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Why Are Starchitects Bent on Destroying the World?

Josh Stevens ran an interesting article a few days ago on Planetizen about the troubled relationship between superstar architects (“starchitects”) and the sustainability movement. Stevens begins by pointing out that unlike a Picasso painting, the execution of an architect’s vision has very real, significant, and measurable energetic and environmental consequences.

"The operation of the United States' buildings' lighting, heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems," he writes, "collectively represent an estimated 60 percent of the nation's energy usage, and they account for almost 40 percent of the nation's carbon emissions. New construction consumes millions of tons of energy-intensive materials, including concrete, steel, glass, and lumber."

So in an era when ecological crises are at any number of tipping points and global oil production is potentially about to fall off a cliff, it would seem to make sense for sustainability to be a the top of any architect’s agenda.

But the architectural power-players Stevens quotes are at best lukewarm about sustainability. Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, tells Stevens that "A sophisticated building in an environmental sense is not ipso facto a sophisticated building in a design sense . . . I wouldn't mix the two."

That's not as bad as post-modern "deconstructivist" architect Peter Eisenman, whose office told Stevens "Mr. Eisenman... does not 'wrestle' with sustainability."

Not that these attitudes should be a surprise. Eisenman specializes in designing ugly, absurd, dysfunctional buildings that deliberately make their users uncomfortable and which start to fall apart within a few years of completion.

Thank God his tic-tac-toe building never won bidding to replace the World Trade Center (though it came uncomfortably close). In 1982, a debate between Eisenman and Christopher Alexander brought the anti-humanist philosophy of Eisenman and architects like him into sharp relief. After talking past each other for several rounds, Alexander finally pins Eisenman down:

CA: "The thing that strikes me about your friend's building -- if I understood you correctly -- is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

PE: That is correct.

CA: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world."

Is it surprising, then, that someone whose anti-humanist ideology willfully pursues disharmony and dysfunction would laugh at the very idea of sustainability (even if the survival of the human race depends on it?).

Alexander's point has always been that functionality is inseparable from aesthetics in architecture—a point that can be applied to sustainability issues as well. Natural light on two sides of a room not only saves electricity, it makes people more comfortable and contributes to emotional health. Natural materials not only carry less embodied energy, but they also make for buildings that feel more natural and alive.

Of course all this assumes that "functionality" in a building means making people feel more comfortable, natural, human, alive and happy. If one's goal, on the other hand, is maximizing retail profits or making sure there is plenty of parking, a different model takes hold.

Neither goal, however, explains the strange monstrosities that Eisenman, Liebskind and others produce. The fact that these architects still manage to pawn off their ill-conceived creations onto an intellectually-befuddled public probably says more about us than anything else. If we are so disconnected from our feelings that we celebrate the building of structures that make us uncomfortable, is any surprise that we are insensitive to ecological catastrophe we have created?

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