9 Reasons Why Green Modernist Architecture is a Myth

Excerpted from the sidebar of a new essay by Nikos Salingaros and Michael Mehaffy at On the Commons.

“We can now turn to debunk the recent claim by many practitioners, alluded to previously, that modernist architecture can actually be more sustainable.

True, many modernist “high tech” architects claim that their work represents the height of so-called “green building”. Gleaming new industrial icons of sustainability (enthusiastically and imperiously claimed to be so) are sprouting like mushrooms around the globe — in many cases replacing older traditional neighborhoods, or ecologically sensitive undeveloped areas. What is the actual evidence that they are more sustainable?

A new wave of post-occupancy evidence is demonstrating remarkably poor performance by many new sustainability icons — let alone several earlier generations of standard-issue modernist resource-guzzling buildings. The problems are not superficial, but go to the essential geometry of Modernism, and the rationally segregated “geometric fundamentalism” on which it is based.

Problems include:

• Poor capacity to wear over time. The fundamentalist aesthetic relies on two eye-catching ingredients that are by definition perishable: newness, and pristine cleanliness. These qualities are striking (and appealing to many) when such structures are completely new. But as time passes, the accumulation of minor dents, streaking, and patinas, which would be acceptable or even complementary to more natural kinds of buildings — think of the beautiful patinas of Rome — become horrible forms of disfigurement in modernist buildings. The remedy (aside from accepting an increasingly ugly building) is either relatively constant and expensive maintenance and repair, or demolition — hardly sustainable.

• Inherent problems with curtain wall assemblies. Research shows remarkably poor performance for the glazed wall, fancy ribbon window, and exotic glass pattern assemblies that are hallmarks of the fundamentalist style. They might look dramatically transparent, but the high fashion comes at a steep price: typically profligate use of energy, and very likely, extravagant repair or replacement costs. It’s possible to layer on complex sandwiches of special gas and reflective coatings to mitigate this or other problems — but this contraption-on-top-of-contraption approach adds significantly to complexity and cost, and increase the likelihood of early maintenance troubles. The simplest way to avoid the problems of such assemblies is not to use them in the first place.

• Other problems with maintenance, efficiency, and durability. The stories of new modernist architectural projects with serious construction problems and soaring cost overruns (in both construction and operation) are legion — many of which clearly stem from the irrational quest for novel, extravagant shapes that require untested construction methods. Modernist projects also typically require construction methods and materials with high-embodied energy and resources — steel, glass, concrete, and others.

• An indifference (or worse) to walkable streetscapes. Early modernists pretended to be untroubled by the oppressively blank walls and lack of human-scale details along the street, for the simple reason that they didn’t care for streets at all. Le Corbusier, for example, was famous for his desire to “kill the street”, along with the “fungus” of sidewalk cafes and other essential human-scale elements of urban life.

• Poor ability to accommodate urban complexity and change. As Jane Jacobs famously pointed out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Le Corbusier and other early modernists were obsessed with imposing a simplistic visual order onto a complex urban fabric — with disastrous results. The simplicity of this visual order was in its minimalism — again, a central tenet of modernist aesthetics. But forced simplicity forbids the geometrical complexity necessary for accommodating human life in the city.

• Reliance on visual and cognitive segregation. Architectural fundamentalists are fascinated by the merciless logic of crude, powerful early machines and industrial equipment — concrete grain elevators, steam ships, and the like. Their proposals for cities included similar machine-like segregations of simplified parts, from the largest to the smallest scales: zoned districts, super-blocks, buildings, walls, windows, columns, details — all stripped down to machine-like minimalism. But as Christopher Alexander warned in 1965, a city can’t be segregated into such a neat hierarchy of parts, without damaging the life inside it. This is not how biological complexity operates, and it is not how human settlements operate.

• Evidence of cognitive problems from minimalist environments. Extensive research has documented the negative effects on children, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations of environments that do not have a complement of rich experiential aesthetic variety. Some modernist environments may provide cognitively appealing and desirable qualities such as drama, contrast, novelty, and so on. But these by themselves appear to be inadequate and even possibly damaging characteristics, and it seems increasingly likely that we humans must also have a major complement of “biophilic” qualities missing from most Modernism. Research in environmental psychology suggests that what human physiology needs are fractal scales, patterning, spatial layering, interlocking geometries, and the like.

• Perishability of modern design fashions. Ironically, one of the key fundamentalist arguments is that the universality of Modernism would serve to avoid the vagaries of fashion, and thus be more durable. Of course history has shown quite the opposite, as the quest for novelty is by definition insatiable. So we have seen an endless cycle of briefly novel stylistic permutations: once-exciting new modernist buildings torn down only a few decades later, widely regarded by then as hated eyesores. Sometimes, incredibly, these same eyesores have been brought back yet again as exciting retro-futurist novelties — but with the same fate awaiting them once more, as the destructive cycles go on.

• Dependence on the car. Geometrically fundamentalist urbanism promulgated by CIAM (the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) became the blueprint of 20th Century urban development, built around fast superhighways and arterials, creating a series of segregated, unwalkable superblock structures. The human-scaled web of life, with its foundations of free pedestrian movement and common urban space, was erased by design.”

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