Renzo Piano Building Workshop, California Academy of Sciences (Credit: Unknown photographer/via propertysolutionsf.com)
Last night, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne took issue with the premise of the “green” building survey I published yesterday (“The G-List”), claiming the new poll, like the original Vanity Fair survey, suffers from “its own blind spot.”
First, I should say that I respect Hawthorne a great deal. His 2001 Metropolis article “The Case for a Green Aesthetic” remains one of the only concerted attempts, other than my own, to address the topic of my forthcoming book, The Shape of Green. In fact, because I value Hawthorne’s opinion, I included him in my original list of 150 people I asked to participate in the survey, as he mentions. He didn’t answer that request, on July 8, but he replied almost immediately when I announced the results, on July 27. (I thought my first note might have disappeared in his junk mail folder, since spam filters seem to interpret “Hosey” as profanity, but Hawthorne explains that he declined to reply because he disagrees with the premise.) Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin also did not reply when invited, though he did write about the same topic, on July 21, two weeks after getting my request. While neither Hawthorne nor Kamin replied to my original invitation, both were among the first to respond to the results yesterday.
Maybe some critics prefer to interpret events but not participate in shaping them, a position that would have baffled Lewis Mumford or Jane Jacobs. (There’s a difference between a critic and a journalist. I’d like to think I’m a decent critic, but I’d make a lousy journalist. I can’t keep my voice out of things. See—there it is again.) By contrast, Susan Szenasy, of Metropolis, enthusiastically voted in my poll, and I found her contributions particularly insightful. Three out of five of her picks ended up in the final list, and she was the only person to vote for Toshiko Mori’s underappreciated Darwin Martin House Visitor Center. Szenasy’s Next Generation Design Prize program is testament to the value of a critic identifying—but also helping to create—new talent.
But I digress. While I have great respect for Hawthorne, in this case I think his criticism seems off the mark. Graciously, he warned me that he planned to write about the survey and “take issue with the ground rules” because, he felt, highlighting individual buildings doesn’t “make much sense for a poll devoted to green architecture,” as he put it in his e-mail. Fair enough, and I discuss that opinion in the article he criticizes, so of course I was aware of it. In fact, I myself made the same point he did—that the green movement could be motivated more by innovative strategies than by single buildings. He doesn’t mention this in his post, which surprises me.
Comparing apples to apples seemed to make sense in this case, and at least 52 people (the voters) agreed. But I’m less curious about why Hawthorne disagrees with the premise of the survey or even why he chose to ignore many of these details; what perplexes me most is why such an astute critic would overlook the richest aspects of the topic, which I described to him in detail yesterday by e-mail. He tells me he didn't see this until after he wrote his piece, but I think it's worth repeating these thoughts here:
I intentionally mimicked the Vanity Fair process in order to highlight the fact that it’s not really the same kind of question, as I mention in the article. On the other hand, all the people I asked certainly know enough about the performance specs of at least five buildings they consider exemplary. That’s different from asking the general public to answer this question. In the VF survey, an "expert" presumably is someone whose personal "taste" is considered extraordinary; in my poll, I chose all the "experts" because they are well versed in various strategies and principles of sustainability. For me, that’s part of the interest of the topic—to call attention to the fact that judging what’s "green" shouldn’t just be about what I like versus what you like. No one voted for any buildings that aren’t well documented or can’t rationally be claimed to have environmental, social, and economic value, etc. (Most of the links to projects here take you to performance specs at the AIA/COTE Top Ten site, at least for those projects that are featured there.) However, if numerous people had all voted for some project that is conspicuously not "green" by any conventional definition (say, Bilbao, for example), what would that have revealed?
In the end, this list admittedly isn’t about the "greenest" projects, as defined by some absolute standard; it’s about what 52 respected and informed people say is "green." In that sense, it’s exactly like the VF list—and it also says a lot about the state of green building today, good or bad. When it comes down to it, who can define precisely what a baseline condition of "sustainability" is? Is it LEED? Is it more or less than LEED? Would a survey like this be more acceptable if it were a list of the projects that have gotten the most LEED credits over the past decade? More generally, is "green" a binary condition, and a project is either green or not green? There are subtle gradations, of course, and until we find a way to measure perfectly every aspect of "sustainability" (including elusive social metrics and quality of life indicators), it will remain subject to interpretation, to some degree, in which case asking knowledgeable people for their opinion is not only acceptable—it’s inevitable. [Also, of course, the LEED process itself is subject to interpretation by USGBC staff, so it isn’t perfectly objective. There is no Scantron test for sustainability—yet.] Some argue that trying to measure everything is dangerous because you fall victim to the same bean-counter mindset that produced the environmental crisis in the first place. Perhaps it’s wiser to pursue this agenda with an open mind and a deep well of curiosity than it is to rely on fixed standards of performance that evaluate every project with exactly the same template.
It strikes me as odd that a critic as thoughtful as Hawthorne would ignore the most thought-provoking questions raised by the survey. Yet I suspect that his actual view of the topic is subtler than his published view, but maybe it’s hidden behind some kind of, um, blind spot.