Our mailboxes, both postal and email, are flooded daily with trade and design magazines, most with the word “green” prominently featured on the cover. Inside, full page ads beckon: LED lighting, waterless urinals, green roofs, bamboo flooring, recycled content bathroom partitions, FSC certified cabinetry, agri-waste paneling, and so on.
I’m suffering from green product hangover, too many brand new buildings stuffed full of the latest products engineered specifically to maximize LEED points. Where are the beautiful buildings built to last over 100 years that won’t be tired and dated in 20? Who is talking durability in the sustainability manifesto?
I happened by the acclaimed Barker Center for Dance recently, on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank. A sculpturally complex building, the Barker Center was no doubt designed to allude to the thrust and energy of sinewy young dancers in motion. The building was probably lithe on dedication day, but at the ten year mark it’s showing its age, complete with premature beauty marks. Could it be intentional, symbolic of the dysplasia, back troubles, and arthritis that can plague dancers in later life?
To be fair, this building was not lauded as a green building or even a long lasting one. However, its grace is certainly measured in pristine walls and unblemished white surfaces – which have faded. The stains stem mainly from the way roof water is managed (or not), clearly the considerations of the architect.
Before writing off modernism as a conceit of form makers who aren’t interested in careful detailing, consider Kenzo Tange’s 1974 addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Like The Barker Center, it has large expanses of smooth white facade. However, the imperfections caused by weathering here are more patina and less scar.
Anticipating the ravages of elapsed time – addressing the problems of use, abuse, or weather – is suggested by the concept of building environmentally sensitive buildings, as much as selecting materials carefully and using them properly.
That’s not to say green construction is immune from performance disasters. The first straw-bale home in Minneapolis, completed in 1998, opened to hype about revolutionary building practices, agri-waste into housing, and affordable single family homes. Four years later, city officials condemned the structure while mold consumed the rotting straw within the walls, saddling the homeowner with debt on the memory of a house. Not so affordable. The structure is so far gone from the collective memory I couldn’t source a picture of it anywhere.
Mohsen Mostafavi, in his book On Weathering, precedes the body of the text with this: “Finishing ends construction, weathering constructs finishes.” One of those clever sentences architects love (i.e., “NewD irections” – Peter Eisenman), but a worthy challenge to building owners and designers. Owners, contractors, and architects have the most technologically advanced materials at their disposal, a very real advantage over our predecessors. What we often lack is the knowledge, ability, or desire to put them into a lifetime worth of service. Consider the differences in the following examples.
The upper Midwest is a brutal climate for building longevity. Century-old brick buildings have stood the test of time, weathered elegantly, and provided us a link to a nostalgic heritage, yet they are unashamed energy hogs. When heating and maintaining these remnants becomes overly costly, to the point they start to disappear, will the aging of our modern constructions be as graceful?