Coming to Ecological Terms
in Architectural Design
By Richard Conniff
If ecologists have belatedly come to think about cities as ecosystems, what about architects and designers? In a seminar room on the seventh floor of Paul Rudolph Hall on the corner of Chapel and York streets, environment and architecture students are working to blend two ways of thinking that have often seemed at cross-purposes—sustainability and the design aesthetic.
It’s early in the semester and the students in Alex Felson’s “Ecological Urbanism” course haven’t yet gotten to the design stage. They’re still sorting out problems and environmental solutions. One team is developing a proposal to clean up the open sewers running down narrow alleys in Nairobi’s densely packed Kibera slum. Another hopes to use plants to remediate contaminated soils at an old power-generating site in Fair Haven and link it into a network of new parks. A third team wants to add a ribbon of parkland along derelict manufacturing riverfront in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, where a recent rezoning would instead put up a wall of luxury condominium towers.
Photo © Harold Shapiro
Alex Felson teaches “Ecological Urbanism”
Felson aims to get his students to frame each project as an experiment, with a hypothesis and outcomes that are quantifiable and susceptible to testing. In part, that’s a way to deal with one of the major challenges to urban ecology: in cities packed with people and buildings, it’s difficult to set up the kind of controlled experiments that ecologists need for gathering reliable data about what works and what doesn’t. So expensive design decisions often get made by trial and error. Felson’s solution is to incorporate the experiments into the overall design of a project. As a landscape design consultant, for instance, he was able to persuade New York City’s million-tree initiative to include two reforestation sites, totaling 18 acres, to test how different tree species affect carbon sequestration, biodiversity and other factors in an urban setting. Then he designed each site with the trees on the perimeter spaced loosely for a park-like aesthetic, disguising a central core where the planting is more regimented for the purposes of research.
Felson says the experimental framework is also a way to get environmental scientists involved in the design process, but without the underlying ideology they tend to bring to the discussion. “They often have preconceived notions about how something should look,” he says, “but it’s not their function to think about aesthetics.”
That’s a job for architects and designers, and some, like Peter Eisenman, the modernist architect and Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at the Yale School of Architecture, have been uncomfortable with intrusions on their territory. “‘Green’ and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture,” Eisenman recently told one interviewer. “Some of the worst buildings I have seen are done by sustainable architects.”
But Eisenman is one voice in a School of Architecture noted for a diversity of sometimes conflicting styles and ideologies. In recent years, the school has increased its emphasis on sustainability, says Dean Robert Stern, partly with the help of visiting lecturers (including Patrick Bellew of Atelier Ten, a key influence on the energy-efficient design of Kroon Hall) from firms in Europe, where market and regulatory factors have given higher priority to green methodologies. Hiring Felson in 2008 for a joint faculty position at F&ES and the School of Architecture was part of a continuing effort to build a bridge between what are almost literally opposite corners of the campus. Felson now teaches sustainability as part of the core architectural curriculum, emphasizing acre feet and the handling of water as equal partners with square feet in the parameters for any project. He also oversees eight students in a joint program offering a dual master’s degree in architecture and environmental management.
The aim, says Stern, is to embed sustainability in the basic training of architects. But he adds, “I don’t think sustainability is a design aesthetic, any more than having electricity in your building, or telephones, or anything else. It’s an ethic, a basic consideration that we have to have as architects designing buildings.” American architects, designers and builders are “in an early, slightly naive phase” in coming to terms with sustainability, he says, and “we have to get everybody’s attention.” But they will catch up fast enough, Stern argues, so that “in 10 years we’re not going to talk about sustainability anymore, because it’s going to be built into the core processes of architecture.” Advertising sustainability, he says, will be like an architect getting up in front of a room to “proudly proclaim how his buildings didn’t fall down.”