“Life is right, and the architect is wrong,” said Le Corbusier toward the end of his life. He may have been pleased however, to see his Paris Plan Voisin vision fulfilled in downtown Pittsburgh’s Gateway Center. A green park was planned within this urban space. Through an integration of nature and architecture, we learn about both in a comfortable public place. Tall trees and a central fountain soften three 1950s modernist-style buildings, bridging time and technology. The matured landscape has become symbolic of our city’s green leadership over the last fifty years.
“The architect must be a prophet; if he can’t see at least ten years ahead then don’t call him an architect.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
During the 20th century, Pittsburgh was a center of what James Wines terms the Age of Industry and Technology. We have evolved into leaders of what he calls the new Age of Information and Ecology. The city is a metaphorical learning place. Universities, institutions, and civic organizations joined to create a community culture of conservation, becoming one of the world’s “greenest” cities. He was recently in Pittsburgh to speak at the Art Institute commencement. He also gave a free public lecture the night before graduation: “Green Light – Re-thinking Public Space in the Twenty-First Century,” addressing ways to integrate art, architecture, and context in public places.
My green light was turned on at a lecture of his in 2000, promoting his view of sustainable design in the book Green Architecture. For me, sustainable design was formula driven, making systematic decisions to craft a relevant architecture. I went on to become a LEED accredited professional, thanks to the creative challenge posed in his writing. With a research-based private practice, I needed to become more efficient and process-oriented.
Mr. Wines influenced my education twenty years earlier during a sophomore design review at Carnegie Mellon University. He was a visiting critic that, along with local heroes like Art Lubetz, AIA, challenged the students to look at architecture from a conceptual, aesthetic, and philosophical viewpoint.
In Green Architecture, he makes clear the distinction between an eco-based iconography and ‘formalist’ design, where “architectural innovation is measured primarily by the familiar shape-making, space-making criteria identified with traditional abstract art.” The works of star architects like Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Daniel Libeskind are “often fabricated in such ecologically offensive materials as stainless steel and endangered wood products, or sheathed in obscenely toxic waste producing metals like titanium, copper, and aluminum.”
Now, architects have “an opportunity to invent the future on terms that are socially and ecologically responsible.” Innovations can be found in the works of both well-known designers like the Genovese Renzo Piano, and less recognized names like Sim Van der Ryn (Solar Living Center in California). Wines describes Van der Ryn’s missions: to interpret every building as a teaching tool, to think of architecture as an extension of natural processes, to treat ecological responsibility as a pact with the environment, and to make nature visible through design.
This book offers 70 case studies and provides a flexible foundation, focused with this standard, eco-friendly checklist: smaller buildings; use of recycled and renewable materials; use of low-embodied-energy materials; use of harvested lumber; water catchment systems; low maintenance; recycling of buildings; reduction of ozone-depleting chemicals; preservation of natural environments; energy efficiency; solar orientation; and access to public transportation.
Since the 1980s, ‘Nature’s Revenge’ has been a central theme for Wines and his firm SITE. Although their landmark BEST Products showrooms like the Forest Building (Richmond, Virginia) did not contribute to the advancement of green technology, they did however create a communicative iconography based on society’s ambivalence concerning architecture’s relation to nature.
Green Architecture represents an evolution from the philosophical perspectives of De-Architecture (Rizolli, 1987) to the major concern of the 21st century – how to design the human habitat with a sensitivity to ecological principles and translate this message into a new architectural iconography. He suggests “dumping all of the ego-motivated excesses associated with most of the architecture of the past century in favor of a more socially responsible and environmentally integrated approach.”
Wines fears that the word green itself is in danger of becoming over publicized and meaningless as passé terms like post-modernist and deconstructivist became a few years ago. In his brief green history section, he traces the environmental movement from ancient times when nature was regarded with awe and fear, through the end of the 19th century when the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau became the last architectural styles to celebrate the relationships between the building arts and natural form.
The book cites Frank Lloyd Wright as “the singular innovator whose work shaped the fundamental principle of integrating architecture with its context in the 20th century.” He was a prophet of the entire environmental movement as far back as 1910 and grasped the potential for buildings to become extensions of their environments. “Wright was also the pioneering force behind ‘organic architecture’ – where the whole is to the part as the part is to the whole and where the nature of materials, the nature of the purpose, the nature of the entire performance becomes clear as a necessity.”
Right or wrong, James Wines envisions a green design revolution. “Architecture has the dual responsibility to help solve environmental problems, as well as visually celebrate the results.”