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A brief, unofficial history of recent passive-aggressive design
This article is part of The Architect’s Newspaper’s “Passive Aggressive” feature on passive design strategies. Not to be confused with “Passivhaus” or “Passive House” certification, passive design strategies such as solar chimneys, trombe walls, solar orientation, and overhangs, rely on scheme rather than technology to respond to their environmental contexts. Today, architects are more concerned with sustainability than ever, and new takes on old passive techniques are not only responsible, but can produce architecture that expresses sustainable features through formal exuberance. We call it “passive-aggressive.” In this feature, we examine three components—diagram, envelope, and material—where designers are marrying form and performance. We also look back at the unexpected history of passive-aggressive architecture, talk with passive-aggressive architects, and check out a passive-aggressive house. More “Passive Aggressive” articles are listed at the bottom of the page!
Is it possible to look to the past to see the future of passive-aggressive architectures?
The answer is yes. The roles of architectural form and technological advancement dance across the eras, with passive design moving from being fundamental in pre- and early modern architecture to being subverted by mechanical ventilation and artificial climate control. That does not mean, however, that passivity ever disappeared completely. Though called by different names and evoked for a variety of reasons, environmental contextualism remained a hallmark of design throughout the 20th century and we would be ill-advised to consider it only as something ancient and ideal or new and novel.
We can look to early American skyscraper designs for a precedent that formally translated competing programmatic functional considerations and without an overwhelming reliance on forced air or artificial light. Structures like the 1891 Wainwright Building by Adler & Sullivan in St. Louis, Missouri, the 1913 Woolworth Building by Cass Gilbert in New York City, and the 1892 Bradbury Building by George Wyman and Sumner Hunt in Los Angeles were shaped most directly by considerations of light and air. Because air conditioning and electric lighting were nonexistent, structures during this era were drawn with U-, E-, and H-shaped plans to facilitate comfortable use. The resulting narrow floor plates, large, operable openings, and tall ceilings necessary to accommodate the physical properties of these considerations define this era’s architecture directly.
A generation later, structures like Richard Neutra’s 1929 Lovell Health House in Los Angeles and Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1939 Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, also considered climate and light in regionally conscious configurations. Neutra’s Lovell House used innovative insulation and construction materials to comply with its seismically active, semi-arid environment, while Wright’s Headquarters made pioneering use of glass blocks, pairing transparent glass cubes with opaque thermal mass to arrive at new forms of daylit office space in a much colder region.
As air conditioning eliminated the requirements for natural ventilation and daylighting, fewer architects continued to design examples of climactically conscious buildings. Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, California, however, is an exception to the rule: The designer utilized deep overhangs and pivoting louver assemblies to control the desert-bound building’s solar exposure. In 1953, Paul Rudolph’s Walker Beach House tackled a beachside locale, duplicating the home’s wooden structural frame beyond its exterior walls and creating an armature for retractable shading devices. In 1954, Charles Colbert designed the Phillis Wheatley School in New Orleans, a modernist box lifted on stilts and capped with a large overhanging roof.
By the 1960s, regional modernism had given way to corporate modernism as a complete reliance on mechanical ventilation had become a fundamental orthodoxy in architectural discourse. Artificial technologies proliferated, causing formal considerations of local climate to go underground, as they were replaced by the lure of high technology.
The development of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes—contextual structures that were designed and outfitted to operate as self-sustaining worlds—married sustainable technology with nihilistic self-determination. Publications like The Dome Cookbook compelled recalcitrant youth of the 1960s to stake a claim in the countryside, where they built communes composed of geodesic domes and attempted to live off the land. The mostly amateur, counterculture movement was integral to establishing contextual and environmentally guided design as a legitimate architectural concern during the deeply entrenched corporatism and artificiality of the atomic and Cold War eras. As corporate modernism and its attendant ideologies coursed through the academy, hippie-led contextualism took root and blossomed, feeding off rising environmental and social awareness. As a result, contextually conscious architectural experiments sought to reinvent architectural formal expression literally from the ground up.
These concerns were institutionalized as key figures as these new movements gained prominence and authority.
For example, Sim Van der Ryn’s work as California State Architect in the 1970s was marked by an emphasis on solar design. Plans for his state office building in Sacramento, California, utilized two 600-ton subterranean sunlit rock beds to heat and cool incoming air received by a courtyard capped with a saw-toothed roof and north-facing skylights. The building’s articulated, béton brut exposures feature treatments appropriate for mitigating solar heat gain along the envelope that results in substantially lower levels of energy use for the overall building. Paolo Soleri’s proposals for an experimental, ecologically driven “arcology” in the Arizona desert also pioneered solar design, but at the urban scale. His designs for a utopian, self-sustaining desert acropolis took the form of massive landships that would use a huge, terraced, and south-facing greenhouse as an agricultural, thermal, and social engine for each settlement. Soleri’s super-scaled structures utilize natural phenomena like the chimney and greenhouse effects to drive their formal attributes.
Simultaneously, New Mexico–based architect Michael Reynolds utilized the principles of solar design in his Earthship prototypes, developing contextual, experimental approaches to self-sufficiency at the scale of the single-family house. Designs for Earthship houses use thermal mass to store and repel heat. Trombe walls frame openings calibrated to the local sun path, and when combined with the masonry walls, keep Earthships at roughly 70 degrees, year-round. And on the East Coast, New Jersey architect Douglas Kelbaugh utilized the principles of solar design to design in a cold, snowy climate. Kelbaugh’s Solar House of 1973 is oriented in concert with the sun: A wide, glass-sheathed enclosure along the southern wall illuminates a heavy masonry Trombe wall that moderates the home’s seasonally variable temperature.
While not considered high architecture at the time, the gradual adoption of sustainable design principles and emphasis on high-tech solutions through the 1980s and 1990s—when coupled with the formal promiscuity and emphasis on human, cultural, and experiential scale of the 1960s and 1970s—ultimately provided a firm foundation for contemporary passive-aggressive experiments. As the principles of overt sustainable design have become more firmly grounded in scientific analysis and computer modeling, sustainable features like thermally efficient and glare-reducing glazing, energy-efficient structural materials, and renewable energy generation have become common aspects of architectural design. But these measures are only part of the story.
As the effects of climate change become ever more apparent and our society moves closer toward collective action, architects will naturally be required to incorporate local climate considerations into their designs. The wide use of digital technologies like parametric climate modeling have integrated sustainable design into the overall design process, raising another question: Are architects finally properly positioned, in terms of technological capabilities, cultural awareness, and popular opinion, to fully hybridize technology and climate through architectural form?
The answer, again, is yes.
For more “Passive Aggressive” articles, explore: our feature article that features projects from across the world, Bjarke Ingels Group’s own tech-driven think tank, how WORKac’s Arizona House revives the super sustainable Earthship typology, and MOS Architects' Michael Meredith on sustainability.
...proceeds from the sale or long-term lease of the land to developers, as well as other funds generated from revenue streams such as real estate taxes, would go toward upgrading the neighborhood's infrastructure, which includes extending the No. 1 train from lower Manhattan via a new tunnel under the harbor to the Brooklyn area. AECOM's plan also involves creating three new subway stations, one at Atlantic Basin next to the container terminal, another at the Red Hook Houses, one of Brooklyn's largest public-housing complexes, and a No. 1 train station that would connect to the F and G subway lines at Fourth Avenue.But a press conference on September 12 at the Rudin Center for Transportation flatly contradicted that. Chris Ward, AECOM senior vice president and leader of the team that created the proposal, claimed at the start of his presentation “This is not a plan.” (Ward is also the former Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey). Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, Jill Eisenhard, executive director of the Red Hook Initiative, who were in the audience, claimed they were prepared to respond to Red Hook and Sunset community requests for something to be done about housing, jobs, etc. in the community.It is then a sort of ‘vision’ proposal that asks the community and other interested parties to weigh in on the idea. It may be that the word ‘plan’ has become a dirty word associated with top-down city proposals that end up benefiting everyone one but those who live in the affected communities. The proposal offers several scenarios that go from one that would bring 45 million square feet to the market to more modest schemes. If you want to see the non-plan and weigh in, visit AECOM's website for the project.
One World Trade Away?
Port Authority may sell Freedom Tower
Five finalists vie to win Port Authority Bus Terminal design competition
No Longer Up In the Air
$4 billion LaGuardia renovation to begin this summer
The Port Authority declines to celebrate the grand opening of the world’s most expensive train station
I tried from the very beginning to do that whole network of connections extending from the oculus as a single unit. So the character of the structural members you can see with the ribs, and a certain character in the paving, and a certain character in the front of the shops is already delivering a character that a person will see all the way through. So if you are in the oculus or the mezzanine, or in the other corridors to Liberty Street or the other internal streets towards Liberty Plaza, or towards Wall Street or towards Fulton, all these areas are marked with the same character. My goal is to create a space where as soon as I arrive in the transportation hub I know I am in the transportation hub, no matter what corner I enter from. Also, something that the corridor delivers is a sense of quality of spaces. I have built seven of the major transportation hubs in Europe, in Lisbon, in Lyon, in Zurich, in Italy, and so on. Getting out of this experience, it’s very important to create places of quality, because people behave according to that. You see after all the enormous effort to bring all the subways and the trains to this place and see to maintain the service through all the construction—why shouldn’t these places have a certain material and structural quality that you can enjoy in a day-to-day way, not just commuters but visitors who arrive in this place. I think the station will match with the tradition in New York of great infrastructural works, as you see today in Grand Central and in the former Penn Station. If it had not been demolished it would be recognized as one of the greatest stations worldwide. I hope people can see some of these material qualities in the East/West corridor.On the eve of the opening, New York architecture critics are divided on the aesthetic and functional value of the Hub. AN toured the Hub this afternoon, so check back here for our assessment. In the meantime, picture Calatrava riding a Zamboni, polishing the smooth white Italian marble floors world's most expensive train station.
St. Elizabeths Hospital Southeast Washington, D.C. For example, the 182-acre West Campus of the former Government Hospital for the Insane, later known as St. Elizabeths Hospital, will house the new United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) headquarters. This Southeast Washington, D.C. asylum housed up to 8,000 patients, including multiple presidential assassins and would-be assassins, such as Richard Lawrence (Andrew Jackson), Charles J. Guiteau (James Garfield), and John Hinckley, Jr. (Ronald Reagan). Working with DHS, Shalom Baranes Associates and Grunley Construction are repairing the 264,300-square-foot Center Building, originally designed by Thomas U. Walter, the primary architect of the 1851 expansion of the U.S. Capitol building. The Center Building’s seven connected structures originally served as administrative offices and treatment rooms for the Government Hospital for the Insane but will now house all DHS operations, saving $64 million per year in rental costs, since DHS operations are currently scattered across dozens of buildings in the District. Read more from AN here.
Hudson River State Hospital Poughkeepsie, New York In 2007, six years after the Hudson River Psychiatric Center closed, the abandoned asylum was struck by lightning, burning its south wing, what used to be the male housing quarters. In April 2010, two more fires occurred, although these reportedly were intentional. Then, in November 2013, the abandoned, burnt, and deteriorated Gothic Revival structure, was purchased for $4 million. Diversified Realty Advisors and EnviroFinance Group (EFG/DRA Heritage) are transforming it into a $200 million, mixed-use development, called Hudson Heritage. The original grounds were designed by Olmsted & Vaux and the buildings were designed by Frederick Clarke Withers. Four of the 59 original buildings will be re-purposed, whereas the other 55 will be demolished. The development calls for a 350,000 square foot shopping center, 750 single and multifamily residences, and an 80 room hotel, which was an original Kirkbride. Read more from AN here.
Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital Morris Plains, New Jersey Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital abandoned a 675,000-square-foot, Second Empire Baroque building by architect Samuel Sloan. After the facility closed in 2008, Preserve Greystone, a volunteer organization, emerged to fight for its adaptive-reuse. However, the original Greystone Park could not be saved and was demolished at taxpayers’ expense of $50 million. John Huebner, president of Preserve Greystone, called the demolition “an irretrievable loss for this generation and countless future ones, and an affront to the generation that built it.” Hueber hopes to make a memorial for the site and preserve 1,000 linear feet of granite building facade, two marble columns, decorative pieces, and as many trees as possible. Read more from AN here.
Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane Buffalo, New York The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, by architect H.H. Richardson and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, is undergoing a $56 million make-over, funded both publicly and privately. The current design team is made up of Flynn Battaglia Architects (executive architect), Deborah Berke Partners (design architect), Goody Clancy (historic preservation architect), and Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger (structural engineer). The three main buildings will house a hotel and conference center along with the Buffalo Architecture Center (BAC). Deborah Berke Partners redesigned the north-side entry as a beacon, with a glass entryway, highlighting the coexistence of historic and modern. Construction is underway and is expected to open in fall 2016 as Hotel Henry, Urban Resort Conference Center. Read more from AN here.
Northern Michigan Asylum Traverse City, Michigan Dr. James Decker Munson, the first superintendent of Northern Michigan Asylum, was a firm believer of “beauty is therapy.” He exposed patients to beautiful flowers, provided year round through the greenhouses and trees on the hospital property. The Victorian-Italianate facilities were designed by architect Gordon W. Lloyd and at their peek housed around 3,000 patients. The 63-acre complex closed in 1989, and was vacant until 2002 when Raymond Minervini purchased the entirety for only one dollar. The rehabilitation, called the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, cost $60 million, and by 2005, housed residences, offices, shops, and eateries. The firehouse is now a bakery, and the laundry room is a wine bar and fair-trade coffee shop. The rehabilitation is expected to house 1,000 people–ranging from 300 square foot studio apartments to 3,800 square foot condos– provide 800 jobs, and host farmers markets, easter egg hunts, and beer and dairy festivals. Despite their negative associations, asylums exhibit excellent design and craftsmanship, and are adaptable to an endless variety of uses. Photographer Christopher Payne is an authority on these old facilities, photographing dozens of them for his book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. "Payne, who trained as an architect before turning to photography, is attuned to the incongruously fine detail or trace of order among landscapes of decay," AN's Jeff Byles wrote in a review of an exhibit of the book's photos. "Perhaps the most affecting images in Asylum are those that confront head-on the human experience of asylum life: dozens of toothbrushes hung neatly in a cabinet, each labeled with the name of its owner; patient suitcases piled sadly in an attic; bowling shoes at the ready for a night at the lanes in Rockland" For more photos of abandoned asylums, visit Payne's website here.