In July, as a response to the lack of environmentally ambitious buildings in Vanity Fair’s widely reported architecture survey that month, I conducted my own poll to identify the most popular examples of sustainable design. Voters each picked up to five projects that, for them, represent “the most important ‘green’ buildings since 1980.” While the 18 buildings that received the most votes are all models of sustainable design, I was surprised that certain works didn’t make the final cut. Had I participated in my own survey, I might have used only one criterion: place-based innovation.
For an agenda driven by environmental sensitivity, green building often lacks contextual specificity. One reason might be that the LEED rating system, the most popular guideline for green, doesn’t require regional variation, so it can be used as a one-size-fits-all template to produce generic solutions, particularly in the “corporate green” of commercial office structures. Bioregionalism, or bioclimatic design, is one way to resist this tendency, but design can get even more specific, embodying the unique natural and cultural circumstances of a specific terrain. I call this Localism, and below are five great examples. Some received one or more votes in my July survey, but none garnered enough to make the top 18.
1. Loblolly House, Taylors Island, Md. KieranTimberlake, 2006
While most prefab houses look as if they could go anywhere, the Loblolly meshes with its setting, the striated cladding resulting from literally drawing the elevation over a photograph of the surrounding loblolly pines.
2. Ballard Library, Seattle Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, 2005
Drawn from the neighborhood’s Scandinavian and maritime history, the sweeping lines of the library are a rare blend of the spare and the rustic—and far superior to the blunt prism of OMA’s Seattle Central Library.
3. City Hall, London Foster + Partners, 2003
Leaning into the sun and away from the River Thames, this extraordinary structure shades itself while gathering more light onto the riverwalk. It uses only 25 percent of the energy of a typical office building.
4. Phoenix Central Library, Phoenix Will Bruder + Partners, 1995
Bruder transformed cheap materials into a transcendent space in the desert—at less than $100 per square foot. The oculus skylights above the structural columns are magical.
5. Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center, New Caledonia Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 1998
The wood-slat thermal towers echo vernacular traditions but also play an essential role in passive ventilation. A veritable icon of Localism.