new society that we face in 50 years. Where are the American entrepreneurs? Where are the creative designers, the visionaries, once the pride of the United States?

It will take a jolt bigger than the one that made Frankenstein to re-start America. Bigger than the H-bomb. Bigger than fusion. Bigger maybe than the Big Bang. Electro-shock therapy on a national scale. Are we ready for it? Can we take it? We had better be, because it’s coming, sooner than we think.

A Tablet from Heaven?

February 6, 2010

A good deal of ink has been spilled arguing the merits of Apple’s Ipad tablet during the weeks since its launch. Apple’s hype has been almost messianic, with the great Jobs calling the new gadget magical about twenty times in his presentation. I admit to being an Apple devotee, but this put me off a bit. The inflated Iphone will not change your life, and may not even sell very well in a depressed economy. But, should we dismiss this new portable entertainment device without considering its potential?

As the author of four books with another on the way, I have mixed feelings about the emergence of Kindles and other digital book avatars. Amazon has nearly killed the book publishing industry with its punitive discounts. We need traditional books, and will continue to enjoy reading them for the foreseeable future. The Kindle has not yet made a real dent in book sales, and many find its screen cold and impersonal.

The question is, can a tablet with dazzling color rendition become an alternative form of media dissemination in an era when other forms are vanishing? Notwithstanding the spate of cool Iphone Apps that may run on the Ipad, there is a very large untapped market for rich visual media that can be carried in a light, portable device, enriched by text, music, video and other as yet undiscovered means of communication. Apple has been clever in opening the doors to these kinds of innovation in the past. Will it do so with the latest miracle device?

As an architect who writes for a broad audience, and likes to see lots of color in books, I am aware of the economic limitations of color printing in a paper format. What if that drawback were eliminated in tablet publishing? What if other media could be combined with text and photos? Wouldn’t art and architecture publishing benefit profoundly from these new methods of “printing?”

I can’t help but believe that, sooner or later, this generation or next will figure out a way to present the wonders of the visual world with the kind of sharp clarity that we now appreciate digital film and music. What a dazzling show that will be.

There has been so little money from the Federal stimulus package devoted to clean energy that many of us are losing hope that the Obama administration will do anything to move this critical agenda along. It doesn’t help when we learn that “the party of no” has found a way to block even modest steps to build green buildings for the Federal Government.

Today’s New York Times reports that John McCain and Tom Coburn,  Senators from Arizona and Oklahoma, described an innovative proposed building in Portland, Oregon as the second worst stimulus-financed project on the G.S.A.’s current list. Though not much to look at, James Cutler’s 18-story Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building will be one of the most energy efficient high-rise structures in the U.S. if it ever gets built. It will have a giant “green  wall” of plants on an 18-story trellis, solar cells on the roof, a rainwater retention system, high-efficiency lighting fixtures, and many other recommended technologies for the next generation of office buildings. It even avoids the use of costly steel structure, using concrete instead.

Though McCain is not a climate-change naysayer, and is from a state that will need solar and wind power in the near future, he has lined up with his colleagues to stop needed investment in clean energy projects. Coburn, for his part, has led the supercilious “scientific” arguments against climate-change for years. What seems clear is that even sensible, non-partisan issues like energy efficient Federal facilities development has become a “no-go” issue for the GOP.

Now that China has blasted past the U.S. in the clean energy development race, a Sputnik moment if there ever was one, how will our government respond? Not with a bang but with a shrug, it seems.

How Big is Too Big?

August 12, 2009

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2008: the world is watching as a building rises to surpass the height of all previous human-made objects. Its architects and builder will not reveal the final altitude of their creation. Size matters. They won’t accept second place in the tall building Olympics. How big will it be?

Most of us know the end of that story–the Burj Dubai became the world’s tallest building at 818 meters (2684 feet). We live in a society obsessed with growth, wealth, obsessive eating, size, mass, volume, area. It’s all about big. Huge even. Everything has to be bigger, better, faster, louder, more powerful, more luxurious. The Biggest Loser vies with Survivor for ratings on television. It’s ironic that the biggest losers will be humans when the global energy crisis leaves little to sustain life. The Survivors will be the cockroaches.

A profound new book by Quaker economists has posed the question of why seven billion people continue to behave as if the earth’s resources were infinite. Each month economists publish figures for GDP percentage increases, stock index gains, inflation, national wealth. The message is that growth in economic activity, increases in monetary wealth, and expansion of all kinds of technology will outpace the degradation of the earth’s systems and save the planet from ruin before 2100. Most ecologists are not sanguine about these prospects.

Instead, Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver argue that humankind should seek a “right relationship” between sustainable economic activity and the earth’s delicate biosphere. All current evidence from climatologists, biologists, ecologists and other earth scientists is that the current pace of economic growth is not only too great, but that significant retrenchment will be required if humans are to save themselves and their environment from catastrophic ruin in the next century. What does this mean for a society that wants to build “bigger and better” with every new technological leap?

Among the prescient messages in this book is that one of our society’s most destructive obsessions is the quest for bigger economies and more stuff. While many of us profess a desire to live with less, we fail to understand that less does not mean a small step backward in personal wealth and consumption. Less means a complete transformation of our expectations for personal fulfillment, affluence, material wealth and physical well-being.

When it comes to how we live, and the spaces we inhabit, our vocabulary and standards for adequate accommodation are about to change in ways we never thought possible. Americans in particular will be forced to live with less. Our houses will be subdivided, our rooms diminished in size, our possessions curtailed. And we will become wealthier as members of the commonwealth of life on our planet, if not at the bank or stock brokerage.