Tropical Green

A Metropolis conference explores regional approaches to modern architecture.

On a bitter winter morning a few years ago, as winds whipped sleet into tiny missiles, I headed to the airport, going south for some sunshine. I was obsessed on this trip to Miami with blue skies, tropical breezes, and sheltering vegetation. Upon checking in to my hotel I imagined opening the windows and falling asleep to the rustle of palms. But this was not to be: I was in a sealed building with a humming air conditioner that ran 24/7, even during those balmy days. In fact everywhere I went—architects’ offices, museums, shops, galleries, and private homes—I bumped into the same steady 70-degree wall of machined air.

This wasteful reality led me to think of how much more pleasant and beautiful Miami would be if the architects who had designed the buildings there loved and respected the sun, the breezes, and the flora instead of forcing these natural resources into technological straitjackets. That thought buzzed in my brain as I settled into the cool panoramic conference room of architect Bernard Zyscovich. Before long Bernard and I decided that a conference was needed to bring together the wisdom of tropical builders from other parts with local planners, architects, and city officials. As I was leaving, we promised to find a way to hold a public forum on the unique techniques and poetry of building in the tropics.

But long-distance collaborations are difficult, so the idea languished for a while. When we finally reconnected New York and Miami, first via e-mails and then conference calls, I was still skeptical about the logistics of such long-distance planning. But then I heard the strong and enthusiastic voice of Zyscovich architect Kricket Snow come over the speakerphone, and I became excited about our joint venture.

It took many more of those calls, and even more e-mails, to mobilize the organizing teams at Metropolis and in Miami. At one point the Floridians e-mailed a dramatic illustration that ran in the Miami Herald of some 100 new buildings about to scrape the city’s sky. I discerned no mention of green features in this unprecedented building boom. At a time when the architecture and planning community knows more and more about things like solar collectors and wind turbines, no one in Miami seemed interested in these solutions. All I saw was a lot of modern glass boxes and duded-up Post-Modern behemoths that could be designed for any city anywhere in the world by architects who still believe that the International Style gives them a license to ignore local climate, resources, and cultures. But this can no longer be the way of architecture. “Tropical Green” (February 9–10) will search for the new language of twenty-first–century Modernism, one that is uniquely regional and specific to hot and humid zones.

Recent Programs