Does a building have to be ugly to be good? OK, that is an overstatement. Let me try again: Does a building have to be mediocre in its appearance and the experience you have there to meet higher standards of environmental sustainability? That, to me at least, is the nub of the four-sided debate that has arisen between the editors of Vanity Fair, Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin, L.A. Times critic Christopher Hawthorne, and this site’s own Lance Hosey.
I wrote about the Vanity Fair selection of “the five most important buildings, bridges, or monuments constructed since 1980" when it first appeared, and have since been surprised that it has not proven to be more of a lightning rod for debate. Starchitects such as Frank Gehry, whose Bilbao Guggenheim design “won” the magazine survey, usually create proportionally as much gossip and venom in the architectural blogosphere as Paris Hilton does in the “real” world. Maybe it was that the list was so predictable that the only true criticism that could arise was the fact that sustainability did not appear to be an overt criterion in Vanity Fair selectors’ choices.
That, to me, is the point: A good building should be sustainable in the same way that it should stand up. It should use the least amount of resources in its construction to maximum effect, and should use as few resources as possible in its operation. If it does so, that does not yet make it good architecture, just a good building. If a building stands up, fulfills its functions, adds to its context and is minimally invasive of our non-renewable resources, it can be either a competent structure or can be great architecture—depending on how it is designed. A more interesting question to me would be: When does a building do so many great and important things that the fact that it uses air conditioning while having a clear glass skin (I’m talking to you, Mies van der Rohe) might be acceptable?
Hosey’s “G-List” consists of buildings that are competent. I certainly applaud that. Few of them, however, are, in my opinion, great pieces of architecture. The Renzo Piano-designed Times Building in New York? A boxy detraction from New York’s skyline, a giant waste of space and resources. Dockside Green, by Busby Perkins+Will? A bland and not very generous housing project. Most of the projects, in fact, are mediocre in anything other than their sustainability. Some, I would argue, are even wasteful, despite their eco-gadgets: Piano’s Academy of Sciences in San Francisco might have a green roof, but it is a massive structure covering acres of wasted cubic space while dwarfing the pitiful remains of the existing building. It would not be such a big issue if it were not that such buildings make it seem as if you have to make bland buildings enlivened by techno-gadgets in order to be good. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, we called it the "goat-hair sock syndrome": to show your eco bona fides, you had to wear—and show—those uncomfortable and ugly garments.
I know that Hosey will disagree with me. Of his own list, he says, “The projects by Piano and Foster, the two architects represented on both, are arguably more compelling than their projects in VF. And most of the other projects here, compared with those in VF, are better scaled, more responsive to context, more humane, more comfortable, and possibly more attractive—in other words, better designed.” I would beg to differ, and it might be fun to go through some of those buildings together and reason them out. However, instead of arguing about the buildings, perhaps we should, as Hawthorne and Kamin both suggest, find a way of judging buildings integrally, with responses to statics and resources weighed with scale, texture, and comfort, as well as with such more elusive characteristics as sociability, ability to excite, and revelation of the inherent character or nature of the institution housed. Or, as Kamin would put it, "both sexy and environmentally responsible." Finally, I am interested in architecture’s ability to open our eyes to the reality we have made, to help us understand that reality, and to offer a concrete and inhabitable alternative.
One final note: Making “best” lists is not all bad. I know it sounds like a beauty pageant, and might distract us from more serious issues, but it is exactly by throwing the spotlight on concrete and well-documented examples that we can have a debate about something, rather than engaging in abstract rhetoric. Maybe I will try to put together another kind of list—Most Bang for the Buck, the buildings of the last 30 years that had the greatest impact, and made the best spaces with the least use of either financial or natural resources. The Palais du Tokyo renovation, anyone?