Happy "Green" Year

Lake Superior State University is feeling pretty superior these days, making news with its annual list of banned words. (http://www.lssu.edu/banished/current.php) I yield to no one as a vocabulary snob, but like all year end lists, it’s too easy to inflict some collateral damage while shooting down words. Maverick? It’s a mad cow. First Dude? Yikes. And that “<3”? I don't even know what that is!

You know what’s coming: it’s the “green” ban. Mea culpa, mea culpa...I have used “green” as a verb, as synecdoche, as unopened baggage, as righteous medal of honor, as code word, as insider jargon, with and without “ “’s, as otiose shorthand to avoid having to think of a deeper, more effective phrase. It’s the same problem with “carbon footprint.” Still, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater...it’s just gray water and we can filter it and use it again after all. The baby, though, is the whole sustainability paradigm (oops, that one was probably banned in the last decade) and it’s still a little helpless, mewling, and incoherent. Our infant paradigm has ill-defined boundaries and lacks discipline. It has no clear sense of what belongs to it. It makes noises at inopportune times. It demands our attention and won’t let it go. Our little one is green in so many ways.

I worry that parts of the design community will fold up “green” and file it in the archives with “modernism”, “post-modernism”, “deconstrucivism”, “twigs in space”, “blob-itecture”, “neo-neo-classicism”, and all the other instantly consumed trends of the last decades. Not that the entire design and construction community appears to be interested in green; somebody provided design services to Dubai for the indoor ski slope. This isn’t fashion; it’s the opposite of fashion. This the necessary return to first principles in urban and building design.

Words have enormous power. By naming trends, groups, movements, we divide the “in” from the “out” and in so doing we make jargon. Naming something, whether music or architectural practices, “alternative” marginalizes that production and sets it in opposition to convention. Naming something “green” unfortunately does the exact same thing. The need for the appellation means that green is not mainstream. If only it were true that “green architecture” were just a synonym for “good architecture.” I was just talking to a friend of mine, an architect from London, who commented on this very issue. He confessed to blanch a bit each time he described his practice as “green”, or saw his firm described as such in the media. Not that he doesn’t fully believe that this is the way to build, but he recognizes that he’s been sorted into a category which attracts and repels in unpredictable measure.

For years I was deeply involved with a group called Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. It is still active and doing remarkable work, most of it centered around the Bay Area on the west coast.
http://www.adpsr.org/Home.htm Even when I held office in the group I had the perverse desire that it, along with all of the AIA Committees on the Environment, would one day become obsolete as ALL architects, designers, and planners should be for social responsibility. There is no other task for the design professions. Call it green, call it sustainable development, call it environmental justice, call it public health, call it national security, call it economic stimulus...call it whatever you want, just don't ban the word.

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