May 2, 2008
The Duty to Beauty

by Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA
Contributing Editor

Summary: Sustainability always seems exempt from the crime of banal building. Why is this? I think it has something to do with mom and apple pie. Second-rate (and worse) pieces of architecture that claim the mantle of sustainability always have a “Get out of Jail Free” card safely tucked away. “It’s an awful design,” goes the logic, “but it’s sustainable, so we’ll let it pass.” There’s reluctance to slam something that’s trying to do good. Mom, apple pie, and sustainability—who dares to complain?

This misguided morality was laid bare by James Wines of SITE, who visited our architecture program at the University of Hartford to deliver a lecture a few weeks ago. His argument that green architecture must be great architecture operates at several levels. Because a large measure of greenness can be realized by recycling existing buildings, how do we encourage such recycling? The answer: through good design.

“An aesthetically inferior work of architecture,” says Wines, “no matter how environmentally correct in terms of green technology, cannot justify the investment, enhance a client’s public image, or qualify as sustainable design, simply because people will never want to keep a boring building around.” Great architecture and green architecture are one and the same—you cannot have one without the other. Attention to design has its Darwinian dimension: the higher a building’s architectural quality, the more likely we are to conserve, save, and recycle it.

Beyond the green gizmos
Wines’ view is refreshing because it elevates sustainable architecture from the quaintly Modern belief that we will save ourselves through technology. Sustainability conferences tend to be well-springs for the purveyors of nuts and bolts. The underlying message at many of these gatherings is: if you get all those green gizmos lined up and working just the right way, sustainable architecture will result. There’s no question that we need to know the science of how our buildings perform, why they behave badly, and how to make them better. But this is no substitute for great design. As architects, our “duty to beauty” must always be addressed.

By now, most of us can recite in our sleep the essential technical elements of green architecture: build with local materials, use recycled or recyclable materials, use diverse energy sources to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, cut out anything emitting chemicals that deplete the ozone layer, take advantage of the latest environmental technology. As do many other leaders in green architecture, Wines has such a slide in his lecture. But he also has another slide containing a list that broadens and deepens architecture’s mission to be truly sustainable: include social and psychological sources of content, respond to the spirit of the age of information and ecology, absorb cultural diversity wherever you build (beyond Euro-centric traditions), transform green technology into an aesthetic language, integrate ideas drawn from the surrounding context, create a design language for the 21st century. These goals move us beyond merely specing the right green widget. Architects have a greater role to play.

The Urban Forest
Wines and his collaborators Li Wang, Marc Halle, Ronghui Lee, and Yang Yang just won an international competition for the design of the New World Plaza in Beijing. The design of the “Urban Forest” captures many of the more subtle features of green design that Wines identifies as essential to great architecture. It is intended as a metaphor for a booming culture and a proposal for environmental improvement in a rapidly burgeoning city.

Esthetically, the design relates the shape of the site to expanding tree branches and river tributaries—images prevalent in Chinese art and iconography. Ribbons of concrete are framed by green swaths for planting groves of trees. Overlaid as part of the design are irregularly shaped enclosures defined by plantings, earth mounds, water catchments, seating areas, rain shelters, various paving textures, and buds of LED lights on tree-like lampposts.

The design connects two urban shopping centers, then rises up and over Lianzi Street—a busy thoroughfare. According to Wines, the Urban Forest’s “combination of green zones, site-specific identity, and multi-use people spaces is conceived as a prototype of the mediation of scale between the city’s small residential neighborhoods and mega-sized commercial zones.” It is a forest in the city—symbolically, physically, experientially, ecologically, both vertically and horizontally. It has the power of place, connecting history and today, and the challenges that China faces as an evolving powerhouse economy. It has a story to tell—the hallmark of great architecture.

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Michael J. Crosbie, PhD, AIA, writes extensively about architecture and design and is chairman of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture. He can be reached by e-mail .