I think I need to keep going with last week’s post and my quote from Michael Braungart that there is no green architecture, only good or bad architecture. It’s an attention-getting quip, which as Eco Man Rob Fleming points out is “good yes, but problematic in that I know it’s very difficult to make good architecture under any circumstances. I don't like such a binary distinction. But I need to hear the rest of the context for the statement.” I take Eco Man seriously, being the only green superhero I know, so it’s worth elaborating. And since Eco Man and I are both educators, we know the difficulty of framing the complexities of design in such a way that the green thread is there at the start, not to ornament but to stitch together an array of otherwise seemingly disconnected issues.
I had a desk crit recently with a student who doesn't exactly seem ready to assume the responsibilities of being an architect. With exactly 4 full days between our 30 minute conversation and his final reckoning on Monday, he gamely tried to explain to me what he was doing. I withheld the obvious criticism that “explaining” was not what one should be doing at this point in the semester; one’s drawings and models should be doing the talking. Instead I poked around the edges of his words and scribbles, looking for a way in, a way to mount both a critical assessment of what he was doing and offer a few clear suggestions of what he needed to do. I was slightly more tactful than I’m being here, asking what his priorities were and how he intended to achieve them.
What made his proposal so infuriating was the wastefulness of it all. Wastefulness makes bad architecture; yet frugalness is no guarantee of good architecture. And that’s a tough bit of asymmetry to explain. This is the Righteousness Pass dilemma; it afflicts the real world as well as the academic world, but it poses a particular problem in school. Students try to inoculate themselves from rigorous criticism by taking on the design of shelters for the homeless or the battered, community centers for marginalized neighborhoods, housing for the poor, and even net-zero energy buildings. They are hoping that their focus on those unquestionably important issues will give them a pass for not addressing issues of quality of construction, appropriateness of materials, context, place-making, structure, and, well, beauty.
The flip side of the Righteousness Pass, let’s call it the Coolness Pass, is worse, though, and all too typical in academic settings: a shower of praise falls on students who make things formally attention-getting and trendy and then use the coolest of the cool tools to present. Do we ask them if this is a responsible use of materials, this ribbon of core-ten steel they pretend can be floor, wall, and roof with nary a joint or crumb of insulation? Do they think that because the expansive shiny blank walls look cool on screen that perhaps the imaginary inhabitants deserve natural light and air? The fly-through of a digital model has become the opiate of the profession. They get a pass for distracting us from the responsibility of the architectural endeavor itself. And, with a half dozen more students to see that afternoon, we weigh just how deeply we want to wade in, whether this student is ready to hear it. He was not ready to hear, didn't want to hear it; he was hoping for the Coolness Pass.
I also spent a half hour at the desk of another student who is closely attending to the profound genius loci of her chosen site. Her project is reaching a level of maturity that demands patient study, even by her critics, which is a challenge. It can not be apprehended or understood in a glance. Nearing the end of her thesis year, she is wrestling with what she believes she owes her site and project, living up to the rules she set for herself. She realizes, a little wistfully, that she’s left behind a flashier set of undergrad values. She doesn't need a Pass. She's making architecture.
Architecture is hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Each of these students illustrate to me the truth of Braungart’s other point: we can easily find ourselves doing the wrong thing perfectly, if we don’t make the effort to understand what the right thing is. The misguided formalist is, unfortunately aspiring to doing the wrong thing perfectly; his imagination is full of perfect wrong things which he mistakes for “good architecture.” The hard truth is that he's not working hard enough at it to even get the Coolness Pass, which he may one day recognize as a blessing in disguise. The thesis student, though, is drawing toward the right thing, literally and metaphorically. Being “green” isn’t at the top of her list as a separate issue, but stewardship of the situation is, and so green is subsumed in a larger paradigm. She is a humble petitioner for resources, offering a promise to the commons that she will use them for something of value. When a student gets the priorities right, and embraces green as integral to the good, then the lenses of architectural intention, formal strategy, and means, all snap into focus, trained on the physical/social/cultural situation. Then, there’s good architecture.