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You could no more expect the same building to function with identical results anywhere in the world than you could expect the same species of tree to thrive in all the world’s forests.
by Katy Purviance on 04/17/08 @ 11:25:34 pm
Categories: Green Design, Articles | 1643 words | 1161 views

Okay, I told you I would find you something more enlightening and so here it is. The best aticle I’ve read in the past 48 hours. It’s about Modernism. It’s about Green Design. It’s about the trendiness and corporate adoption of “green” design. It’s about yurts. And, to top it off, it’s about my hero, Michael Reynolds. And if you read all the way to the end, you will be richly rewrded with a link to an Earthship slideshow. (But don’t just scroll to the bottom! That’s cheating!) Enjoy!

For a fleeting moment in November 1989, the staid campus of Ohio State University was the centre of the architectural universe. The occasion was the gala unveiling of the school’s Wexner Center for the Arts, a gallery and performance space designed by Peter Eisenman, who had recently become one of the most celebrated architect-intellectuals in the avant-garde firmament. The year before, his conceptual work had been featured in a landmark exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curated by no less than renowned postmodern architect Philip Johnson. It was called Deconstructivist Architecture, and though it included several future superstars — among them Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, and Rem Koolhaas — it was Eisenman who most fully embodied the theoretical bent of the show.

Eisenman liked to talk about distinguishing architecture from mere building, liberating it from the plebeian world of functionality. His designs were not to be lived in but marvelled at, and his sketches could easily be mistaken for rough drafts of a mind-melting Escher drawing. They didn’t look like they even could be built, and precious few of them had been. Instead, Eisenman had based his growing acclaim mostly on his rare virtuosity in the articulation of bold declarations and the crafting of astonishing theory. He was the latest in a line of visionaries who traced back through the likes of Richard Meier, Mies van der Rohe, and Johnson himself, to the legendary Bauhaus and the undisputed twentieth-century champion of the craft, Le Corbusier.

Eisenman’s Wexner Center was the first deconstructivist building unveiled since the canonical MoMA show. It was also his first major commission, the most tangible expression yet of his architectural philosophy. And as promised, it was not very functional: within a couple of years of the gala opening, the Wexner Center’s skylights began to leak. Inside, the temperature fluctuated as much as 40 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of a day, and several of its glass facades were oriented so that they encouraged sun damage to the artwork hanging within. In recent years, the Wexner Center has been given a $15.8-million (US) retrofit to correct its many glaring oversights. Eisenman, asked for comment by the New York Times in 2005, pointed out that similar problems had plagued the experimental designs of Gehry and Mies and even old Corbu himself — as if to say that you couldn’t expect a great master to fuss over such incidental details.

I mention all of this because there’s a MoMA-sized enthusiasm building around the idea of sustainable architecture just now, and in some respects it continues to be dominated by a modernist aesthetic, despite the life-and-death practicality that’s feeding the buzz in the first place. This nascent sustainability boom is a direct response to the emerging catastrophe of climate change, and on the surface it would seem to compel a return to the basics: workaday, theory-proof stuff like energy efficiency, insulation, ventilation, and natural light. In his 1973 bestseller Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, the iconoclastic economist E. F. Schumacher recommended the construction of “a life-style designed for permanence” — as succinct a working definition of sustainability as any I’ve found. Shorn of its original activist connotations and more recent corporate spin, sustainability dictates a reordering of priorities that returns matters of ecology to their paramount position.

In architectural terms, sustainability demands a return to questions of how to build things instead of merely why. Architecture has long been a tug-of-war between artistic expression and engineering practicality, and indeed Corbu-style modernism was a direct response to belle époque aesthetic excesses in the years before World War I. Many of the original modernists, fond as they were of theory, also obsessed over the practical potential of modernity’s wondrous new materials and technical tricks. Alas, the phase ushered in by Eisenman’s Ohio State debut has marked a return to a sort of baroque intellectual ornamentation, demonstrating with increasing vividness the tragic oversight embedded in the battle cry of “starting from zero” that fired the imaginations of those original European artists: amid all their manifestos denouncing bourgeois adornment, modernism’s innovators have come to forget that there is no zero in nature. You could no more expect the same building to function with identical results anywhere in the world than you could expect the same species of tree to thrive in all the world’s forests. Modernism and its postmodern deconstructivist descendants are prone to mammoth inefficiencies that may be intrinsic to their design approaches.

Strangely enough, the modernist aesthetic continues to dominate, even in the new field of sustainable architecture. The preferred approach to date has been to retrofit modernist designs with every gizmo and sleight-of-hand trick on the energy efficiency market. The skyscrapers of Norman Foster (particularly the elegant passive-solar Bow building now under construction in Calgary) and Robert Fox (whose Condé Nast and Bank of America towers in Manhattan are the examples of first resort in a great many sustainable architecture discussions) might be the most efficient high-rises the free world has yet seen, but they are still, at their core, modernist cubes and curves in glass and steel. It might well be that there’s no such thing as a truly sustainable skyscraper, but such fundamental questions haven’t been given even cursory explorations.

Move to the more pedestrian level of housing, and the practice of sustainable architecture shows even less evidence of any reconsideration of basic assumptions. A sprawling McMansion — even one roofed in solar panels — is still a ridiculously inefficient design. There’s an exemplary demonstration project in southern Alberta — a $19-million subdivision in the town of Okotoks, heated by a solar-powered district heating system — and yet the consortium of government agencies and private developers overseeing it decided to build the actual houses to resemble energy- indifferent, cookie-cutter suburban homes as much as possible. Or consider the September 2006 issue of the sustainability-obsessed hipster shelter bible Dwell magazine. “Green Goes Mainstream” read the cover line above a photo of a Spanish house that, save for its grass-carpeted roof, was essentially a handful of interlocking modernist glass cubes and concrete slabs. Inside, the magazine’s recurring Off the Grid column featured a house that wasn’t off the grid, actually: the sleek new residence of Santa Monica’s green-building adviser, a concrete and glass slab on pilings over a multi-vehicle carport. It was extremely efficient, but it was still tethered to the same electrical grid as the rest of Los Angeles.

It would be one thing if actual off-the-grid living didn’t exist in the modern world — or if, as Dwell’s editor glibly asserted, it was still the exclusive domain of “hilltop yurts with batik curtains and purple carpeting.” There’s the short-sightedness of sustainable architecture’s would-be mainstream champions in a sound bite: in the interest of looking sufficiently slick for the photo shoots, they are ignoring many of the designers best versed in its practice. In a Newsweek feature on the question of “Why Environmentalism Is Hot,” for example, a representative yuppie who had commissioned a “green” home for himself gave a pointed explanation of what kind of sustainable structures he didn’t want: “a yurt, or a spaceship, or something made out of recycled cans and tires in the middle of the desert.” The article didn’t mention whether he knew he was describing actual houses built by a New Mexico architect named Michael Reynolds.

Minus the apparently obligatory yurt reference, the Newsweek jibe was, to be fair, a superficially accurate description of the houses Reynolds builds. He is their all-in-one architect, engineer, and construction foreman, working from a design he’s developed through thirty-five years of trial and error. Although he has built them in hundreds of locales all over the world, the largest agglomeration is on a bone-dry stretch of sagebrush mesa outside Taos, New Mexico, where he himself lives in one and runs his design and contracting business out of another. Reynolds’ houses verge on 100 percent self-sufficiency: they harvest their own water, treat their own sewage, generate their own electricity, self-heat and self-cool. Their walls are usually built from recycled cans and tires encased in some type of mortar. Perhaps most damningly, Reynolds has chosen, to the sound of countless sniggers, to call his houses “Earthships.”

Near as I can tell, though, Reynolds simply does not care what people think of him. He will likely never have a MoMA retrospective, but then as far as he’s concerned those things only go to the builders of monuments to their own egos. He has had to surrender his New Mexico state architecture licence to keep at his project (which has often run afoul of state ordinances and county building codes), so what’s a little lost prestige along the way? If Reynolds is right (and everything that has been revealed about the state of the earth’s climate since he first started his desert housing experiments suggests that he is), then we are, as a human society, sitting on horseback, staring at an endless sea on the horizon, so it’s high time to bid the horse a fond adieu and start thinking about a boat — something that can “sail on the seas of tomorrow.” An Earthship.

Check the Source for an awesome Michael Reynold’s slideshow!

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