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A green answer to Vanity Fair’s architecture poll has its own blindspot

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A green answer to Vanity Fair’s architecture poll has its own blindspot

| architect, architecture critic, eco building, Green Architecture, green building, green buildings, Green Built Environment, modern architecture, modern buildings, new buildings | July 28, 2010

Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Credit: Tim Griffith.

When Vanity Fair recently released the results of a survey ranking the most significant pieces of architecture of the last 30 years — with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, topping the list — the poll was met with extended grumbling. Some people griped about the many architects, including Richard Meier and Daniel Libeskind, who voted for their own work (Vanity Fair indeed!); others noted that the average age of those polled seemed to be around 70.

But the biggest complaint, by far, was that the results seemed completely to ignore green architecture, arguably the biggest single movement in the field since the emergence of modernism a century ago. In response, Lance Hosey, a writer and an architect who worked for years at William McDonough + Partners, a Virginia firm known for a commitment to sustainable design, organized an alternative survey for Architect magazine in which he polled a number of leading green architects and others. (Hosey e-mailed me earlier this month asking if I’d take part in the voting, which I did not.) He used the same format as Vanity Fair: He asked each voter to name the five most important green buildings since 1980, and separately the single most significant sustainable building finished since 2000.

The results were released Tuesday. The winner in the first category was the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, a building by McDonough + Partners that relies on solar panels, among other green-design features, to produce 30% more energy than it uses. (Hosey swears his old affiliation had no impact on the results, though the voters did include one current McDonough employee, Kira Gould. Unlike Vanity Fair, Architect has no plans to publish the contents of each ballot; Hosey did tell me, though, that one architect in the poll gave every one of his votes, six in all, to his own work.) Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which is topped by an undulating green roof made of native plants, was named the most important sustainable building since 2000.

I don’t have any issues with the winners of Hosey’s alternative survey: I admire both the McDonough and the Piano buildings, and I can understand the desire to confront the obvious limitations of the Vanity Fair project. (Similarly, given the way the Vanity Fair poll was set up, the Guggenheim Bilbao struck me as entirely deserving.) In the end, though, I have the same basic problem with Hosey’s effort as I did with the first poll: Asking voters to nominate single buildings necessarily produces results that give a skewed view of the way architecture — and more important, the way we think and write about it — has evolved in recent years.

Among critics and architects alike, there has been a rising understanding that architecture is not just about stand-alone icons but is tied inextricably to urban planning, real-estate speculation, capital flows, ecology and various kinds of networks — and similarly that architecture criticism means more than simply writing about impressive new landmarks, green or not, produced by the world’s best-known firms.

Indeed, sustainable design and its champions deserve significant credit for helping architecture as a whole adjust its values and move toward a wider, richer sense of how to measure its progress and chart its signal achievements. In that sense, it seems to me that Hosey wound up falling into the same trap as the Vanity Fair tastemakers whose shortsightedness he hoped to correct.

Maybe, in other words, the most important achievement in green architecture over the last 10 or 30 years is not a single building at all. Maybe it’s a collection of schools or linked parks or the group of advisors brought together by a young mayor somewhere. Maybe it’s a new kind of solar panel, a tax credit or a zoning change. Maybe it’s tough to hang a plaque on — or photograph for a magazine spread.

— Christopher Hawthorne, via Los Angeles Times (blog)

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About the author

After working at various design practices on a full-time and freelance basis, and starting his own design firm, David McFadden saw that there was a gap to be filled in the industry. In 1984, he created an expansive hub for architects and hiring firms to sync up, complete projects, and mutually benefit. That hub was Consulting For Architects Inc., which enabled architects to find meaningful design work, while freeing hiring firms from tedious hiring-firing cycles. This departure from the traditional, more rigid style of employer-employee relations was just what the industry needed - flexibility and adaption to modern work circumstances. David has successfully advised his clients through the trials and tribulations of four recessions – the early 80’s, the early 90’s, the early 2000’s, and the Great Recession of 2007.

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