Lessons Learned

How architecture and design shape our thinking, our culture—and our future

Meant to connect interior life to the outside world, Modern architecture instead sealed us behind a glass facade, disconnecting us from the natural world. We learned to adapt to uniform lighting and temperatures while the clouds mottled the sidewalks, and the wind and rain cooled them. We learned to accept giant potted plants in concrete courtyards as substitutes for thriving local flora. We learned to use our electrical outlets to power everything from toilets to phones. We learned to expect the flow of drinkable water whenever any faucet, anywhere in the United States, is turned on. We learned to decorate our rooms to match the newest style, just as our bodies grow uncomfortable in last year’s outfits. We learned to read highly refined but hard-to-decipher wayfinding signage. We learned to live in a throwaway culture that values consumption over and above all other values. We learned all this from the designed environment, which together with a culture that supports designers’ work encouraged our careless use of resources and criminal indifference to nature.

Today, as climate change is directly linked to human activity, the designed environment has a more sustainable lesson to teach. I was thinking about this during the jury session for the AIA 2007 Top Ten Green Projects, created by its Committee on the Environment. The award views architecture as a contributor to the health and well-being of its occupants as well as the Earth. It demands serious thought from the entrants and the jurors. And so we read about the intent of each project, the team that built it, its financials, its land use and community programs, its attention to water and energy conservation, its materials and processes. As I came upon the Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, D.C. (see “Teaching Tools,”), I read how the building and its surroundings would teach fifth- to twelfth-grade students about natural processes and their part in them, as well as about relationships to location and community.

I imagined myself as a sixth-grader assigned a science project to observe the behavior of water as I read the following description: “The green roof slows the flow of rainwater and diverts it through a series of scuppers, downspouts, and flow forms to the biology pond and rain garden in the courtyard… [a wetland was constructed] to process wastewater,” which would be used to irrigate the gardens, flush the toilets, and supply the cooling towers. So the building is designed to help a 12-year-old find her unique entry into the study of water, in addition to harvesting the sunshine and much more.

Thus the architecture in this independent Quaker-run school introduces students to stewardship as its core value and to the ecological concepts that will shape their lives and livelihoods in the twenty-first century. Can design get any better than this?

Recent Programs