With the passage of a new sustainability ordinance on Earth Day (April 22) Los Angeles joined the small list of cities in the United States that require green building in private development.
The ordinance would require all buildings at or over 50,000 square feet or 50 units, or residential buildings over 6 stories tall, to attain the equivalent of LEED-Certified standards under the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
The City chose the 50,000 square foot threshold, said Claire Bowin, project manager for the LA City Planning Department, to help encourage more applications. She said the city should receive about 200 projects per year under the ordinance, and that every seventh project in the program would be audited to insure compliance. “We feel like we built a lot of flexibility into the ordinance and we really didn’t strive for more stringent standards because we wanted to get out of the gate,” she said.
The measure, whose first major milestone was its passage through the City Council’s Energy and Environment and Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committees last February, was initiated last year, when City Planning director Gail Goldberg, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made the development of a private green building program for the City a priority in a July 2007 decree.
While the ordinance does not require buildings to go through LEED certification, a sometimes costly enterprise, the USGBC’s LEED program was used for several reasons. “LEED is an outstanding program that consistently evolves, it is run by a non-profit organization, it is a national standard, and the City already adopted it to regulate its own building activity,” Bowin explained.
Dr. Lance Williams, executive director of the LA Chapter of the USGBC, said, “For a city this size, this is certainly a very progressive step.” He also noted that LA has emerged as a leader in green building, citing that his organization voted the LA Chapter number one in the nation for advocacy and training of LEED-Accredited Professionals (LEED-APs).
Local jurisdictions with existing green building ordinances for private development throughout the country include Santa Monica and West Hollywood, and San Mateo County, California; Boulder, Colorado; Chicago, and Boston. Los Angeles County is also in the process of adopting its own green building ordinances. These ordinances, including one for green building, one for drought tolerant landscaping, and one for Low Impact Development, are expected to begin the public review and approval process this summer. Currently in Los Angeles County all new County buildings or projects that receive County funding over 10,000 square feet must attain LEED Silver or comparable standards. And in the City of Los Angeles, government buildings over 7,500 square feet must attain LEED-certified standards.
With this new ordinance, projects that voluntarily achieve a LEED Silver or higher rating will be expedited through the City’s often-onerous permitting process. The law also establishes criteria for the City to certify staff members as LEED-AP. In order to track the progress of the program, the ordinance will create the Green Building Team, a group of elected officials and city staff that are experts in the development process including planners, architects, engineers, and safety personnel, which will be charged with encouraging innovation, removing the obstacles to green building, and to facilitate the city’s green building objectives. The team will offer annual reports to the City Council on the progress of the program as well as recommendations for its amendment in the future.
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With the passage of a new sustainability ordinance on Earth Day (April 22) Los Angeles joined the small list of cities in the United States that require green building in private development.
One tenth of an inch may just be a splash. But sea level in New York creeps that much higher every year, and worsening climate impacts could make that splash several feet deep by the end of this century, meaning a soggier future for nearly one million of the region’s residents who live within three feet of the spring high-water mark. Factor in worsening storm surges, and today’s 100-year flood zone may well become a 10-year flood zone—wreaking $350 billion in damage to New York City under the severe scenarios the state’s Emergency Management Office is now studying.
“If you look where major development projects are going in New York, many are located right in harm’s way,” said Klaus Jacob, the outspoken Columbia University expert on sea-level rise, pointing to condos sprouting in Williamsburg or Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, sited at a vulnerable low point near the Hudson River. “That campus will start to look like Venice in a hundred years,” he warned.
London has its Thames Barrier. Dutch cities are fortified for the 10,000-year storm. But New York? “Coastal cities around the world that intend to be around for the next hundred years have done incredible work,” said Michael Fishman, founder of the consulting practice Urban Answers. “In North America, we have very little to show.”
That is starting to change as architects, ecologists, and engineers grapple with a hybrid of structure and landscape that is well-suited to the world’s rusting wharves. Some call it aquatecture—a new, blue alternative that is catching up with the green building movement as the next wave of sustainable urban design. “It’s not a building, not a pier, not a boat,” said Fishman, who teaches a waterfront studio at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). “It’s part water, part wildlife. Major development around the world is going to embrace this adaptation of post-industrial megastructures.”
In our wet new world, the postapocalyptic attitude is this: Bring it on. “Existing waterfront wetlands are going to be swamped,” said structural engineer Guy Nordenson, who is studying the consequences of sea-level rise with a multidisciplinary team that won the American Institute of Architects’ 2007 Latrobe Prize. They’ve hatched a radical proposal to revamp Upper New York Bay with an archipelago of hundreds of islands that would temper the destructive energy of storm surges. The proposal, which won a $100,000 award and will be refined in the coming months, presents a larger vision of New York Harbor as a focal point for regional development, like St. Mark’s Basin in Venice—a watery Central Park for the coming century.
Designers in New York and beyond are taking small steps toward Nordenson’s grand aquapolitan vision. A pair of projects from Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism shows how modest interventions in the marine edge can prove paradigm-shifting in their own right. The firm lets flood conditions have their way with a waterfront site at Erie Street Plaza, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. In the midst of a rough-edged working waterfront, the park contends with lake levels that rise and fall by as much as 6 feet over roughly 20-year cycles. Stoss’ solution was to slice slots into an existing steel bulkhead, allowing high lake levels to inundate a new zone of native grasses and revive a marsh condition long obliterated by industry.
At Bass River Park in West Dennis, Massachusetts, Stoss’ carpet of hillocks (below) fuels the free play of complex ecologies. Rising lake levels nourish a new marsh (above) at Milwaukee’s Erie Street Plaza, by the Boston-based Stoss.
COURTESY STOSS LANDSCAPE URBANISM
It also makes a larger public point. “We’re allowing people to engage with this momentary high point of the lake cycle, so that it becomes very much an actor in the experience of that open space,” said principal Chris Reed. A similar strategy informed Bass River Park in West Dennis, Massachusetts, a 2.5-acre parcel that rests on land that was once salt marsh. Stoss designed zones of red cedar, sand plain, wet meadow, and salt marsh, each of which vies for botanical dominance amid changing climate variables. “We’re building in resilience and flexibility from an ecological standpoint,” Reed said. “No matter how high or low the sea level is, there are places where these individual plant communities can thrive.”
Showcasing water’s presence in the urban landscape required a complex approach for Margie Ruddick of Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), who has helped lead the design for a one-acre park at Queens Plaza. Working with artist Michael Singer, designers created a permeable paving system that features runnels with weep holes to collect water from paths and open spaces. A rain garden at the base of the Queensboro Bridge captures bridge runoff during storms, directing it to lush plantings. Below grade, a lozenge-shaped subsurface wetland detains water once it has filtered through street-level plantings. But working with water requires updated design chops. WRT and collaborators Marpillero Pollak Architects, who won a 2008 AIA New York chapter design award for the project, note that architects need to embrace a more unruly aesthetic. “A couple of years ago this project would have looked incomprehensible to a lot of architects,” Ruddick said. “There’s a kind of terror of things that don’t look organized and orderly.”
A subsurface wetland forms the heart of WRT’s design for Queens Plaza (above, left); runoff from the Queensboro Bridge feeds a lushly planted rain garden (above, right). COURTESY WRT DESIGN / MICHAEL SINGER / MPA
For areas atop a newly graded edge at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates positioned significant plantings to skirt the 100-year-flood zone.
COURTESY MICHAEL VAN VALKENBURGH ASSOCIATES
If a Category 4 cyclone hits the East River, Brooklyn Bridge Park will be exhibit A of that messiness. But it should still be around. In Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ design for the new public space, the sharp-edged bulkhead is banished in favor of a more natural riparian edge among adaptively reused piers. Careful thought is being given to storm threats, said principal Matthew Urbanski. “We’ve gone to great pains to shape the land in such a way that the significant tree plantings are above the 100-year flood level, so we don’t get salt-water inundation,” he explained. Beyond a calm-water basin that shelters small islands of natural habitat, a stabilized riprap edge protects against wave energy. Upland hills are planted with meadow grasses and canopy trees, while farther inland, freshwater swales capture stormwater from adjacent asphalt before it reaches the river.
“There’s a general consensus that we have to start working within the natural systems and reinforcing them,” said David Hamilton, principal of Praxis3, which won a recent round of The History Channel’s City of the Future competition with a proposal to liberate Atlanta’s natural streams from 1,900 miles of buried pipes and catchments. Contending with severe drought in the Southeast, Hamilton’s Atlanta-based team, in collaboration with EDAW, BNIM Architects, and environmental engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy, proposed a series of “waterscapes” to restore the natural watershed and spawn piedmont forest instead of sprawl. Existing drainage systems would be converted into aquifers to store ever-scarcer precipitation. The team aims to develop the idea as a model for drought-prone cities, where bureaucrats are perking up their ears. “When you start running out of water, politicians start paying attention in a hurry,” Hamilton said.
Breaching New Orleans’ levees would blunt the harm from Mississippi River floods, as in this high-density housing concept from Praxis3. COURTESY PRAXIS3 AND KEAN ARCHITECTS
New Orleans officials might want to consult his firm’s entry for a post-Katrina design competition that rethinks that city’s levee system. Collaborating with architect Lee Kean, Praxis3 proposed breaching floodwalls to create softer berms that ease over a block-size parcel in the Bywater neighborhood. Elevated green space weaves this natural terrain back into the city; a reflecting pool and cistern collect water on site. “The Mississippi River could actually go through its flood stages without doing any damage,” Hamilton said.
If there’s a bright side to climate change, it may be the opportunity to drag bolder designs out of the closet. “Some of these visionary projects are really legacies of the 1960s and ‘70s,” said architect Lindy Roy, who is studying the impacts of climate change in Africa with her students at Columbia’s GSAPP this semester. “We need to look at things with that kind of breadth. Otherwise, we make the sexy forms, and then all of the environmental stuff gets handed over to sustainability experts and engineers.”
In ARO’s vision of Manhattan now and in 2106 (left and right), melting polar ice caps make for a much soggier city. COURTESY ARCHITECTURE RESEARCH OFFICE
In other words, thinking the unthinkable can be an adventure. “Our goal is to make people excited instead of terrified,” said Adam Yarinsky, principal at Architecture Research Office (ARO), who is working with Nordenson’s Latrobe Prize team. ARO’s provocative entry for New York’s City of the Future episode did just that, making a virtue out of Gotham’s waterlogged fate. Envisioning low-lying neighborhoods deep-sixed under some 36 inches of water due to melting polar ice caps, ARO designed an optimistic new city for the year 2106, built of thin, pier-like buildings rising above Manhattan’s flooded downtown streets. Kayakers paddled languidly among ruined storefronts, as verdant public promenades bridged the waters overhead.
Take that, Rotterdam. When the big one hits, we may not be high and dry. But at least we’ll be floating in style.
JEFF BYLES IS AN ASSOCIATE EDITOR AT AN.
Michaels Residence, Tolkin Architecture, Winters-Schram Associates
One Window House, Touraine Richmond Architects, Brown Osvaldsson Builders
BENNY CHAN / FOTOWORKS
“Brown Osvaldsson Builders really listen to what we are trying to do. They understand it, and come in with solutions and original ways to deal with problems.They are really respectful of the design and try to match the architectural expectations.”
Touraine Richmond ARchitects
“Robert Vairo of Vairo Construction is like a saint. On Skid Row, he’s seen like an angel.”
JFR House, Fougeron Architecture, Thomas George Construction
1155 Third St., Oakland, CA;
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Brown Osvaldsson Builders
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Newport Beach, CA;
Roman Janczak Construction
942 South Harlan Ave.,
Shaw & Sons Construction
829 W. 17th St.,
Costa Mesa, CA;
Thomas George Construction
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Young & Burton
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Cancer Center at UMC North, CO ARchitects, John A. Martin
Lou Ruvo Alzheimer’s Institute, Gehry Partners, WSP Cantor Seinuk
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“IBE are mechanical engineers who have the same sort of sensibilities as architects. They’re very concerned about sustainability and look at engineering from a global perspective; problem-solving at a large-scale level. And they’re very interested in exploring new ideas.”
“With principal Mike Ishler, you can really have a collaborative design experience. If you want to push your design technologically and structurally, he’s your guy.”
Barbara Bestor Architecture
12777 West Jefferson Blvd.,
9601 Jefferson Blvd.,
Culver City, CA;
WSP Cantor Seinuk
5301 Beethoven St.,
Davidovich & Associates
6059 Bristol Pkwy.,
Culver City, CA;
DeSimone Consulting Engineers
160 Sansome St.,
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(Gilsanz Murray Steficek)
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New York, NY;
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John Labib & Associates
900 Wilshire Blvd.,
John A. Martin
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Gordon L. Polon
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Christian T. Williamson Engineers
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Yu Strandberg Engineering
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Luce et Studio
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Whitney Sander Sander Architects
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Hodgetts & Fung
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South El Monte, CA;
Kitchen and Bath
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California Kitchens Showroom
2305 W. Alameda Ave.,
Jack London Kitchen
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Duravit bathroom furniture and accessories
Gaggeneau kitchen appliances
Grohe bathroom and kitchen fittings
Kohler bathroom furniture
16760 Stagg St.,
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Lengau Lodge, Dry Design UNDINE PROHL
Bestor House, Barbar Bestor Architects, SB Garden Design
“Stephanie Bartron’s background is sculpture, and I think she brings a more artistic perspective and architectural edge to landscapes.”
Barbara Bestor Architecture
307 South Cedros Ave.,
Solana Beach, CA;
700 Harris St.,
5727 Venice Blvd.,
2340 W. Third St.,
844 East Green St.,
Mia Lehrer + Associates
3780 Wilshire Blvd.,
Power & Associates
1660 Stanford St.,
Santa Monica, CA;
Pamela Burton & Company
1430 Olympic Blvd.,
Santa Monica, CA;
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San Diego, CA;
SB Garden Design
2801 Clearwater St.,
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Mills Center for the Arts, Competition Entry, Pugh + Scarpa, Mike Amaya
“Mike Amaya listens to you. He’s not fixated on a certain way of doing things. Hisrenderings have life, but they don’t try to duplicate what reality would be. We’re more interested in capturing the spirit of the place.”
Pugh + Scarpa Architects
11 North Main St.,
South Norwalk, CT;
301 Arizona Ave.,
Santa Monica, CA;
725 S. Figueroa St.,
1549 Columbia Dr.,
44 Montgomery St.,
633 West Fifth St.,
Los Angeles, CA;
SC Consulting Group
6 Morgan St., Irvine, CA;
Window & Door
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Metal Window Corporation
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NOT FEELING DWELL
We thought an announcement that Dwell was debuting a narrower magazine printed with more soy inks on recycled content paper, saving about 930 trees per issue, was a sign that the erratic publication had finally settled on a theme: Sustainability. But when we got the February issue in our hands its direction seemed more convoluted than ever: Was this Modernism for Dummies, a Design Within Reach catalog, or straight-up shelter porn? The redesign rallies a cavalcade of new fonts—many completely unreadable over the splashes of gratuitous color—and overcrowded pages bisected by bizarre dotted lines. Former staffers have expressed frustration with the mag’s bipolarity, but insist it’s nothing new. “Dwell’s biggest problem has always been that the message from the very top has been very confused,” a past contributor tells us. “I suspect the editors aren’t really being given total control now and so what we’re seeing is a really watered-down version of what they probably wanted to do.” The changing vision of founder Lara Hedberg Deam and publisher Michela O’Connor Abrams notoriously didn’t mesh with the pub’s two previous editors-in-chief, Karrie Jacobs and Allison Arieff, who both left the magazine very publicly at odds with its philosophy (more than 20 staffers also departed in Arieff’s wake). But it seems the current editor-in-chief Sam Grawe might not mind letting Deam and Abrams steer the ship. Grawe is reportedly devoted to his budding music career: Windsurf, an electronica duo where he performs with a musician calling himself Sorcerer, and a solo project under the name—we swear we’re not making this up—Hatchback. We hear he’s pretty good, too.
There were rumors that sales were not as scintillating at Design Miami this year, but we’ll let you be the judge: The two most talked-about installations were trash(y)—a Tokujin Yoshioka installation of white plastic straws and Stuart Haygarth’s chandelier made from used water bottles—and almost everyone mentioned that the Swarovski crystal lights by heavyweights Diller Scofidio + Renfro looked more like glowing scrotums. Yves Béhar emerged as a big winner at the One Laptop Per Child party, where he sold seven works by Jorge Pardo, John Baldessari, Olafur Eliasson and others to raise funds for the project. Perhaps the bling was located elsewhere, like around the neck of hip hop producer Pharrell Williams, who hung with Arik Levy’s posse, and later showed up at the tattoo parlor manned by Tobias Wong, Josée Lepage, and Eavesdrop alum Aric Chen. According to Chen, Williams was so psyched on the limited-edition tattoo designs by designers like Tord Boontje, Vito Acconci, and Hella Jongerius, he wanted to contribute his own design. Okay, maybe next year, Pharrell, but only if you bring Justin Timberlake.
Robert A.M. Stern may have already gotten the gig, but surely he could use some help designing the George W. Bush Presidential Library, right? The Chronicle of Higher Education is holding a competition to deliver Stern a wealth of ideas. Standard architecture contest rules apply, with one catch: Your entire concept must fit on the back of an envelope. Readers will vote on the best design, the winning designer will get an iPod Touch, and the architecture world will earn the undying admiration of the Republican Party. Deadline is February 1. To vote, visit chronicle.com/indepth/architecture/architecture-contest.htm
I winced when I saw the Times’ headline, “Next to MoMA, Reaching for the Stars.” Jean Nouvel’s new 75-story tower alongside the Museum of Modern Art reached back to Lyonel Feininger for inspiration, finally realizing his vision of an expressionist tower. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Cesar Pelli’s safely office-like MoMA housing or Yoshio Taniguchi’s recent, buttoned-down expansion. “To its credit, the Modern pressed for a talented architect,” Times’ critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote, but he went on to praise Hines, the tower’s “remarkably astute” developer. “Hines asked Nouvel to come up with two possible designs… and made the bolder choice.” That’s Hines in New York.
This fall, Hines also won the right to develop the Transbay Tower in downtown San Francisco. Pelli’s proposal for the transit hub component of the project is well done, but the tower is a version of his International Financial Center mega-tower in Hong Kong. As usual for Hines—they really are “remarkably astute”—Pelli was a smart choice. The Airport Express station that serves Hong Kong’s financial district anchors the twin-tower IFC complex. From a credentials standpoint, that’s valuable experience. Plus a tower that’s up-and-running is easier to price, even with differences in construction, than one-offs like Richard Rogers and SOM’s competing finalists. Armed with that knowledge, Hines played its trump card, offering up to $350 million for the land—more than twice what the other two developers were prepared to pay. That’s Hines in San Francisco.
Hines is Hines—the same smart operators, east and west. Given what they’re proposing for New York, blame for San Francisco’s less-than-stellar tower falls somewhere else.
Jokingly called Dean Macris’ last erection, the Transbay Tower benefited from the recently-departed planning czar’s determination to fulfill his long-time vision of a city skyline marked by three accentuated “hills”—two real and one manmade. This is the same vision that gave us One Rincon Hill, the first in a two-tower wonder by Chicago’s Solomon Cordwell Buenz. Compared to it, Pelli’s proposal is definite progress.
A lot of people have questioned the logic of Macris’ idée fixe, but that’s another article. The question here is how a competition that was advertised as being all about design proved to be all about money. Not that this is surprising, but—in light of promises made—it feels like a bait and switch. And if I feel this way, imagine how SOM feels!
I wasn’t privy to the jury’s deliberations, but a few things stuck out along the way. In the initial interviews, Norman Foster failed to appear and his team was eliminated. While architect no-shows don't go over well (confirming Woody Allen’s maxim that “85 percent of life is showing up”), their reaction struck me as a surefire sign of provinciality. Another sign of that was the dearth of interesting architects in the mix.
Again, I didn’t make the rules, but at roughly the same time that the Transbay schemes were being unveiled, Thom Mayne won a competition for a new tower at La Défense in Paris that clearly breaks new ground. This was another reason to wince, since a second major work by Mayne might finally put San Francisco on the architectural map.
Of course, Calatrava made the cut, only to have a falling out with his developer. Perhaps he was chosen, like Icarus, to exemplify the dangers of the creative edge. That left SOM, whose tower—while drawing on a Chinese precedent—alone showed the originality that the competition promised. With its blend of structure and sustainability, it presented a credible future for tall buildings in the earthquake-prone west coast. Plus, it was new, and that seemed to be what was wanted. (Unlike SOM’s, Richard Rogers’ peculiar tower was a throwback to his high-tech, frame-and-infill days, but vastly toned down with no real gain in use value, especially as office space.) SOM’s tower fit the bill, if the object had been to build a tower in San Francisco that broke the mold. In retrospect, no such luck.
The Transbay Tower reminds me of the new east span of the Bay Bridge, a chance squandered to do something on a par with the Golden Gate. San Francisco rises to its own occasions with about the same frequency as its earthquakes—maybe less frequently. In that sense, there’s no real mystery about the latest outcome. Still, it makes me wince.
Miami has always been a city of extremes, but never more so than during the week of Art Basel/Design Miami in December. On Design Miami’s opening evening, the usually sleepy streets of the Design District, a stone’s throw from impoverished Little Haiti, were jammed solid with flashy sports cars, luxury sedans, and even a few stretch limos. Inside the Moore building, where dealers in vintage modern and contemporary design exhibited their pricey wares, there were so many beautiful people with foreign accents milling and swilling champagne that it was a challenge to see what was on show. The most visible—and tone-setting—“art design” piece may have been the golden Cross Cabriolet concept car from Audi, a Design Miami sponsor, which sat on a platform surrounded by tension cables “simulating its design lines in three dimensional space.”
Recycling is a current trope in the design world and Design Miami took it literally, recycling several installations that first previewed in Milan last spring, such as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Light Socks display for Swarovski. Composed of hundreds of lozenge-shaped crystals heaped into mesh sacks with a halogen bulb hidden within, the deconstructed chandeliers offered a fresh and truly dazzling take on modern glamour, even though the “double socks” looked like an illumined scrotum. On the top floor, Design Miami Designer of the Year Tokujin Yoshioka also reprised his Milan hit Tornado, an installation of huge, undulating swathes of plastic straw tubing, in which he nestled his “art chairs” made of experimental materials like glassine paper and baked polyester elastomers. Yoshioka greeted admirers while sitting on a futuristic crystalline throne. It was an image that spoke volumes, but seemed lost in translation to the crowd.
Next door and inside the fair were the dealers in contemporary design. Moss was center stage with the Dutch duo Studio Job’s limited-edition, gilded bronze Robber Baron furniture suite, comprised of a monumental table (above), cabinet, clock, lamp, and jewel safe, each an assemblage of emblems representing industrial power, pollution, war, and obscene wealth. Was it art, design, or satire? Who cares! Three of the tables from an edition of five sold immediately at around $180,000 each.
As a reaction against all this ostentation and excess, another band of designers presented sweetly provocative performance pieces. Among the most engaging: Brit Stuart Haygarth’s patient assembly of a striking teardrop-shaped chandelier made from water bottle bottoms, and Mexican-born, LA-based furniture maker Tanya Aguiñiga’s transformation of metal folding chairs into festive seating swathed in brightly colored felt. Outside at the so-called “GlassLab” set up by the Corning Glass Museum in collaboration with Vitra Design Museum, Constantin and Laurene Boym were among a group of designers playing gingerly but inventively with molten shards of glass. In keeping with its “Sustainability is an Attitude” theme, Artek recycled its Milan-premiere Shigeru Ban-designed pavilion, constructed out of a fiberboard made from surplus self-adhesive labels, to exhibit its 2nd Cycle initiative of reclaimed Aalto stools. Nearby, Dornbracht staged graphic designer Mike Mieré’s Farm Project. The controversial pioneer of the “New Ugly” trend in European magazine design, Mieré turned the chic minimalist kitchen on its head with a sensory-rich living/cooking environment replete with Staffordshire dishes, potted herbs, hay bales, chickens, bunnies, and goats (which is just how people in Little Haiti live, but with Martha Stewart-worthy pottery).
Next day, in downtown Miami, the British urban planner Ricky Burdett spoke to a packed auditorium about how urban design was affecting the lives of more than three billion city dwellers and the planet’s dwindling resources. After scaring the audience with factoids such as “58 people move every hour to Lagos, Nigeria, a city with no coherent urban planning,” he showed how cash-strapped cities like Bogotá, Colombia, were transforming themselves into sustainable organisms through modest but clever urban design and mass transit initiatives. After his talk the audience fled, apparently uninterested in local Miamian responses. This reporter stayed long enough to hear Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami’s Architecture School, observe that if global warming continues at its current pace half of the city will be under water within a generation. Not the kind of climate forecast real estate developers want to hear, especially those behind Art Basel/Design Miami.
City planners have worried about maintaining New York’s web of roads, sewers, bridges, and public transit since commissioners drew up a blueprint for growth in 1811. Now, though, consensus is emerging that agencies must coordinate their upkeep if the city is to survive climate change and enormous population increases. Worries that our sewers are filling up and spewing wastewater into rivers are as old as city planning itself, but a coordinated response to those worries is new. Public officials from San Diego to Stockholm are addressing their cities’ ecological future, and they are less focused on technological fixes than on coordinating the way parks, transit, and economic development agencies share the land.
“We must think more holistically to achieve true, sustainable growth,” Empire State Development Corporation downstate chairman Patrick Foye told attendees at a New York Building Congress lunch on September 20. He’s got company. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ambitious 127-point sustainability program PlaNYC 2030 asks Parks Department officials to work with transportation planners to develop standards that will make new parking lots into grassy sponges for stormwater. And the chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is responding to the aftermath of the storm that shut down subways on August 8 by surveying for sites where it can tap porous pavement or new vegetative landscaping to soak up water.
While the MTA consults landscape architects to make its far-flung properties more efficient, Foye’s agency is shelving its traditional emphasis on megaprojects like the Atlantic Yards development in favor of a measured approach. “The state’s historic focus on large-scale projects has actually short-changed our region,” Foye told the September 21 meeting. In the speech, Foye proposed a rezoning around the new Moynihan Station that would sprinkle air rights along the 34th Street corridor: This, he said, would “mean less disruption to commuters and tie development to the market.” In other words, it would temper demands on subways, sewers, and roads, lessening the odds of a catastrophe. That same incremental focus will guide Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 agenda, now six months old, through its implementation.
At the Hudson Yards site, which the MTA is selling to developers who want to link new buildings to the new station, PlaNYC has proposed a test site for a new system, called HLSS for “high-level storm sewer.” Such a sewer can sweep rain and snow into the river, reducing the risk that nearby older sewers will fill with combined stormwater and wastewater and shut down. “We emphasize backup systems for water supply, upgrading the energy grid,” said Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff in an interview with AN. “If we don’t upgrade our infrastructure, the risk to life and property and costs going forward are only going to magnify.”
These may seem like harsh words even from Doctoroff, a man who is known for his steely style. But he doesn’t come off like a Cassandra—his thinking is in line with his counterparts in London, Chicago, and other cities trying to increase housing densities and upgrade mass transit. Mayors in Sacramento and Boston are striking deals with big employers and adopting sustainability plans that will guide their public investment for the next generation. “Anybody who has eyes and ears and a brain,” he says of the city’s physical condition, “will be reminded that we are in a perilous state.”
That state demands clever collaboration across agencies. The crammed acreage that makes the city so logical for high density and mass transit also means that any effort to repair pipes and plumbing leads, logically and politically, to new patches of literal green. When the city wants to put a new water node or sewer line underground somewhere, explains assistant Parks commissioner Joshua Laird, it wants to make sure no developer builds anything on the site that would make it inaccessible for tests and repairs. So it creates new parks. “The land will have a park on it that we will manage with the caveat that if DEP needs to get back in there they will be able to,” says Laird. “There’s a new shaft site on Bowery adjacent to one of our houses. They had acquired an old Edison site, and when it is done, will be required to put a park on top.”
The MTA is also trying to keep development within its control by developing mixed-use hubs at some of its commuter rail stations, beginning with Beacon in Putnam County. Moreover, executive director Sander has convened a panel of green advisors. He promises the outlines of a masterplan for improving the MTA’s stormwater management, track upkeep, and energy efficiency by April 22, the first anniversary of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 kick-off speech. This would go beyond the MTA’s longstanding use of new energy-efficient technology to make existing tracks carry more trains and existing bus routes carry more customers. Sander hopes to cover some of the involved expenses with revenue from the mayor’s much-discussed congestion charge.
Congestion pricing has emerged as a point of solidarity among Sander, Doctoroff, and EDC chief Robert Lieber, who all have been known to approach isolated economic-development issues focusing on the priorities of their respective agencies. Lieber is using his influence to urge executives whose companies might generate jobs to urge legislators to stop bickering over congestion pricing. Lieber, whose agency coordinates all waterfront conversions around town and accordingly must clear a host of rotting piers and suspect industrial sites, told audiences at an Economist-sponsored powwow and a New York Building Congress breakfast that he plans to use his pulpit to fight for new sources of infrastructure funding from all levels of government.
That call will expose discord between the no-nonsense city government and the more theatrical lawmakers in Albany. After a Con Edison steam pipe exploded in July and forced Midtown traffic to grind to a halt, Doctoroff described the new authority as inevitable. “Con Edison has got to invest more money, but you also have to change the way you think about energy,” said Doctoroff at the time. “Demand for energy by 2030 is projected to grow about 45 percent, and our plan holds it constant. We want to take stress off the system, and that means distributed generation.” PlaNYC calls for a city-created Energy Efficiency Authority to help finance building retrofits and create scattered small power plants, but Albany must approve the authority’s creation.
Finally, leaders are trying to persuade the private sector to invest in unglamorous upkeep. The administration disclosed plans in October to connect private landlords with the Clinton Climate Initiative, which has amassed $5 billion in loans to finance building retrofits. And PlaNYC’s implementation will require owners of parking lots over 6,000 square feet to plant trees along their edges and will promise a property tax break to offset 35 percent of the cost of new green roofs.
This kind of broad-based, small-bore work will define planners’ mandates and architects’ work for the next several years, but even if it is entirely successful, its achievement will hardly make the city an oasis of efficiency. Sander exposed the city’s fragile bones at a planners’ conference in mid-October when he confidently answered a question about how congestion pricing fees would help the MTA improve service. “You’ll see a 19th-century transit system moving into the 20th century.”
On August 7, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the Downtown Planning Ordinance. Initiated by the Department of City Planning, the measure is part of a concerted effort to update and urbanize planning codes that were appropriate for postwar suburban developments, but woefully out of sync with the current needs of the city and its ever-increasing population.
The ordinance is also expected to create more highrise density downtown as well as more affordable housing by offering a 35 percent floor-area-ratio (FAR) bonus as an incentive for developers to include affordable units.
News of the ordinance’s passing set off a flurry of newspaper opinion pieces and letters from readers, critics, and urban planners, some of whom bemoaned the notion that LA was falling victim to “Manhattanization,” a term used during the 1960s by critics of San Francisco’s highrise developments. Others applauded the city council’s effort to steer LA toward a denser, vertical profile, accusing critics of being “urbanphobes.”
In the LA Downtown News, urban design critic Sam Hall Kaplan wrote, “Interestingly, the paramount concern of our persistent ‘urbanphobes’ is not about making these developments more accessible and pedestrian friendly, nor how to provide more housing choices, nor how to offer more inviting parks and public spaces. Rather, what apparently worries them, and many others in Southern California, is the ogre of traffic.”
Scott Johnson, principal at Johnson Fain, a downtown-based architecture firm, said that any move toward more density and mixed land use is a good thing. But he considers it only one part of the total equation. “We need to see sustainability, affordable housing, and expanded use of public transportation happening at the same time as density,” he said. “LA is really behind on every one of these fronts.”
Even while LA is expanding its transit system to the further reaches of the metropolitan area, only about 12 percent of new residents in downtown, the public transit hub for greater LA, say they use the train or bus.
What most concerns Beth Steckler, policy director at Livable Places, an affordable housing and environmental advocacy group in downtown LA, is not public transportation or density but the lack of available affordable housing downtown.
“The real purpose of this [Downtown Planning Ordinance] is to streamline market-rate housing in highrises,” she says. Steckler argues that there are too many ways for developers to get around applying FAR bonuses toward affordable units. Livable Places proposed alternatives to the incentives detailed in the ordinance, which among other things would require higher percentages of affordable housing units than currently accepted by the city council.
Clearly, LA has a long way to go before reaching a consensus, and even further to a skyline of Manhattan-like density, if that’s even desirable. But what is apparent is the public’s ongoing interest in the debate, particularly on matters concerning the city’s unrelenting transportation woes. “The public is ready,” says Johnson. “We’re beginning to change.”
When two poodles sauntered from a freshly converted apartment house in downtown Newark this summer, it made the news. No, the dogs weren’t in any trouble, they were merely tethered to a well-heeled woman out for a stroll: a perfect specimen of that species beloved to real estate brokers, the highrise urban dweller. For New Jersey Business magazine, which reported the incident, they are a sign of better things to come.
As Mayor Cory A. Booker swept into office in 2006 on a platform of radical reform, he vowed to make Newark a “national standard for urban transformation.” And in June, he took a big step forward by appointing Toni Griffin as director of community development, charged with rebuilding the planning machine of New Jersey’s largest metropolis nearly from the ground up.
To many New Yorkers, this city of about 280,000 on the Passaic River has long been a tattered way station, glimpsed from passing Amtrak trains or en route to Newark Liberty Airport. But beyond the image of shells of buildings and broken windows is what planners call a robust urban infrastructure primed for a new half-century of growth. Though Newark’s population had dwindled dramatically from its peak of more than 440,000 in the 1930s, a boomlet since 2000 made it the fastest-growing major city in the Northeast. With commuter-friendly transit links to New York, dormant development capacity, and ample urban amenities waiting to be tapped, the Booker camp is betting hard on Newark’s future.
“With the coming of the Booker administration and changes in the region, Newark is in quite a different position than it was a few years ago,” observed Max Bond, partner at Davis Brody Bond. “As housing in New York gets more expensive, more and more people are looking at the possibility of living in Newark. In the regional context, there really are terrific opportunities.”
Shortly after the 38-year-old Booker came to office, he delighted planners by sitting down with the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and volunteers like Bond to draft a vision plan that would knit together the 100-odd neighborhood studies, urban renewal plans, and sundry agendas that had been moldering in City Hall file cabinets. This remarkable document, the product of dozens of planners, architects, city and state officials, and faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, sprang from a three-day charette in 2006. With groups brainstorming about specific projects—from airport economic growth to the new downtown arena—a focused plan emerged: Revamp the 17-year-old masterplan. Overhaul the 1960s zoning ordinance. Ban sky bridges. Establish rapid-transit bus routes. Make mixed-use a mantra. At public meetings presenting the report, administration officials got an earful from residents keen to put Newark’s plans into practice.
Enter Griffin, who grew up in Chicago and studied architecture at Notre Dame, as well as at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (where she is now a visiting design critic). Launching her career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office, she gravitated to planning and was hired to direct planning and tourism development for New York’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation. She then moved to Washington, D.C., where she oversaw large-scale redevelopment for the city’s planning office, taking charge of downtown, waterfront, and commercial corridors. She later served as vice president and director of design for the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, helping to make 2,000 acres along the Anacostia River corridor into a model for rebuilding inner cities. She is known for hitting the ground running.
"As an architect,” Griffin said, “my training is in problem-solving and in building. I see planning in the same way. I’m not interested in doing plans that sit on the shelves.”
Digging in on the first phase of Newark’s masterplan, Griffin convened a team including SMWM, Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates, Justice and Sustainability Associates, and Chan Krieger Sieniewicz to define a vision that will lead to a more proactive and transparent planning process. Staff will also draw on the RPA’s draft vision plan and local design firms with the aim of revising the master plan and zoning ordinance for the 24-square-mile city, a task expected to be a multi-phase, multi-year effort. To build a central planning department out of what had been, in the James era, splintered among varied boards and offices, Griffin also aims to beef up her own staff, now home to four planners. “I want to hire a mix of planners with design backgrounds, designers with planning backgrounds, and economists,” she said.
Shifting to more immediate goals, the Booker team has targeted downtown residential development as a priority, citing 1180 Raymond Boulevard, a long-vacant Art Deco office tower in the heart of downtown. Recently converted into 317 rental units, it is rapidly filling with, yes, the aforementioned poodles—and just the commuters the city hopes to attract. (Eighty percent of the tower’s occupants work in New York.) “We’re aiming to build upon the trend started by premier new residential buildings like 1180 Raymond Boulevard,” said Stefan Pryor, Newark’s deputy mayor for economic development. Pryor, who led the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation through its forced quiescence before arriving as a high-profile hire for the Booker administration, is actively working on projects that have been thwarted by Newark’s outmoded regulations. He cites the city’s incoherent zoning rules as a persistent problem for developers who want to convert commercial buildings into housing. “There are side yard requirements and backyard requirements and onerous parking requirements,” he said. “We are going to eliminate those.”
Bringing momentum downtown is New Jersey Transit’s mile-long light-rail link between the city’s two major transit hubs, Newark Penn Station and Broad Street Station. Opened in 2006 at a cost of $207 million, the line connects New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, PATH trains, and the city’s subway. It will hopefully extend residential and retail growth north across I-280, and to the two gemlike Mies van der Rohe towers known as the Pavilion Apartments. Opened in 1960, along with a third Mies apartment building near Branch Brook Park called the Colonnade, the towers today look lonely amid Colonial-style townhouses built on the site of the Christopher Columbus Homes public housing project, which were razed in 1994 after becoming a symbol of neglect and poverty.
Back near Broad Street, which Griffin sees a as focal point for the 45,000 college students who attend Newark’s five colleges and universities, there’s the Barton Myers-designed New Jersey Performing Arts Center, widely hailed as the project that put Newark back on the map when it opened in 1997. “It’s an area that can help to change the whole image of the city and brand it as a waterfront downtown,” Griffin said. Work has slowly progressed on the Joseph G. Minish Passaic River Waterfront Park, which would stretch north from the dominantly Portuguese and Brazilian Ironbound district (and its swinging tapas bars) to the downtown core. Griffin looks toward a teeming, two-sided waterfront along both banks of the Passaic; plans are already progressing across the river in Harrison, where the first phase of a development with 1,800 residential units, a soccer stadium, and a riverfront park is under way.
For many watching Newark’s redevelopment, the most bothersome legacy of the James administration may be Prudential Center, the city’s new downtown arena. Branded a boondoggle by Newarkers who questioned its $375 million price tag and prospects (it is home to the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils), the arena was nonetheless under construction by the time James left office. Mayor Booker, who once denounced the project as a “betrayal of the public trust,” has determined to embrace the squat, brick-and-glass behemoth, which opens this month with a ten-night stand by Bon Jovi. Ever the optimist, Griffin thinks the arena could catalyze restaurant and retail development just as the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) did for Washington.
The city’s hottest vehicle of change, however, is less likely to be Bon Jovi than the Port of Newark, because it has one thing Newark needs most: jobs. The city is closely studying how to redevelop land and capture job opportunities at the port, which employs relatively few locals. A similar strategy is taking shape around the airport, which Griffin suggests could be groomed as an “aerotropolis,” surrounded by efficient business and residential nodes. “Cities like Dallas are looking at neighborhoods around airports,” she explained, “and developing them as attractive places to live.”
Newark’s real estate boom has had unintended effects. As the market revived in former no-go neighborhoods, suburban-minded builders found a cheap formula to fill empty blocks: the Bayonne Box. A source of consternation to Newark planners, the narrow, three-story house has deep setbacks, vast curb cuts, and car-forward frontage (“a machine for parking,” growled one planner). The now-ubiquitous Bayonne Box is anathema to a rich and lively public realm, and Griffin’s team is looking to tweak zoning regulations to reduce curb cuts, hide vehicles, and create greener front yards. Her office has also drafted guidelines for new housing typologies, and will be hiring architects to test those concepts throughout the city. A similar program is under way to check the growth of car-centric shopping hubs. “We want to look at guidelines for how mixed-use town centers can fit back into the fabric of Newark,” she said.
Community groups, long inured to promises, are guardedly optimistic about their city’s future.
“So far Ms. Griffin has been sensitive and responsive to what we see as critical issues,” said Richard Cammarieri, chair of the master plan working group for the New Community Corporation, a network of citizen groups. “The biggest challenge is going to be ensuring that the planning process is in fact internalized for the entire city government. Everyone really has to buy into this.”
Longtime Newarkers have an endearing knack for looking at the bright side. “At least we have a planning department now,” Cammarieri dryly noted, “which we’ve never had before.”
People were clamoring to honor Zaha Hadid during this year’s London Design Festival. Her Urban Nebula installation of jagged concrete modules sat in front of the South Bank Centre beside the Thames, her Aqua table was rendered in marble for furniture company Established and Sons, and London’s mayor Ken Livingstone awarded her the inaugural London Design Medal at the event’s opening.
The fifth annual London Design Festival, which also incorporates the longstanding tradeshow 100% Design, was—like Hadid herself—an intriguing mix of hard commerce and entertaining experimentation. The polished concrete wall commissioned by the festival organizers as part of the project Size + Matter aimed to blur the boundaries between architecture, design, engineering, and sculpture by partnering Hadid and Future Systems’ Amanda Levete with manufacturers of precast concrete and Corian, respectively, to create installations to be auctioned off by Phillips de Pury & Co. When asked to make a sales pitch for the installation during a series of talks hosted by Blueprint, Hadid expressed a desire to make her work accessible.
You might be forgiven for thinking there weren’t any other designers in the city, but not everything was Zaha-related. Tom Dixon demonstrated deft skills in public relations and reaching the public with his Glowb giveaway, in which 1,000 Dixon-designed energy efficient lightbulbs were given away on a first come, first served basis. His site-specific chandelier, a suspended carpet of his “Blow” bulbs, was the flame to crowds of mothlike customers swarming Trafalgar Square during the festival’s opening days.
The first Tent London product design show, set up by 100% Design founders Ian Rudge and Jimmy MacDonald, was staged in the former Truman Brewery building in East London. Rather than products, the highlight here was the Urbantine Project, an open competition aimed at budding architecture and design practices to design and construct a temporary pavilion that responds to the need for flexible workspaces. The winner, architect Alex Haw, built an concertina-like system of interlocking plywood panels to form a sequence of work/leisure spaces.
It was clear that the thriving and affluent commercial design scene and the designers/ makers still emerging remain disparate entities. Unlike in Milan, where the furniture show has roots in the city’s manufacturing industry and retains an affinity with the production process, it was evident this year that the lack of a coherent focus in London is what gives the festival its character. The charm lies in finding the oddities and individual highlights.
At last year’s Green Build Conference in Denver, the USGBC announced the Portfolio Program, a one-year pilot that commits large-scale corporations to adopting LEED building practices by bulk certifying comparable buildings. Participants commit 25 buildings, or two million square feet, for LEED certification; both new construction and retrofit projects are eligible. The corporations develop green prototypes for standardized use with USGBC incentives such as discounts on the LEED certifications, customized training, and educational resources. The program launched with commitments from the University of Florida, Starbucks, Toyota, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and HSBC.
While the number of participants is limited in the first year of this program, which runs until the end of 2007, new LEED certified buildings are already debuting. The London-based international banking giant HSBC has opened its first LEED Gold certified branch in Greece, New York. The building is carbon neutral thanks to geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels, and energy purchased from a wind farm. Rainwater captured from the roof is used for restroom operations and watering the landscape. Indoor lights dim in response to sunshine and the glowing sign uses LEDs. Rapidly renewable materials used on the interior include bamboo flooring and wheat and corn-based products.
John Beckinghausen, VP and Director of Environmental Sustainability for HSBC North America, explains that with this prototype in place, the company will open 24 new LEED certified branches over the next four years. While some projects may take over existing buildings, all will be new branches as part of an expansion project. While green features of the Greece prototype will be repeated, the company is not establishing a standardized aesthetic for the designs, which will appear all around the country. A new 460,000-square-foot HSBC headquarters building in Chicago will also seek LEED certification; the five-story office tower is being designed by Wright Architects in Chicago.
Previously, the time and expense of applying for LEED certification has prevented corporations from green “volume building,” but for now volume certification seems to have captured the banking world’s attention. PNC Bank opened its first LEED facility in Pittsburgh in 2000, and now boasts a Gensler- designed prototype. The company already has 45 LEED certified buildings and 18 more waiting for certification. Citi has plans to retrofit a bulk of projects for LEED certification and will soon complete a 15-story building in Queens featuring a stormwater recycling system, energy-efficient fixtures, and day-lit work
There’s a rising star in the architecture and design communities. She can build homes so strong, they withstand more than 2,000 times their own weight. She taught Mercedes-Benz a thing or two about making more aerodynamic cars. And in her spare time, she developed a technique for creating vibrant colors with no toxins.
So who is this superstar? You know her already—her name is Mother Nature. Time and again, she’s proven herself to be a master architect and engineer. (In case you’re wondering, tests have shown snail shells can support more than 2,000 times their weight, the streamlined form of the boxfish helped Mercedes-Benz build an ultrafuel-efficient car, and butterfly wings have their glorious color embedded in their structure.) We might feel humbled, but then again, nature’s been at this game a lot longer than we humans, honing her designs through the process of evolution.
As scientist Janine Benyus wrote in her influential book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997), “After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival… All our inventions have already appeared in nature in a more elegant form and at less cost to the planet.”
Scientists and technologists have been imitating nature for years to foster innovations in engineering. The strategy is known as “biomimicry” or “biomimetics, ”meaning “imitation of life.” Many architects and designers are catching on, reading Benyus’ book and others on the topic, and some are giving biomimicry a try themselves.
Biomimicry can be applied at various levels: forms (biomorphism), functions, or entire ecosystems. In architecture, mimicking nature’s forms is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Consciously or not, builders of primitive huts echoed the form of a skeleton, crafting simple wood frames covered by animal skins. More modern architects, too, regularly develop their designs visually inspired by organic forms: the curves, tendrils, and floral shapes of Art Nouveau, the spiny spires of Gaudí, the structural vertibrae of Calatrava.
Biomimicry gets more interesting, though, when it goes beyond form. “For us, it’s asking a deeper question of how the natural world does it: not what is the form but what is the function that that form provides,” says Dayna Baumeister, who helped found the Biomimicry Guild, along with Benyus. The group is devoted to biomimicry consulting, education, and research. Best of all, according to the guild, is biomimicry that echoes the workings of entire ecosystems, encompassing principles of adaptability, synergy, and efficient uses of limited resources.
While the deeper forms of biomimicry have more to offer in terms of sustainability and functionality, they’re also more tricky to execute well. “It needs very careful thought,” says Julian Vincent, director of the Centrefor Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath. “When you’re looking at biological systems, they tend to solve problems in very different ways from engineering systems, which is why the area is so interesting. But that means that if you’re looking for an answer, you shouldn’t look for it in the most obvious place.” To even be able to formulate the right questions to ask and the right areas of nature to emulate, “you always need a biologist on hand,” he says.
Despite its potential pitfalls, architectural biomimicry has resulted in some striking successes. The most famous example is the 1996 Eastgate building in Harare, Zimbabwe, which uses natural air conditioning modeled after the air flow in a termite mound. Designed by architect Mick Pearce with engineering by Arup, the office and retail building reportedly saved its owner $3.5 million in energy expenses in the first five years alone.
Biologically obsessed architect Eugene Tsui once designed a house in Berkeley, California, with lighweight, strong trusses modeled after seagull bone marrow and a subsurface solar heating system based on the bone and capillary structures of two dinosaurs, the stegosaurus and the dimetrodon. Grimshaw Architects covered their Waterloo International Terminal in London with glass sheets that overlap like snake scales, to better hug the structure’s serpentine curves.
Some biomimetic projects in the works show promise, too, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s spongelike design for the Pearl River Tower, a 71-story corporate headquarters. The design won a competition calling for sustainable design thanks to some unconventional thinking by Roger Frechette and his team in SOM’s performative design group. Frechette says they turned to the sea sponge for inspiration because “we found it doing a lot of things we look to buildings to do but without mechanical energy or electricity.” The squishy creatures are superbly engineered to harvest fuel from the sea: They can pump thousands of gallons of water a day, from which they draw their food. Sponges also shelter and protect a multitude of tiny inhabitants, which benefit from the flow of food-bearing water.
So what do you get when you cross a highrise with a sponge? The design for the Pearl River Tower is porous, with four holes that house wind turbines to create electricity from the strong winds that blow above the ground. Defying convention, the tower faces the wind, to better harness its energy; the holes also relieve wind pressure. The building soaks up energy from the sun as well, thanks to strategically placed photovoltaic cells. With these and other energy-saving measures such as radiant cooling, the building’s energy use will be reduced by 58 to 60 percent. Frechette claims it will be by far the world’s most energy-efficient supertall tower when it’s completed in 2009.
In another competition-winning design, landscape architects Grant Associates of Bath, England, designed a grove of “supertrees” as part of a larger future project to develop three parks around a Singapore marina. Reaching around 100 to 180 feet high, they are tree-shaped structures that will serve as homes for orchids and ferns, and shelter the humans below from rain and sun, as real trees do. The plants grow on and through the supertrees’ steel lattice skin. “Current computer analysis studies are investigating a structural design solution for the skin that reflects natural patterns of branching and cellular structures,” says Andrew Grant, director of Grant Associates.
The supertrees also absorb solar energy in a way that’s analogous to their organic counterparts, since they support extensive arrays of photovoltaics and solar thermal panels, he says. Canopies collect rainwater, and the structures even have irrigation and misting systems that mirror natural transpiration. At night, the trees’ high-tech origins are revealed, for they transform into lanterns for the garden.
Kevin Stack, president of Syracuse, New York–based Northeast Natural Homes and Northeast Green Building Consulting, exemplifies biomimicry on the grandest scale: emulating the intricate interworkings of ecosystems. His sustainable strategies recently helped him win the state’s first LEED-H Gold rating, for a residence in Skaneateles, New York.
Stack has been in the sustainable home building business for nearly 30 years, and he recently became immersed in the concepts of biomimicry through reading Benyus’ book and studying at the Biomimicry Institute. He found the concepts eye-opening, especially the emphasis on studying and learning from the ecological systems of the local environment. After examining patterns of rainfall in upstate New York, he found that in an unbuilt area, 30 percent of rainfall goes into the aquifer, 30 percent is taken up by vegetation, and 40 percent evaporates. He now makes sure his buildings don’t disturb those natural proportions.
Stack regards the trees that surround his construction sites as natural capital since they provide shade and oxygen and their roots help manage stormwater, so he treats them accordingly. “We actually hand-dig around their root system when we have to get close, and instead of just excavating roots out of the way, we’ll bend them by hand,” he explains. “If we have to cut a root, we cut it cleanly, and we apply a hormone that stimulates regrowth.” Instead of using materials that would have to be shipped in, such as bamboo, he chooses local ecofriendly materials such as recycled wood from old barns and PureBond, a type of plywood made from local hardwoods using a natural, nontoxic adhesive.
When it comes to green building design, “everyone’s going out, looking throughout the entire world for this special item or technology or material, but the answers are right in front of us,” Stack says. “You just need to pay attention.”