Forward to Big & Green
© 2002 William McDonough
As the twentieth century came to a close, most new buildings were so divorced from their surroundings that the Wall Street Journal devoted a front page feature story to an office building with windows one could actually open. When operable windows make news and set a design standard, we have reached an astonishingly low point in architecture. Could we be any further from an architecture that sustains us and connects us with the natural world? Perhaps not. But under the radar of architectural fashion and the popular press, architects have been busy working out the elements of a much richer concept of sustainable building design.
What Is Sustainability?
A growing awareness of the environmental, social, and economic problems associated with contemporary architecture and industry has led many business leaders and communities to adopt practices deemed to be more sustainable over the long term. Such strategies are usually aimed at keeping the engines of commerce humming and people employed, while reducing resource-consumption, energy use, toxic emissions, and waste. The result is that the sustainability agenda tends to be a framework for the reform of the existing industrial system rather than a fundamental redesign, a way of being “less bad” by being more efficient. Most architects who are sensitive to sustainability issues try to do more with less by designing buildings that make more efficient use of energy and resources. But is being less bad the same thing as being good? Does mere efficiency meet our need to connect with the natural world or does it just slow down ecological destruction? And if sustainable architecture falls short of fulfilling our needs, what would a sustaining architecture look like?
Architecture and Nature’s Laws
We could begin to look for answers in the natural world: Nature is a source of both sustenance and exquisite design. The earth’s natural communities are extraordinarily effective at making food from the sun, producing oxygen, filtering water, and recycling nutrients and energy. Yet natural communities are not particularly efficient. They are fertile, regenerative, complex, responsive, profligate, and extravagant—what some might call wasteful. They thrive not by reproducing the same response worldwide but by fitting elegantly into a profusion of niches. Even nature’s laws express themselves variously in different communities, with processes such as photosynthesis and nutrient-cycling yielding different forms from region to region. We could say form doesn’t just follow function, form follows evolution. This delightful confluence of the unique and the universal suggests the lineaments of a new theory of architecture for a fast-growing world. Perhaps, instead of only following the law of gravity, architects could follow other natural laws that govern evolving life: One organism’s waste equals food for another; living things thrive on the energy of the sun; and natural systems celebrate diversity.
Design and the Celebration of Life
Conventional practitioners of most modern design and construction find it easier to make buildings as if nature and place did not exist. In Rangoon or Racine their work is the same. Fossil fuels make buildings in both locales inhabitable, lighting them, cooling them, heating them. An ecologically aware architect would design those buildings differently. She would immerse herself in the life of each place, tapping into natural and cultural history, investigating local energy sources, the availability of sunlight, shade, and water, the vernacular architecture of the region, the lives of local birds, trees, and grasses. Her intention would be to design a building that created aesthetic, economic, social, and ecological values for the surrounding human and natural communities—more positive effects, not fewer negative ones. This would represent an entirely new approach: Following nature’s laws, one might discover that form follows celebration as well as function.
While Sullivan declared Form Follows Function to clarify architectural intention, he also went on to explore and celebrate in ornament the life forms evolved from a seed. Mies, with his famous maxim, Less Is More, went still further to unclutter architectural theory and practice. The buildings of Mies’s less ambitious followers may lack elegance in their relation to place, but the practice of paring away to arrive at the essence of form remains a vital idea. With clarity of mind and intention, architects can begin to understand the complex nature of a particular building in a particular evolutionary matrix in a particular place in the world. Form can become a celebration not simply of human intelligence but of our kinship with all of life.
From Dominion to Kinship
The buildings shown in this exhibition and catalog are more than just examples of the technological bells and whistles of green design. They are part of an evolving cultural phenomenon. They seek to replace dominion over nature with a more fulfilling relationship with the natural world. This movement away from dominion, past simple stewardship, and toward a sense of kinship—what the great biologist E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia”—is a source of creativity and compassion, wonder and hope. If this century is to be known for peace, prosperity, beauty, and the restoration of our world, kinship with nature must become one of the foundations of our cultural life. And architecture, with its profound ability to create new relationships to place, is uniquely positioned to lead such a renaissance.
With Big and Green, the National Building Museum explores this relationship between the things we build and the places we inhabit. The buildings featured in the exhibition represent small steps toward an ideal. They capture a moment in which we are striving to find a new way of living. None of the problems associated with large-scale building design has been solved; many issues remain to be addressed. But this exhibition offers clues, a suggestion of possibilities. There are hints of an abundant future, a new engagement with the natural world, and better, more enriching places—by design. These intimations suggest that what some might see as our tragic relationship with nature in the twentieth century could well be transformed into a more hopeful one as we enter the heart of the twenty-first.