Buildings in Plain Packages
In April, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd launched the world’s first health campaign that bans good design.
Research conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reveals that attractive graphics on cigarette packaging distract from the health warnings about the dangers of smoking. In response, Rudd is mandating that cigarette companies use generic “plain packaging” to ensure that the warnings are more prominent. The move effectively makes graphic design illegal,
Imagine a similar rule for architecture. Because buildings produce nearly half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and use 75 percent of our electricity, they contribute dramatically to climate change and pose a serious threat to public health, especially among children—who, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards because their immune systems aren’t fully developed.
Yet, unlike cigarettes, buildings don’t come with warning labels. But maybe they should. As I suggested in my column last Spring (“Danger Signs,” Architect, April 2010), “Picture mandatory ticker-tape marquees with the number of BTUs burned (or children getting asthma, or species dying out, or forest acres shrinking) constantly ticking upward, like dollars on national debt clocks.”
Such warning signs might cause something of a stir if they were noticeable, but they could get overshadowed by the pyrotechnics of ambitious design, the very buildings that are most wasteful. “Look at the architecture of the last 15 years,” architect James Wines complained in 2009. “It's been more flamboyant and more wasteful than it's ever been before. To build any of these buildings by Frank Gehry, it takes… 60 to 80 percent more metal and steel and construction than it would to enclose that space in a normal way. So you're talking about incredible waste. Mind-boggling waste.”
Maybe the plain packaging” of Australian cigarettes should apply to American architecture. Maybe energy hogs should be required to come in humble, unassuming envelopes. There could be beauty incentives: the more energy you save, the more you get to spruce up your building.
The flip side is that communities would suffer from a rash of ugly buildings. Then again, that doesn’t seem to bother anyone now.