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  WE’RE ALL GREEN NOW

BIG AND GREEN: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century edited by David Gissen, 192pp, £32 (hb), Princeton Architectural Press, 2002
How can BIG and GREEN possibly go together in anyone’s mind post-Schumacher? Great title: you have to pick this book up. It’s one that sets out to change the relation of these two words, at least as far as skyscrapers are concerned.

The book asks you to accept the assumptions that cities as we know them are here to stay and that we are going to keep on needing skyscrapers. That being the case, it demonstrates we can build them to be environmentally friendly after all.

Skyscrapers GREEN? Perhaps we should qualify this with ‘relatively’. The editor introduces high-rise buildings that conserve energy, improve air quality, use environmentally acceptable materials. Energy saving in a large building is a large saving, the argument goes.

There are some great designs here. The first in the book is Norman Foster’s Ventiform, a smoothed V-shape in ground plan, swelling as it rises to accommodate a wind turbine in its top angle capable of generating enough power for 1500 suburban homes. The aerodynamic shape of the building increases the turbine’s generating capacity. It’s a magnificent sculptural form: white and shapely against a blue sky. Oh hang on, sorry this one’s a computer image. Year 2001, and ( in brackets) unbuilt. Similarly, an unbuilt Richard Rogers design for Tokyo integrates wind turbines.

Like other examples in the book, Foster’s idea came from natural processes: windblown sand carves out rocks into ‘ventifacts’. Pearce Partnership mimic-ed the air-flow of termite mounds to build a mid-rise commercial and retail building without air-conditioning in Harare in 1996. As in a termite mound, the roof is warmed by the sun; at night the warm top creates a suction to draw cool air in at the base, which chills the concrete floors and keeps down daytime temperatures inside the building.

Natural air-flow for ventilation is one of the more frequent gestures towards sustainability. (It’s one Richard Rogers has worked with for some time, and a brief interview with him is appended at the end of the book. ) There are smaller gestures too, such as light fixtures which automatically adjust for changing light levels and occupancy to reduce energy consumption ­ as in a bank’s Amsterdam HQ, designed by Pei Cobb Freed and Partners in 1999. Lloyd’s of London (Rogers 1986) gets into the book because of its modular construction, and the way that saved on both construction waste, and time.

The wackiest design is the 3D Garden by MVRDV in the Netherlands. Imagine a square block of high-rise flats. Now imagine a glass-sided balcony on each one ­ no, no, not tucked in along the side, but sticking right out as if they were for walking the plank over the briny, (sorry, those with vertigo had better skip to the next paragraph) a long way out (about 30 feet judging by the scale of the standard six-foot computer-generated bystander) and in irregular directions so that none is exactly over another. Next, out on the very end of each plant a tree, a large (flowering) tree with its roots in the bucket let into the end of the plank, I mean balcony. These trees are going to shade the building. These trees are going to purify the air around it. Its occupants can spend less on their air conditioning. Mind you, given the trouble I have staking trees against the wind down here at ground level, they are going to have a bit of bother gardening up there. Me, I’d have to do the weeding with my eyes shut, out there on the end of the plank, nothing around me but air.

What surprised me about this one is that is isn’t just on paper: the building was started in 2001.

But who’s this book written for? It hardly makes a source book of ideas with only a page to a project. The technical diagrams are reproduced almost like footnotes, on a scale too small to work with even through a magnifying glass. Technical information is similarly limited and vaguely generalised: the Eden Project’s domes ‘are made of a material with neither the weight nor the maintenance requirements of glass, which traps heat and enhances plants’ exposure to the sun’. A material which I should like to know much more about ­ but details aren’t what this book’s about.

When I work through the small print of the prelims, I find this is the book of the show ­ the catalogue for an exhibition about sustainable architecture at the National Building Museum Washington in 2002. In the list of sponsors of one kind or another are the names of the architects and clients whose constructions feature in the book. It’s an industry congratulating itself that it’s doing its bit for the environment. It’s a book hijacking green virtues for big business…but only of course because that also saves money. If GREEN were going to cost BIG more, it’s values wouldn’t be so readily appropriated.


         © Jane Routh 2003