When writing about energy issues as an architecture critic, it’s hard to know whether I am tackling the topic as a story about science, a political cause, a fad or religion. These days energy innovations in buildings are frequently portrayed by developers and politicians as “green design” and “smart growth,” but within these movements, factions are as apt to be led by marketers, preachers and sycophants as they are by earnest researchers and farsighted practitioners. Part of an architecture critic’s job is to figure out if the message is truly captured by a building’s design.
Portland, Oregon, where I live and work, is considered to be the nation’s most advanced practitioner of both smart growth and green design. That can be a slippery brand identity and one that an increasing number of cities clamor to claim. But Portland has a 30-year legacy of far-reaching political decisions and regulatory frameworks to back up its reputation. In the early 1970’s, Oregon’s legislature required every metropolitan area in the state to circle itself with an “urban growth boundary” to preserve farmland and forests. And well before most other American cities, Portland revitalized its downtown, weaning a few folks from their cars with a light rail system and one of the nation’s first new streetcar lines in over 50 years. A regional authority set up to oversee garbage collection morphed into the nation’s first elected regional government, Metro, and it now has extraordinary powers to oversee growth management for Portland and its suburbs.
The state also offers a smorgasbord of tax credits for the use of innovative energy systems. All development that uses any public dollars must be certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program, a kind of U.L. rating for energy and environmental consciousness.
If I sound like a cheerleader for the way Oregon does things, it’s probably a little out of guilt. In covering (and critiquing) the city’s built environment, I’ve written only one article specifically devoted to the city’s environmental-design trailblazing. Generally, I will mention only major accomplishments, such as Portland’s building of the nation’s first “gold” LEED Green Building Rating System-certified historic renovation, the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center. Even as I write about things I believe in, I feel like I’m singing with a chorus that I can’t quite get in tune with. Partly that is due to the “loner” instinct many journalists have, but mostly it is because a critic’s news peg needs to reach beyond the newest innovation and the latest fad.
The historic Rapid Transfer Building in Portland, Oregon was renovated to become the new Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center. It is headquarters for a variety of “green” banking, development and advocacy groups and is a showcase of sustainable building practices. The building was the first in the country to get the top “gold” certification for green building practices and the first historic building to get it. Photo by Marv Bondarowicz/The Oregonian.
Judging What Is Called Green
A LexisNexis search of architectural critics throughout the country indicates a similar, if not deeper, ambivalence about writing on these green issues. Cross-reference these critics’ names with the word “green” and what comes up are more references to parks, carpets or furniture upholstery than to environmentally conscious design. Reaching some of these critics by email, I received copies of articles they had written on environmentally and/or energy-conscious buildings. Pulitzer Prize-winner Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune, for instance, skewered one of the most important green-building icons, the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Germany, as he described how poorly it actually works. Another Pulitzer winner, Robert Campbell of The Boston Globe, reviewed Genzyme Corporation’s new headquarters, a much-ballyhooed green-designed building. While he acknowledged its environmental innovations, he argued that the building’s more resonant values were in its architectural clarity.
Like other journalists, architecture critics are skeptical, but in a somewhat different way. Critics need to be “speculative historians.” At our best, our job is to look at what is being built today and figure out what will be relevant about it in the future. Energy efficiency and environmentally conscious construction techniques certainly are part of the equation, but as Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron succinctly put it, “Real environmentalists recycle cities.”
Indeed, the chief plunderers of energy and materials are buildings. To build them and use them consumes roughly half of the world’s energy resources. The United States has more than 80 million buildings, according to Department of Energy estimates, and 38 million more are projected to be built by 2010. One of the largest contributors to landfills is buildings—old ones torn down and leftover waste from the new ones we build. Keep in mind that the U.S. government pioneered planned obsolescence in buildings through its tax system that depreciates commercial “assets” in 39 years.
Too many architects and urban planners today begin their pitches for jobs—and for press coverage—with a sermon about how and why their projects are “green” or “smart.” Some of them are earnest and innovative about the integration of sensible growth management and green practices into their work. But some do little more than borrow green rhetoric and use it as a marketing tool. This becomes a real problem when there is blind acceptance of the simplistic equation that smart growth + green design = building excellence.
True excellence in buildings—architecture, urban design and plan-ning—is less about innovation than about long-term vision. As in literature or art, architectural excellence is found in the creation of things that people will cherish, meaningfully experience, and preserve. Energy use and environmental innovations are, of course, important. But the best way for an architecture critic to help readers think wisely about energy use is to nurture the deepest possible understanding of why buildings—and the neighborhoods and cities they shape—endure.
Randy Gragg writes on architecture and urban design for The Oregonian and has written regularly for a wide range of national design magazines. He was a 1995 fellow in the National Arts Journalism Program.