February 25, 2010
Sao Paulo warholdollar
SP301, Scott Peterman, 2005 (source)


I am rather confused by all of this talk of green in the architectural community. Architecture is intrinsically a wasteful process: transforming natural resources into a luxury good. While it is possible to mediate this waste, there is no eliminating it. At the most basic level, it takes stuff to make stuff, and unless we start conjuring buildings out of thin air, this fact will remain. LEED Certification, an initiative that promises environmental salvation in shades of Olympic gold, silver and bronze, is more successful as a marketing strategy than as an environmental toolkit. Implementing sustainable strategies at the scale of the building, while a responsible first step, should not be the end game.


In a 2008 MIT study on greenhouse gas emissions, it was estimated that eight and a half tons was the smallest possible carbon footprint for an American citizen (this lowest possible number reflected the lifestyle of a homeless person, sleeping in shelters and eating at soup kitchens). In contrast, the average global carbon footprint is estimated at four tons. The discrepancy between the numbers relates to all of the intangible infrastructure that we all pay into, such as the military, roads, policing, libraries, and other governmental services. The study ultimately concludes that in order to substantially lower our ecological footprints, we must implement environmental strategies not just at the scale of the individual, but at the scale of the nation (and optimally at a global scale). These same principles can and should be applied to architecture: legislation for mandatory sustainable building practices, directing growth away from ecologically sensitive areas into cities where infrastructure already exists and taxation of carbon heavy lifestyles, to name a few.


E. Sean Bailey


Dollar Sign, Andy Warhol, 1981 (source)


‘Green is like a fat, very healthy cow lying still and unmoving, only capable of chewing the cud, regarding the world with stupid dull eyes.’


—Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art



With postmodernism’s blurring of cultural hierarchy, designers today—unlike those avant-gardes or radicals of previous decades who were reacting to the status quo—are actively pursuing high-paying commercial projects. While engaging as many people as possible is a great ambition, for better or for worse it may result in the cheapening of work in order for it to be easily understood. Perhaps producing loosely layered work which can be accessed by many, while embodying or alluding to complex ideas, can satisfy the two sides of this quickly narrowing gap.


Erandi de Silva




3 Responses to “GREEN”

  • Sylvan Z says:


    Economic initiatives are a step towards sustainability, but the reality is that for as long as civilization has existed catastrophically bad environmental practices have been good business. Taxing carbon heavy lifestyles would be a great start towards making bad environmental policy unprofitable, but it has to go much deeper. We need a values overhaul. I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s question from his book Collapse where he wonders what the person on Easter Island must have been thinking when they cut down the very last palm tree, the final blow in a program of deforestation that eventually destroyed their entire civilization thanks to erosion, crop failure and ultimately starvation. We are in the throws of a global program of deforestation and total environmental collapse, but we haven’t yet reached the precipice of ecological apocalypse. If business continues as usual, utilizing the same old logic of resource extraction and exploitation, we will reach that precipice, and quickly.


    The “green movement” as represented by Al Gore, William Mcdonough and their copatriots is primarily concerned with reform within the current framework. Pushing forward such initiatives as consumer choice politics, carbon trading and other band-aid solution will only prolong the coming collapse. The green movement is far too focused on metrics as arcane as global carbon emissions, which are far more subjective than the increasingly mounting evidence of desertification, deforestation, agricultural land salinization, fishery collapse and aquifer loss. Anyone interested in a thorough exploration of these should pick up Derrik Jensen’s Endgame, clear a few weeks of their schedule, but a few bottles of wine and bunker down in their comfiest chair and prepare for a long depressing and scary ride.


    It is true that Architecture is by definition an expenditure of resources, but it’s important to look at what architecture can be in contrast to what it is now. Architecture, and architects historically and currently work to serve the interests of the first world elite; those heavy carbon users you suggested taxing. Vernacular architecture, or what I like to think of as the Architecture of Survival, is markedly different, as it is by definition local, small-scale and designed to serve immediate utilitarian needs. It can also be incredibly beautiful, meaningful and powerful in ways that neither cathedrals nor skyscrapers are capable of. It can also be locally resource exploitative and lead to environmental degredation, depending on economic circumstance and what materials are available, however I think it’s important to note that there is a moral difference between a Haitian family contributing to national deforestation to build a shack to live in and fuel a cooking stove versus a Frank Gehry museum that uses incredibly resource intensive industrial machinery to produce a sheet metal sculpture to be enjoyed by only the very rich.


    In the example of Easter Island, deforestation was the price of competition between rival tribal chiefs racing to outdo each other with ever larger Maoi stones, massive ancestral totems that required a huge allocation of labor and resources (timber and food) to complete. The Easter Islanders killed themselves in good ol’ artistic competition.


    Architecture is channeling that instinct, building ever larger maoi stones and ignoring the quickly diminishing resource base while we pat ourselves on the back for figuring out how to put wind turbines in the middle of a skyscraper. Architecture needs a massive change of priorities and it starts with us all. It starts with learning and accountability. We need to start pointing fingers at the most disgusting and wasteful practices and create a culture that counts it’s tree’s and understands what is necessary for everyone’s mutual survival. It starts with mutual aid, community building and resistance; now, before it’s too late and we’re wondering what the we we’re thinking when we pumped the last gallon of oil out of the tar sands, blew the top off the last mountain looking for coal, or leveled the last rainforest in service of sweet, sweet luxury.

  • E. Sean Bailey says:


    My difficulty with the vernacular model is that it puts me out of a job _ it puts civilization as we know it out of a job. I realize that this is a selfish and short sighted rebuff, but I wonder whether it has to be an all or nothing proposition. I also wonder whether it is necessary that we all build our own shelters when there is already a substantial amount of infrastructure that is built and awaiting occupancy. Half of Detroit sits empty.

  • Sylvan Z says:


    The creative utilization of existing infrastructure is actually a huge part of why I’m in school to become an architect… and yes the vernacular model puts you and I out of our job and potential jobs respectively. It’s a hard thing to balance, and I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing proposition, in fact, I don’t think it can be. Change doesn’t happen like that, it’s a slow, agonizing process that both the architects of today and the architects of tomorrow can participate in meaningfully.


    Half of Detroit stands empty for sure, and for some pretty compelling reasons. Most of New York City is occupied but there are a lot of businesses/occupancies that I’d rather see replaced with something that meets people’s needs. I dream of skyscrapers retrofitted into giant co-operative living spaces.



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