Incubating the Future

The dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture talks about the program’s pursuit of greener design solutions.

Buildings account for almost half (48%) of all greenhouse gas emissions annually.

This oft-repeated statistic highlights what many architects and designers have long realized: the building industry has a profound impact on the state of our environment. In the past couple of years, “green building” has become trendy, led by a combination of concerned professionals, consumer demand, and opportunistic developers looking to distinguish their properties from the competition in a challenging real-estate market. But even though green building seems to be garnering significant media attention these days, I wonder, is the concept really making inroads into the curriculums of design schools, in the places where it could potentially have the most impact on the future of the industry?

As a graduate architecture student in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), I am both concerned and (cautiously) optimistic about the changes I see taking place in architecture academia. While environmental design isn’t nearly as entrenched as it should be in the core curriculums of design schools, and some professors still blanch at the word sustainability, students seem to be clamoring to learn more about this topic and are demanding new classes and are shaping their own academic paths. Recently I sat down with Mark Wigley, dean of Columbia’s GSAPP, to talk about the changes currently taking place within architecture schools to address the growing concern of sustainability.

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What role should academia play in promoting and exploring sustainable design?
If the architect is a public intellectual and if architects are the people who think that buildings talk to us about our highest ambitions, then surely one of our highest ambitions today is to be less stupid about energy. But there’s a much more radical question here too: “What are the positive exciting experimental potentials that are the upside of the energy crisis?” Not merely “how the hell can we deal with this terrible problem?”

What is Columbia doing in relation to the growing environmental crisis?
Solutions to energy problems will require many different architecture schools thinking in many different ways. What makes Columbia unique is we are trying to imagine what will be the state of the profession 10 years from now. There are some schools that try to think about the profession today, some try to think about it five years ago, some try to think about it 10 years ago. The further forward in time you aim yourself, the less professional you appear to be, the more you have questions rather than answers, and the more you’re interested in the questions that haven’t even come up yet. Columbia is, by definition, so experimental that we’re not even answering the questions of today. We’re trying to think of what the next question is. Now, to do that, we need an entirely different pedagogical technique. Since we don’t know what the question is, we need to design a school in such a way that we generate questions.

The word sustainability is not sustainable for us. It’s already what everybody agrees is the question today, and it’s just a useful word for explaining the ever increasing sense of urgency around questions of energy.

So in this school, what we try to do is think about energy in such a way that new words and concepts other than sustainability are generated, which means we have to run many experiments at the same time. So more and more of the school’s experimental capacity is devoted to energy.

Are there marked differences in energy consumption between Americans and residents of other countries?
So many of the energy efficiency laws, which are laws in Europe, are just unthinkable in the United States. Why is that? Misuse of energy is a matter of national pride in the United States. This is the only country in the world that I know of that has two different temperature set points for winter and summer. An American feels American only when the room is too cold in the summer and too hot in the winter. So every apartment in winter, you have to open the window to try and be less hot, and every apartment in the summer, you have to open the window to get a little less cold.

In New Zealand, where I’m from, if you’re cold, you put on a sweater. You don’t flip the switch on a huge machine. The American house is an accessory to an air conditioning unit. It’s just an extension of the air conditioning unit.

If you think about the ice industry in the United States – it’s unbelievable. Just think about the amount of energy is being used to turn water into ice so it will cool a drink, and will simply melt again, right? It’s unbelievable. And why? Why is this the only country in the world which your water should be drank with a ton of ice cubes? Why do we need ice cubes? It’s supposedly not even good for digestion to drink a drink that is too cold. Again it’s about control—to control, to show that you have the power and technology.

People don’t use ice cubes in their drinks in Europe?
Not in the same way – if they use any, it’s just one or two cubes. This is an entire country that thinks of itself as an SUV. Everything you know about SUVs works at a national level. It’s huge, has tinted windows, you don’t know who you run over, the primary purpose of the vehicle is quasi military. So the U.S is an image of energy inefficiency. Surely this will be the last country in the world to become sensitive to ecological management.

Where will the push towards sustainability in the U.S. come from?
There’s going to be a sudden shift, I believe, and the leadership will not come from the building industry. The United States building industry is the worst, the slowest, the most incompetent, and has the lowest standards of any building industry anywhere in the world, below third world conditions. It’s not going to come from there. It’s not going to come from government because you don’t have government in the United States like you have in Europe. You simply cannot get a congestion tax or an insulation law passed so easily. I believe where it will come from is a combination of real estate developers and the clients; that is to say, I think there’s an explosive sense of responsibility in the community at large, which is escalating to such an extent that real estate developers will now successfully sell apartment buildings at a premium because people will want to live in buildings that are ecologically sensitive. This has already started to happen in Manhattan.

So when real estate developers can make more money by making their buildings greener, there’s going to be a lot of green buildings built. And when that starts to happen, I believe the United States will then teach Europe many, many lessons. And then the question is what the hell are the architects going to do to speed that change up, to respond to it, to design with it, and so on. And almost every student I know wants to be part of being intelligent about that. So each student, in their own way, is thinking that way, which means the teachers have to think that way, which means the school thinks that way, which means eventually the university. So it’s a long answer to your question.

Do you think it’s a bottom up, grassroots thing—where students are provoking the departments and the school to try to get more discussion on sustainability?
At Columbia the school is led by the students. Because, by definition, the students are closer to the new questions than the teachers. So what happens is kind of a contract between students that are being asked to act like teachers and teachers being asked to act like students. They collaborate together on redefining the school.

Interestingly enough, of course, all of these questions that we’re talking about were very, very key questions in the late 1950s right through the 1960s and up until around 1972, were very, very big questions in architectural education. So there is a generation of teachers for whom this is a return a really welcome return to important questions.

On that note, I wanted to ask you about the word ‘virtue’. When we spoke at the Architecture 2030 panel, seveal of the older professors talked about this return to issues that were talked about in the 1960s and 70s. And the word “virtuous” was used in very a negative way — to describe a distaste for the moralizing attitude that sometimes goes hand in hand with the environmental movement. Do you think that ‘virtuousness’ is still a problem with the environmental movement. Have things changed in today’s new environmental movement?
It’s an interesting question. In this school you’ve seen a very rapid shift from the moment where – in the past – energy thoughtfulness was seen as a virtue and, therefore, unlikely to produce interesting architecture. In other words, in the past, to identify oneself as being committed to intelligent use of energy was an excuse to be a dull architect. Virtuous architecture was pitted against criminally beautiful and interesting architecture! In the past, inefficiency and insensitivity to energy flow was associated with radically experimental work on architecture.

This has completely changed where for student and teacher alike, being intelligent about energy is one of the most stimulating experimental trajectories that any designer can take.

The trouble with virtue is; virtue means you already know the answer. Virtue is having decided already what’s virtuous and what’s not, and then you attach the label. For a school which is dedicated to finding the next question, the last thing we need is virtue. By not being virtuous, but instead being open to the most important innovations in our field, the school then takes up its responsibility. So ultimately our virtue is to not be virtuous. We must never assume we know the answer never assume that we know what’s correct.

Is there a difference between virtue and responsibility?
There’s been a long tradition in ecological design of buildings that, in fact, are energy inefficient but highlight certain aspects of recycling in order to gain a sense of virtue. So you’ve got like virtuous buildings that are actually criminal, and you’ve got the reverse. You’ve got buildings that seem in every way to be designed on the basis of kind of a disregard for energy that nevertheless are extraordinarily intelligent in those terms.

So I would say this school is, by definition, opposed to virtue, and that’s what makes in the end, not necessarily virtuous, but responsible. In other words, to be really responsible means to simply to learn to live with other people. And what is it to live with other people? It means to accept the other, to accept what you don’t expect and don’t necessarily want. In other words, to live in a city like New York means to embrace the fact that there are lots of things around you that are other than you—so you embrace kind of biodiversity. And to embrace biodiversity, you have to open yourself a little bit to risk, by definition. But in return for that, other people open themselves to you, and there is this fantastic sense of kinship of community of solidarity and so on.

It’s not about saving the planet. The planet actually will survive all of us. Actually, that’s the problem. The planet will get on just fine without us.

So that’s why it’s a very interesting moment in time where our most obsessive, radical, experimental teachers and architects are rethinking energy in this exhilarating way. Virtue will come later. Virtue will be in Washington. Virtue will be in the local government. Virtue might even be in the building industry. Virtue will never be in the real estate development program.

With your view that Columbia is looking 10 years in into the future – what do you see 10 years into the future?
By definition, the Dean of a school devoted to 10 years out has no idea what’s going to happen 10 years from now and loves that. Of course we can see, most obviously, that there is what we’ve already discussed in kind of an explosively accelerating interest in energy responsibility as an ethical responsibility. Ethics itself, I think, is more and more the question. What is the ethical role of an architect? I think the general question of biodiversity will, I would guess, get more and more attention. But by definition, we don’t know.

There’s deep, deep interest in materials and fabrication and energy and disaster relief, in new forms of communication, in new capacities for visualizing interaction and so on. One quickly goes through a list of various interest, but each and any one of those could die out two years from now. So I literally don’t know. That’s why I love it here.

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