Architecture and urban design are in the throes of a green fever dream: Everywhere you look there are plans for “sustainable” buildings, futuristic eco-cities, even vertical aquaponic farms in the sky, each promising to redeem the ecologically sinful modern city and bring its inhabitants back into harmony with nature. This year, two marquee examples are set to open: Bjarke Ingels’ Via 57 West in New York, a 32-story luxury-apartment pyramid enfolding a garden, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, by Jean Nouvel, a complex shielded from the harsh climate of the Arabian Peninsula by an enormous white dome. The dreamers’ goal is even bigger: “eco-cities” that will leapfrog the last century’s flawed development patterns and deliver us in stylish comfort to a low-carbon, green future.
In part, the dream reflects a pragmatic push for energy efficiency, recycled materials and lower carbon emissions — a competition rewarded with LEED certification in silver, gold or platinum. But it also includes a remarkable effort to turn buildings green — almost literally — by covering them in plants. Green roofs are sprouting on Wal-Marts and green walls festooned with ferns and succulents in Cubist patterns appear on hotels, banks, museums — even at the mall, as I found on a recent trip to the Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles.
Today’s green urban dream is too often about bringing a technologically controlled version of nature into the city and declaring the problem solved, rather than looking ... deeper.
All of this is surely a good idea, at some level: trying to repair some of the damage our lifestyle has done to the planet by integrating nature into what have been, especially in the modern era, wasteful, harsh, alienating, concrete urban deserts. But, despite the rhetoric of reconciling the city with nature, today’s green urban dream is too often about bringing a technologically controlled version of nature into the city and declaring the problem solved, rather than looking at the deeper causes of our current environmental and urban discontents.
Greening the city is not a new ideal. Ancient Romans waxed lyrical about Arcadia, a mythical bucolic escape from the ills of urban life: money-making, crime, pollution, disease and, of course, luxury and the moral turpitude that goes with it. City-dwellers have always been sensitive to the charge that the metropolis is guilty of a special kind of iniquity, which bars it from grace, and must be cleansed. (Remember Sodom and Gomorrah.) The corollary belief that the green countryside fosters all that is pure and wholesome is a foundational myth of Western culture. It is why, when most people amass enough filthy lucre, they move to the suburbs and cultivate a large, useless lawn, as if the greensward alone could buy them salvation.
Today’s signature eco-building, Apple’s “spaceship” campus now under construction in Silicon Valley, designed by the British architect Norman Foster, is a good example of the shortcomings of the green dream. Though we are assured it will be sustainable, energy efficient and “slim” — preserving 80% of its 175-acre site for landscaping, it is by any measure a huge, complex, massively resource-intensive and incredibly expensive ($5 billion) folly, achievable only by one of the richest corporations on Earth. What is more damning is that, at the end of the day, it will be just another appendage of suburban sprawl, a white-collar workplace located next to a freeway, dependent on vast garages (even if most of them are tastefully buried) for its 13,000 commuters — and thus with no smaller environmental footprint than a conventional office park.
Among the movement’s avatars were Paolo Soleri, whose projected Utopia, Arcosanti, only amounted to a few, odd concrete structures in the Arizona desert, and the Japanese Metabolists of the 1960s and ‘70s, whose plans for massive floating city-farms and modular megastructures in the sky were outlandish. (They nevertheless directly influenced the development of undersea exploration modules, offshore oil platforms and the International Space Station.) Indeed, Foster was a student and later a collaborator of Fuller and Sadao, and his masterpieces — the Gherkin in London and the remade Reichstag in Berlin, to name just two of scores — are essentially climate-controlled domes, carefully modeled on his teachers’ earlier work.
Like driving a $85,000 Tesla, designing a perfect green building or eco-city isn’t enough to save the world.
These projects are, then, really the fulfillment of a set of blue-sky dreams from the Dr. Strangelove era — where every cinematic space colony contained a domed conservatory and keeping the plants in the greenhouse alive was all that stood between humans and disaster. In the end, those dreams are not about reintegrating society with nature, but leaving Earth itself behind for an
engineered habitat under the dome, in the sky or at least on the roof.
Like driving an $85,000 Tesla, designing a perfect green building or eco-city isn’t enough to save the world. Although our buildings, like our cars, have been woefully inefficient environmentally, architecture isn’t responsible in any meaningful way for humanity’s disastrous environmental impacts, nor can it hope to solve them alone. An economic system based on the destruction of nature and the shifting of real costs onto those less fortunate and onto the future, is the real problem. No dome can protect us from our own profligacy and improvidence, nor can any number of hydroponic lettuce farms blunt the damage being done to real nature, or what is left of it, on planet Earth.
Wade Graham’s latest book is “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World.” He is a landscape designer as well as a historian and adjunct professor of public policy at Pepperdine Unversity.