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Modernism is more than just a style

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Something surprising has happened with many so-called “sustainable” buildings. When actually measured in post-occupancy assessments, they’ve proven far less sustainable than their proponents have claimed. In some cases they’ve actually performed worse than much older buildings, with no such claims. Among other reasons for this failing are the widespread use of expansive curtain-wall glass assemblies and large, “deep-plan” designs that put most usable space far from exterior walls, forcing greater reliance on artificial light and ventilation systems. Nikos A. Salingaros & Michael Mehaffy explain the phenomenon.

One problem with many sustainability approaches is that they don’t question the underlying building type. Instead they only add new “greener” components, such as more efficient mechanical systems and better wall insulation. But this “bolt-on” conception of sustainability, even when partially successful, has the drawback of leaving underlying forms and the structural system that generates them, intact. The result is too often the familiar “law of unintended consequences.” What’s gained in one area is lost elsewhere as the result of other unanticipated interactions.

For example, adding more efficient active energy systems tends to reduce the amount of energy used, and therefore lowers its overall cost. But, in turn, that lower cost tends to make tenants less careful with their energy use — a phenomenon known as “Jevons’ Paradox.” Increasing efficiency lowers cost, and increases demand — in turn increasing the rate of consumption, and wiping out the initial savings.

The lesson is that we can’t deal with energy consumption in isolation. We have to look at the concept of energy more broadly, including embodied energy and other factors. There are often other unintended consequences. A notable case is London’s sustainability-hyped “Gherkin” (Foster & Partners, 2003), where the building’s open-floor ventilation system was compromised when security-conscious tenants created glass separations. Operable windows whose required specifications had been lowered because of the natural ventilation feature actually began to fall from the building, and had to be permanently closed. The ambitious goal of a more sophisticated natural ventilation system paradoxically resulted in even worse ventilation.

Passive buildings allow the users to adjust and adapt to climactic conditions say, by opening or closing windows or blinds, and getting natural light and air. They feature diverse systems that do more than one thing like the walls that hold up the building and also accumulate heat through thermal mass. They have networks of spaces that can be reconfigured easily, even converted to entirely new uses with relatively inexpensive modifications (unlike the “open-plan” typology, which has never delivered on expectations). Such multi-purpose buildings aren’t narrowly designed to one fashionable look or specialized user and perhaps most crucially, they don’t stand apart from context and urban fabric, but work together with other scales of the city, to achieve benefits at both larger and smaller scales.

No building is an island

Another major problem with green building programs happens when they treat buildings in isolation from their urban contexts. In one infamous example, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation moved its headquarters to the world’s first certified LEED-Platinum building — but the move took them from an older building in the city of Annapolis, Maryland to a new building in the suburbs, requiring new embodied energy and resources. The added employee travel alone what’s known as “transportation energy intensity”more than erased the energy gains of the new building. The systems may appear to be well engineered within their original defined parameters but they will inevitably interact with many other systems, often in an unpredictable and non-linear way.

Older buildings perform better

Many older buildings took “passive” approach, simply because in that era energy was expensive (or simply not available) and transportation was difficult therefore, buildings were naturally more clustered together in urban centres. Their shape and orientation exploited natural daylight, and typically featured smaller, well-positioned windows and load-bearing walls with higher thermal mass. The simple, robust shapes of these buildings allowed almost endless configurations. In fact many of the most in-demand urban buildings today are actually adaptive reuse projects of much older buildings. The results of this passive approach are reflected in good energy performance.

It is fashionable among many architects today to attack Modernism, and argue instead for various kinds of avant-garde and “Post-Modernist” styles. Because the Modernist design language is tied to the linear engineering paradigm, the same and its successors cannot in practice combine redundant (“network”) and diverse approaches, nor work across many scales, nor ensure a fine-grained adaptivity for design elements. This seems to suggest an important explanation of the alarmingly poor performance of these buildings and places, when actually evaluated in post-occupancy research.

Modernist Architecture

Architectural critic Peter Buchanan, recently in ‘The Architectural Review’ magazine placed the blame for the green building failure squarely at the feet of the Modernist design model itsel and called for a “big rethink” about many of its unquestioned assumptions. Modernism is inherently unsustainable, he argued, because it evolved in the beginning of the era of abundant and cheap fossil fuels. This cheap energy powered the weekend commute to the early Modernist villas and kept their large open spaces warm, in spite of large expanses of glass and thin wall sections. Petrochemicals created their complex sealants and fueled the production of their exotic extrusions. “Modern architecture is thus an energy-profligate, petrochemical architecture, only possible when fossil fuels are abundant and affordable”, he said. “Like the sprawling cities it spawned, it belongs to that waning era historians are already calling ‘the oil interval’.”

The various avant-garde attempts to transcend Modernism appear more as exotic new wrappings for the same underlying (and non-resilient) structural types and industrial methods. Just as it is not possible to achieve resilience by merely adding new devices like solar collectors to these old industrial-Modernist building types, it is not possible to get meaningful benefits with dazzling new designer permutations and tokenistic ecological thinking within the same essentially industrial design process.

A wave of neo-modernism

In recent years, there has been a remarkable resurgence of an even more unapologetic form of Modernism. We seem to be witnessing a “back to roots” movement, one that like other such movements, is based more on doctrinal belief than on evidence. This fashionable Neo-Modernism ranges from outright “retro” boxy white buildings, interiors, and furnishings, to swoopy futuristic-looking buildings and landscapes. Stylistically, the shapes are eye-catching and often edgy, and some people (especially many architects) clearly like them.

Of course, fashions come and go, and architecture is no different: in a sense this is just another phase in the more or less continuous waxing and waning of architectural Modernism. What has now changed is that we are asking newly urgent questions about the resilience of this kind of structure. It is not only the practical issues of expansive glazed curtain walls, bulky and transparent buildings and exotic assemblies, it is the very idea of buildings as fashionable icons celebrating their own newness which is fundamentally at odds with the notion of sustainability.

As they age, these buildings are destined to be less new and therefore less useful. The pristine Modernist and Post-Modernist industrial surfaces are destined to weather and degrade. The humble, humane criteria of resilient design are being pushed aside, in the rush to embrace the most attention-getting new technological approaches which then produce a disastrous wave of unintended failures. This is clearly no way to prepare for a “sustainable” future in any sense.

Modernism is not merely a style, It is part and parcel of a remarkably comprehensive project of aesthetics, tectonics, urbanism, technology, culture, and ultimately, civilization. The origins of architectural Modernism are closely affiliated with the progressive goals of the early Twentieth Century and the novel industrial technology of the age. Many things did improve under this technological regime but along with that has come a calamitous ecological depletion and destruction of resources. So today, in an age of converging crises, we will need to look more closely at this history and what its ongoing legacy means for us and our very daunting design challenges today.

Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on architectural theory, and design philosophy. He is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas and is on the Architecture faculties of universities in Italy, Mexico, and the Netherlands.



Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist, practicing planner and builder and Executive Director of the Sustasis Foundation, a Portland, OR-based NGO dedicated to developing neighborhood-scale tools for resilient and sustainable development.


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