Sustainability and Formalism

In seminar yesterday our instructor (world-renowned architectural critic Jeffrey Kipnis) posed the following question: What does a ‘sustainable’ building look like? The answer: “What does a building with ‘electricity’ look like?”

This quick exchange was part of a broader discussion, but his immediate point was that green practices in architecture (and product design, and lifestyle, etc) are such a remarkably good idea that “sustainability” will quickly become codified, sweep the entire industry, and soon there will be no viable alternative, ethically, economically, or even legally. While this may be extreme, it is already happening: the explosion of LEED’s popularity over the past five years has shown that the industry is ready for these kind of laws, chomping at the bit to conform, voluntarily.

Once sustainability becomes the default, there will no longer be green buildings versus conventional, much as electricity, telephones, and computer networks have become ubiquitous. Since the majority of what makes a building green is material choice and construction practice, the law (or tax breaks) can do most of the work.

What remains is design.

Of course there are certain ways to design sustainably (daylighting and natural ventilation can contribute to lower energy costs and healthier, happier occupants), but these things have been known for centuries, and were in fact commonly employed devices until the modern hermetic box became the de facto diagram for our homes and offices. The history of architecture through the 1800s contains only green buildings. Compared to what often passes as green design (see most of William McDonough’s well-intentioned-yet-hideous work), the past looks pretty appealing.

Ultimately, Kipnis’s point seems to be this: Sustainability is not an end. It is not the goal of architecture to simply be sustainable, though sustainability is an increasingly necessary aspect of the field.

Is sustainability a sea change? Will the effect be as widespread as the introduction of electricity (which only proved viable by the extensive use of AC current and incandescent lighting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago)? Will it effect our built environment as much as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (which, along with the GI bill, led to the sprawling suburban conditions we see today)?

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