The local Barnes & Noble is a popular hangout, especially on Sunday, when people come in with their kids, grab some coffee, pick up The New York Times, and sit by the fountain out front. Lately, the fountain’s been off limits because the plumbing is being repaired. But there’s still food for thought out front thanks to the messaging written on the panels of the construction barrier—it’s Barnes & Noble, after all.
One of the panels closest to the front door stopped me in my tracks. On it was sketched the outline of a Roman aqueduct. Underneath was a sentence that went something like this: When building the fountains that provided water for the cities of the empire, the engineers created critical infrastructure that was utilitarian and a thing of beauty.
What do words about beauty have to do with the focus on sustainability? Maybe a lot for those of us who are trying to marshal a broad constituency behind sustainable design. Part of the difficulty we’ve been having is the way we talk about it. In far too much of the marketing about green design, the stress has been on the utilitarian: Like broccoli, it’s good for you.
Yes, we’ve had some success of late in getting the attention of the public and our clients thanks, ironically, to this economy. Saving money by turning off the lights, switching to fluorescent lamps, and caulking are all the rage, but, let’s admit it, we all do it somewhat grudgingly. It’s hard to escape the feeling that if most people were given the choice, they’d bring back the incandescent bulb. What’s missing in the way we’ve been making the case for sustainable design is a passion for the expressive dimension of architecture.
This month marks the 75th anniversary of Fallingwater, a masterpiece that to this day has lessons to teach all of us about the beauty and functionality of design excellence. Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect whose work made no distinction between the two. Equally apparent here and throughout his career is his understanding that the expressive element of architecture and its utility are sides of the same coin. It’s an insight he shared with the builders of the Roman aqueducts. More than the bottom line, it’s a way of talking about what we do that’s most likely to create a public demand for green design.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President