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Climate change vs. architecture

Today I took 2 hours of online continuing education credits (CEU’s). Taking a certain number of these every year is required to maintain one’s architecture license. Somehow, despite yearly resolutions to spread them out over the year, I always wind up doing them all in December.

The two I took today were thought-provoking in a kind of indirect way. Both were about sustainable design and the need to have metrics that allow for actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions instead of just trying to reduce them compared to the standard (ASHRAE 90.1). LEED v4 takes a more nuanced approach to energy, giving credits for things like letting other people put solar panels on your roof and taking the nature of the local power grid into account, which determines whether reducing energy cost (per 90.1) reduces or increases carbon.

This is obviously very important, but as the standards becomes more complex, satisfying them in architects’ designs either takes more of their time or causes them to share our fees with more specialized consultants. Both serve to reduce the time available for design and will eventually cause its devaluation in the profession and the schools, if it hasn’t done so already.

This illustrates the idea developed throughout this blog that performance-based design (simulation) and embodying ideas in architecture (representation) are at odds. It’s unconscionable to oppose performance standards that are aimed at combating climate change and resource scarcity. On the other hand, if these pursuing these goals competes with the expression of ideas for time and resources, then we’re heading for the end of architecture as we’ve known it in the West since the Renaissance.

This is in part a practical problem that could be solved by increasing the resources devoted to design, an unlikely prospect in this country at least. But I think it also involves a shift in the values architects bring to their work. If architects spend so much time pursuing performance goals for sustainability or anything else, their values are likely to change to make the pursuit of enhanced performance essential to architecture. I think we can already see this happening.

Catching Up

I was surprised to find that I haven’t posted anything here for over a year. I knew it had been awhile, but a whole year! Time to catch up.

I’ve written a few articles during the past year that cover a range of topics according to what various editors were looking for. Unfortunately the only one is available online is “Resistance is Futile“, which appeared in City Weekly in May of this year. It’s an extended history and critique of the new Federal courthouse that opened in Salt Lake City in 2014. The building, designed by Thomas Pfifer and Partners, has been widely criticized by the public in SLC  for its abstract cubic form and lack of ornament, leading to inevitable comparisons to the Borg cube from Star Trek.

Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse. Thomas Pfifer and Partners, design architects; Naylor Wentworth Lund, executive architects. Photo © Scott Frances

The public’s negative response to the building reflects the distrust of the Federal government endemic in Utah. I think it also reflects as a distrust of reason, common among religious groups like the Mormons who instinctively sense a tension between reason and faith based on a revealed doctrine. The history of the project, which took 20 years from the selection of the architect to completion, is a fascinating case study in the complex forces that collide to shape a project like this and one architect’s successful handling of these forces.

Another piece appears in Volume IV of Dialectic : The Journal of the School of Architecture of the University of Utah. The theme of this issue is “architecture at service”. My contribution deals with the service Peter Eisenman provides the architecture profession, which is to provide a disciplinary discourse which is needed by every profession to establish its legitimacy. You can read the article here.

A third article will appear in Visioning Technologies- The Architectures of Sight, edited by Graham Cairns and published by Taylor and Francis. It discusses our society’s changing visuality brought about by the displacement of representation by simulation as our mode of perception. I will post a copy of it here as soon as it appears in print.