Beyond Buildings


Green Architecture

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My recent post about the architecture—or rather lack thereof—in the film Avatar evoked an unusual amount of reaction. Some felt that I had joined the cult of avatar-of-earth worship the film espouses; others thought that I showed signs of resisting the truth of Mother Earth's and Pandora’s (the planet on which most of Avatar takes place and which is a more luxuriant version of our own) sanctity. Finally, one reader accused me of refusing to take a stand.


So let me say this: I was pointing out that architecture as the making of buildings might not matter much in this debate in the future. In the here and now, I do think that making buildings is as often as not a waste of natural resources. I do think that most buildings further our divorce from our natural environment through designs that can only work with air conditioning and artificial heating, and that allow us no experiential relationship to that environment. I applaud the statement of intent written by Jeremy Rifkind and signed by most of the architects in the last Venice Architecture Biennale that they wanted to work towards the design of buildings that were net producers, rather than users, of energy, and I think this is a feasible goal.


I also think that the earth has become deified instead of reified, and that “sustainable architecture” has become both a fashion and a religion. Like most successful styles, it in fact justifies itself by claiming to be pursuing a higher truth—in this case that of saving this planet. The goal justifies many design crimes, from the relatively minor ones of the production of phenomenally ugly buildings (the guru of green design, William McDonough, is responsible for some especially egregious examples), to the creation of spaces and forms that are not particularly good for either the inhabitants or their surroundings.


Stylistically, “green” architecture often makes one of two mistakes: it either asks us to believe that the display of gizmos such as solar panels, water collectors or windmills is justified by their function, and that they do not need to be integrated with the overall design; or it mistakes “organic” design for the appearance of organicity, as if making something curved or green in color makes it more natural.


Most effective “green” techniques are in actuality no more and no less than common sense: providing good ventilation, orienting buildings correctly towards winds and sun, storing heat, and recycling waste water are all things architects should do as a matter of course. So is using new technology such as geothermal wells and flexible solar panels. There is no reason, however, to believe that a solar panel has any relation to either the human body or the landscape around us, and thus needs to be a defining element of a façade.


The deeper issue, as I noted above, is the question of whether we should build at all. I am enamored of the Dutch architect Willem-Jan Neutelings’ notion of “lazy architecture”: sometimes doing nothing, or at least very little, is more than enough. In the project-oriented world of Dutch architecture, when a client comes to you with a building project, what they are really asking for is a way to house or re-house their family or organization, with a series of ancillary goals (greater comfort, visibility, or access, for instance). Those are not always best addressed by making a building. Sometimes a renovation or even just an ad campaign might work just as well. We need to think of architecture as a way of understanding and reshaping our environment in a critical and responsible manner, not as the production of buildings.


Finally, I would go even further: given the way we have and are continuing to devastate our environment, we should make a simple rule: for every square foot of land given over to new construction, a foot should be given back to open space; for every acre taken over by sprawl, an acre of unused urban land should be freed up; for every meter, a meter, for every hectare, a hectare. Let’s not just build, but unbuild. Our earth might not be a goddess, but until we can travel to places like Pandora, it is all we have.



Comments (18 Total)

  • Posted by: lancehosey | Time: 10:42 AM Monday, February 01, 2010

    Love this piece. My response:

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  • Posted by: phbarch | Time: 10:26 AM Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Thank you! I had all but given up any hope that anyone, anywhere shared my not so popular opinions.

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  • Posted by: Anthony Sant Elia | Time: 11:50 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Well said. The greenwashing of architecture has produced many mediocre designs camouflaged as "sustainable." Terming one'self a "green" architect is as ridiculous as claiming to practice "structural architecture," "proportional architecture," "program-conscious architecture", or any of the other myriad of qualities that make good architecture. A sound architecture implicitly addresses all these qualities(green included) it does not define itself by a single one.

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  • Posted by: josnyc | Time: 10:13 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Unfortunately, your idea of one SF taken, one SF returned doesn't speak to or take into account the out-of-control mating habits (well, better make that reproductive habits) of our non-Avatarean species. Too many people now - with the outlook being for way too many people a year, decade or (dare I even say) century from now. The irony, of course, is that our dear "mother" will do just fine regardless of what we do to ourselves. After all, we're not destroying the earth - we're simply destroying ourselves. We really should continue this discussion. I’d love to hear from the christians, philistines, perhaps even a few words from the trailer trash. josnycATgmailDOTcom

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:26 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    It is true about LEED branding. Before the first oil imbargo in the 70's we were involved in active and passive energy projects as design/build architect and urban planner, including performing several energy auditing, as certfied energy auditors by the State of New Jersey Public Works, because of our expertise in energy design as architects. Now we have to go back and sit for an exam to be certified all over again as LEED expert and energy auditors without reciprosity. I have yet to hear from the The LEED National committee. WHERE IS THE AIA STANDING ON THIS MATTER?.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:07 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    How about 1 acre for a quarter acre, one sqaure foot for one half square foot and so on. And those who go against the grain will be beheaded or confined. But we should also sustain ouserlves before we sustain this planet earth or vise versa. Think of Haiti.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:38 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    It's time to challenge the judgement and wisdom of the green rating systems e.g Leed. Why is there so much branding around a LEED AP? An architect spends 5-6 years of academic training but anyone who decides to take the LEED exam studies and then is granted a label that creates the impression of a higher degree of knowledge or training than an architect. This is non-sensical. Anon

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  • Posted by: Coyote Architecture | Time: 6:37 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    How refreshing to have someone of your stature state such a wonderfully sane opinion. I've privately had the same opinions which I've shared with friends, but have not read or heard it from a public figure. I'm emailing this to as many people as I can. I will also recommend 'Avatar' as a movie to see. Frank Goetz

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  • Posted by: Ned Dodington | Time: 6:23 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    I would say both "spot-on" and "duh!" Of course Architecture divorces us from the "natural" environment. It was designed to do so. Historically, as soon as early societies decided to stop following roving herds of animals and become sedentary they developed agriculture and simultaneously -- architecture. Architecture and the separation from the environment (one kind of animal inside, everyone else out!) go hand in hand. However, this is all to make the erroneous assumption that the Human kind of animal is not natural (a clearly absurd claim). So, as I argue on, rather than spending a bunch of time worrying about how to save a little bit more energy in the construction phase or life of the building, we should really discuss the "original sin" of thinking of ourselves as anything other than already part of this "natural" system. We need to find a way to again interface with the world around us as active and guilt free agents. Solar and wind technologies are just that, tools to be used but no more. The real change must occur in our life-styles and world-views. Some people are working towards this end, few are architects. Please visit to find out more.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:04 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Amen! Bob M.

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  • Posted by: Mark LaPierre | Time: 2:32 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Speaking as a landscape architect, your concept of unbuilding as we build strikes me as not only logical, but downright confrontational as well. The rub comes when "unbuilding" becomes equated to the un-product-ing of contemporary architecture. As long as the manufacturing, sales, and consumption of things remains the modus operandi of the development/architecture/construction industry, the lowly earth (soil), its organic, unpackaged offspring, and the spiritual ether derived from their ancient marriage to civilization, will continue to diminish in the midst of our ever more technologically infatuated cultural "advancement".

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  • Posted by: DenisD | Time: 1:37 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Great article, and thank you for saying what I and many of my colleagues have been saying to each other for a while now. I really identify with your analogy of "fashion". In that world the designers decide what is en vogue, then push their ideas to their market. That's not a bad thing in itself, but the market in that case is those whom want to be perceived as en vogue. In architecture, although creatively solving problems is our mandate, we used to define beauty as a function of axionamatic rules of order, such as context, scale, balance, proportion and order. In todays environment, I see too many solutions that define beauty as simply "Green, but unique. As architects and human tenants of Planet Earth, we are duty bound to be stewards of the Planet, but not for the sake of being seen as en vogue. for the sake of creating a beautiful addition to the environment , while meeting all of the design criteria, such as program, budget, structure, and sustainability. To be justifying a design by its "greenness" is no different that justifying by its structural integrity, or budget compliance. Thanks again.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:13 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Thank you for this...I am so glad you had the nerve to write this article. Good architecture is "green" by it's nature, as one of the comments points out. The most green thing an architect can do is site a house properly and after that work on passive heating and cooling techniques. Then, if you are going to use all of those resources it better be beautiful!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:07 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    I tell my students the first question they must ask is: "Will a building solve this problem?"

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  • Posted by: | Time: 12:45 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Agree with "that most buildings further our divorce from our natural environment through designs that can only work with air conditioning and artificial heating, and that allow us no experiential relationship to that environment. " My blog has several articles on passive buildings and their value to the envirnonment. I would be honored if you would go to - My blog is Don Tishman's Real Estate Development and Investing Solutions> I would like to have a link on my site to yours don tishmsn

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:43 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Finally someone calls BS on the so-called 'green architecture'. Thank you! It has troubled me for years that true desigh abilty has been superceded by the explanantion that an ugly project actually attractive because it is "really green"! I whole-heartedly agree that the basis of sustainable design is really just common sense, and can be incorporated into very attractive buildings following the design principles (form, detail, proportion, texture, etc.) established a few thousand years ago as pleasing to the human eye. Good article.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:37 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    interesting concept. seems that our built environment though would become a lot more dense under the return a meter concept. while i agree that urban sprawl should be abated, i am not sure that the ever increasing mass of humanity can be accommodated in a desirable built environment with the give it back approach.

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  • Posted by: Terry Calhoun | Time: 12:37 PM Monday, January 25, 2010

    Green building is the end result of well done planning and design. However, rather than your "two mistakes," it could be that at this stage in the development of our awareness, the very visible objects and technology that are NOT integrated into the design as they now doubt some day will be, assist in the buildings themselves playing an educational and awareness role for those who interact with them. Otherwise, users might not have an consciousness that they are in a building with design elements to be "green."

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.