Green Architecture Versus Great Architecture

May 5, 2008

Leopold Center - Kubala Washatko Architects Last week, in writing about this year’s AIA Committe on the Environment’s COTE Top Ten winners, representing the best “examples of sustainable architecture and green design solutions that protect and enhance the environment,” I asked “Are COTE Winners Too Much of the Same?” While I am certain I’m not alone in that viewpoint, I’ve come across some other perspectives on that question.

One of the jurors from the panel that selected this year’s COTE Top Ten wrote about her experience and some of the things that she saw in the jury. And the question of great architecture versus green architecture was also raised in the AIA weekly newsletter this past week as well. The COTE Top Ten showcases some very attractive buildings with some serious green building credentials (LEED Gold and Platinum buildings and a building that claims “carbon neutral opearations”, to name a few). But the larger question seems to be how much green building and good building design are, or can be, connected.

Architect Rebecca Henn is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and was also the “student” member of this year’s jury. She shared some of her thoughts about the COTE jury process at BuildingGreen. My lament that the winners were all too much of the same type seemed to be echoed in her comments, as well:

“Which was a larger accomplishment: a big federal agency who regularly produces dim bland boxes now getting a more sustainable and beautiful building, or yet another LEED Platinum-rated environmental center (yawn…)?

“What about the inspirational design done for a project that faced budget cuts (twice) and a hurricane, but still stuck to its sustainable goals? The house we wanted oh-so-badly to give an award to had 4,000 square feet for two people. The big box store that could have been an exemplar of sustainability was, frankly, really ugly. The history of environmental design has enough poor aesthetic examples for people to use in repudiation of environmental goals. We refused to feed that fire.”

Good architecture is not easy, but the balance of design and sustainability needs to take both into consideration. This was the direction of another relevant article. While not directly addressing the issue of this year’s COTE Top Ten, Michael Crosbie writes about The Duty to Beauty in the AIArchitect weekly newsletter. In his article, he quotes James Wines, from a recent visit to the University of Hartford architecture program:

“An aesthetically inferior work of architecture,” says Wines, “no matter how environmentally correct in terms of green technology, cannot justify the investment, enhance a client’s public image, or qualify as sustainable design, simply because people will never want to keep a boring building around.” Great architecture and green architecture are one and the same—you cannot have one without the other.

With the current bandwagon of green building rolling along, everyone is looking to get on board. In trade publications now, page after page of ads for every imaginable product in the construction realm are all trying to wrap themselves in the green mantle. Too often, green is being used as the determining factor in a project in place of good design, rather than melding the two and achieving something that surpasses the easy trade-offs and creates something truly worthy.

As Rebecca Henn writes: “Sustainability needs to be seen in our profession less as a technological fix reserved for the spec writers and engineers. Instead, it should be seen as our responsibility to society in exchange for the state-licensed monopoly we enjoy. If we don’t hold both beauty and sustainability as equal cultural commitments, then we might as well hand over our licenses and call ourselves aesthetic consultants.”

Image Source: Aldo Leopold Legacy Center via AIA COTE Top Ten