The Solar Stigmata of the Ecology Movement

There is an ironic serendipity in the proliferation of solar collectors, attached to buildings with functionalist conviction in the 1970s, and the deconstructivist taste for fragmentation in the 1980s, when an aesthetic based on dismembered bits of metal trusses that could have carried solar panels but didn't was widely admired. (A synthesis finally occured when the Benisch & Partner office hired a designer from Coop Himmelblau to work on the Hysolar Institute in Stuttgart in 1988 and placed solar collectors on the extruded parts of the building.) Solar buildings pro duced during the 1970s caused a certain embarassed revulsion because the awkward solar technology overpowered the architectural program and form, reducing design to something less than the sum of its parts. Ecological architecture built since the energy crisis carries the stigma of solar collectors and generally suffers from the same positivist logic of functionalist modernism, by which the complexity of architecture as an aesthetic, urban, and structural system is reduced to solving prioritized functions.

Although there had been a thriving industry producing solar water heaters before World War II, their poor efficiency (ten-year life expectancy) and the low price of postwar electricity made them economically obsolete. The resurgence of solar heaters during the 1970s energy crisis was thus an unacknowledged revival. There had been an earlier generation of solar architecture, proposed initially between 1938 and 1958, when scientists and architects at MIT collaborated on four experimental solar houses that used active equipment for gathering and storing solar radiation. The principles of these systems were developed from Horace de Saus-sure's heat trap, or "hot box," introduced in 1767. He based the design on observing glass-walled conservatories. An insulated box with three layers of glass when left in the sun could reach a temperature of 230° F. The MIT group perfected the copper-coiled mechanism invented by Edward Morse in the 1880s for rooftop solar collectors and added innovative storage tanks, a feature that proved to be uneconomic. In 1947, Dr. Maria Telkes and the architect Eleanor Raymond collaborated on a house, the Dover House, that used glauber salts, which could absorb seven times as much heat as water or crushed rock, as a means of improving heat storage.71 But until the development of photovoltaic panels in the 1970s, it was impossible to guarantee complete heating needs through solar devices in northern climates. The expense of solar houses could not compete with those heated by fossil fuels, and the research program was discontinued.

During the 1960s a significant change of consciousness occurred, and the subsequent demand for solar energy was championed not from an economic perspective but from one of social responsibility. Most important in this shift in mindset were the jeremiads of Rachel Carson, who in The Silent Spring (1962) exposed the extent to which the pesticide DDT had penetrated the world's ecosystems and launched the general challenge to think of pollution as a global problem. Tangential to this were the Civil Rights movement and the movement to ban nuclear weapons. Ecology became an ethical position at that moment, and it was one of several political issues that shook the established ideology of progress based on the expansion of military and industrial technologies.

The reactions to the first wave of environmentalism were multifarious, ranging from reforms within the profession to anarchic Utopian experiments. Ecology, although it had been used in science for several generations, was not explicitly appropriated by architecture until the 1950s, when Richard Neutra made it the cen tral focus of his writings on architecture. Neutra built a series of desert houses in California that use architectural and landscape features to naturally mediate the climate.72 Lewis Mumford had been preparing a critical terrain for the ecology movement since the 1920s with his steady stream of attacks on urban policies and machine civilization. His most devastating critiques of the military industrial complex were published in the late 1960s in the two-volume Myth of the Machine. Serge Chermayeff allied his studies of the relationship of community formation to Mumford's environmentalism at this time. His thinking was influenced by gestalt research in cognitive theory and aspired to an architectural theory of holism. The Shape of Community, written with Alexander Tzonis in 1971, was one of the first academic attempts to promote a theory of architecture based on multidimensional environmental considerations.73

Two projects by Roche and Dinkeloo, the Oakland Museum (1963) and the Ford Foundation (New York, 1967), serve as emblematic responses by official culture to the environmental movement. In each case a symbolic garden is integrated into the building's program and offered as a public landscape. The Ford Foundation, which has an immense atrium garden, is, in fact, energy inefficient, since the garden necessitates extra climate control machinery. Such practices are a form of ecological tokenism, and once again natural conditions are represented rather than sustained.

Chermayeff s most famous student, Christopher Alexander, first devised a systems theory of decision making for architectural form that was close to cybernetic theory before converting his holistic method to more subjective, quasi-mystical criteria. A Pattern Language, written with six colleagues and published in 1977, is a veritable treatise on ecologically responsible design. It prescribes 253 rules, ranging from the scale of the region to that of the inglenook. As a theory it is intricate and ingenious in guiding the complex interrelationship of various design factors, but is seriously flawed by the insistence on universals that generally have been deduced from an ethnocentric analysis of the built form of traditional cultures. Alexander's attempt to generate a system of building procedures that is analogous to natural processes, where everything is connected to everything else, is, nevertheless, a conceptual breakthrough that seriously challenges the role of authorship in architectural design while questioning the validity of industrialized methods of production of the environment. Like the theories of Ruskin, Taut, or Steiner, his theory has a metaphysical platform that advocates the isomorphism between the human spirit and architectural form. It is not possible to properly construct buildings according to Alexander's pattern language until the overall system of production changes. The theory is thus unrealizable in its anticipation of redemptive circumstances, and has a latent suggestion of cultist control in the insularity of its logic. Although the rules of the pattern language are meant to insure variety, their application infers an authoritarian mandate.74

Probably the most widely used ecology-inspired text of this period was Ian McHarg's treatise on landscape, Design with Nature (1969), which created an awareness of geographic and natural features as elements of conservation. One of the largest applications of McHarg's methods was partly implemented at The Woodlands, a 25,000-acre new town on the edge of Houston, Texas, developed in 1971. McHarg advised the planners to avoid clear-cutting of trees and to enhance the paths of natural drainage, locating golf courses and other recreation facilities on the flood plain land. The first residents left a completely natural landscape around their houses, without front or back lawns, but this practice has been discontinued. While such an approach can be seen as relatively benign at the level of microclimate, the spread-out design of The Woodlands forces residents to drive for all their basic needs—school, work, and shopping—and thus does little to reduce daily contributions to high entropy. Saving a tree may not in the end be as environmentally astute as saving a trip.76

Paolo Soleri, an Italian student of Frank Lloyd Wright, produced a visually stunning Utopian theory called "arcologies" in the 1960s. He proposed a synthesis of architecture and ecology. His argument, illustrated with preposterous megastruc-tural projects for urbanizations in the air, below ground, and in the sea, each with a glorious Old Testament-sounding title, such as Noahbabel, is similar to Le Cor-busier's desire to raise buildings off the ground and have people live in denser settlements so that services can be concentrated. like a prophet, Soleri fled to the desert to construct Arcosanti, a demonstration community near Phoenix, which has been built mostly through the volunteer labor of architecture students since 1970. Arcosanti, which has immense concrete exedra hugging the cliffs of its site, is true to much of the formal promise of the arcologies models but does not make a convincing model of ecological or community organization because it is based upon geographical, economic, and social marginalization. Like all generalizing Utopias, it is a victim of its own specificity.

At the other end of the spectrum, such mainstream architects as Richard Stein tried to reform the conventions of practice. Long a member of the Sierra Club, Stein formed a study committee on environmental issues within the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in the late 1960s that led to the publishing oi Architecture and Energy (1978), a thorough examination of how energy performance can be analyzed and improved. The Department of Energy was established in 1971, and standards for energy efficiency were developed during the decade that greatiy reduced energy waste. Funded research and sponsored competitions during the 1970s led to computer programs to analyze the performance of buildings and improved thermal devices, such as double-paned windows filled with argon gas.76

In California, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Sim van der Ryn as state architect to develop a series of programs that would popularize ecology-conscious building practices. Van der Ryn had been one of the founders of the Farallones Insti-

tute, which produced the Integral Urban House in 1974, a lived-in exhibition of sustainable dwelling techniques fit into a conventional Victorian house on an urban site in Berkeley. During his tenure six energy-efficient state office buildings were constructed to demonstrate the advantages in comfort and cost of maintenance of passive systems. The Bateson Building in Sacramento is an attractive alternative to bureaucratic office buildings. It relies on vernacular solutions, such as planted trellises and shaded courtyards, as well as technologically innovative passive devices, such as suffusing screens to augment the distribution of light. Since their design, other issues such as indoor air pollution have altered even further the standards for environmentally sound office buildings.77

The oil embargo of 1973 created a frenzied demand for alternative energy solutions. Solar collectors became a symbol of environmental righteousness; President Jimmy Carter had some solar collectors installed to heat the White House swimming pool almost as soon as he took office to show a personal commitment to the movement. Hugh Stubbins's Citycorp skyscraper in New York City (1977) was designed with a dramatically sliced, solar-oriented top to demonstrate corporate support, but this was in fact a bluff since the solar panels were never installed, making it an empty symbolic gesture.

As part of the solar movement, Judy and Michael Corbett developed and designed a solar subdivision called Village Homes on seventy acres in Davis, California. Using some of McHarg's precepts, they reduced the width of the streets, exploited natural ground swales for drainage, and sited all the houses with southern exposures. The landscape needs a third less watering, and the solar features account for 50 to 75 percent of the heating. The success of the development did not lead to others like it, because short-term costs have remained a much higher priority than lowering entropy. The satisfaction of Village Homes is in the realm of energy consciousness and community values (very few of the original owners have moved), but not in architectural quality. The "wood butcher" ethic that set itself as the ecological subversion of architecture did as much to prevent a change in consciousness as the profession's own reluctance to accept reform.78

Recent buildings that have been designed to perform environmentally are usually uninspiring from a formal point of view. Most of the examples illustrated in Brenda and Robert Vale's Green Architecture (1991), for example, are either frightful neo-Steinerian excursions into resisting urban order, such as Alberts and Huut's grotesque NMB Bank in Amsterdam (1983-87), allegedly the most energy-efficient office building in Europe, or are well-meaning but awkwardly detailed retreats such as Amory and Hunter Lovins's Rocky Mountain Institute (1983, Aspen, Colorado). Only a few works, such as Glenn Murcott's Kempsey Museum in New South Wales, or Clark and Menafee's Middleton Inn near Charleston, or the Carraro House by Lake Flato in San Antonio, promise to combine ecology-conscious design with a synthesis of good details, expert proportional relationships, and a spatial order that would demand one to consider it culturally. Such works address the autonomous aspects of architecture while functioning well with thermal and fluvial conditions.

There are, of course, many more buildings that behave in a converse manner, where poor environmental performance is masked by inspiring form. Helmut Jahn's Illinois Center in Chicago or Richard Meier's High Museum in Atlanta are two of the more egregious examples: because of overexposed glazing they provide a preview of the greenhouse effect.

One of the few environmentalist-oriented projects where the design communicates more than just its teleological relationship to place and climate is Sea Ranch, a ten-mile stretch of Northern California coast, planned by Lawrence Halprin in 1964. The natural features of the rugged landscape were preserved by clustering the buildings at the edge of the clearings and leaving large meadows and undisturbed sea cliffs in between. The architects Moore, Turnbull, Lyndon, and Whi-taker, who designed the initial condominium complex, and Joseph Esherick, who did several houses, played with a limited palette of materials and single-slope shapes to create a recombinatory vernacular derived from the wood-slat demeanor of local barns. A code for the rest of the buildings at Sea Ranch was developed from their initial designs, but the dwellings constructed over the past twenty-five years have not maintained exactly the same sense of harmony with the natural surroundings and with the original buildings.79 For all its excellence as an example of how to build with nature, Sea Ranch, it must be remembered, is a vacation resort, an indication that most conscientious approaches to the environment happen best in marginal spaces of luxury and are often motivated by a desire for atonement for the polluting circumstances that created the surplus needed to finance such places.

The first wave of ecology consciousness in architecture led to reforms in building codes, Utopian fantasies, and the proliferation of solar panels that stigmatized it as trivial in reference to the larger discourse of design. The emphasis on functional criteria limited the understanding of ecology as a primarily technical matter. In the reduction of entropy through the use of appropriate technology, in the contribution to urban life, and in the maintenance of a community's equilibrium with the land, ecological values have the potential to transfuse new meaning to Le Corbusier's lyrical definition of architecture as the "masterful, correct, and magnificent play of forms in light." The energy of that light can only strengthen the greatest game of civilization, the art of architecture.

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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