Tag Archives: sustainable architecture

What Language Does Design Speak?

Design, in all its contexts, communicates.  Imagery, text, physical location and context, connotations–it all sends a message.  And we all interpret messages differently, depending on our own knowledge, education, preconceived beliefs or ideas, among numerous other factors.

The images below are taken from a currently vacant site on the outskirts of Portland’s Pearl District.  The sign is part of an on-site advertising campaign for what I presume to be a new condominium tower.  The two images represent opposite sides of one sign.

I’d like to know what these images communicate to you (and you, and you, and you!).  Anything and everything–whether it be the actual message, the signage, the location, etc.  I would like to publish some responses as part of the post, so get commenting!

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Climate Change: It’s About Humans, After All

This post is part of Blog Action Day ’09, a worldwide event with thousands of bloggers writing about one topic–climate change–today.

As much as I am a lover of concepts and theories, sometimes it is important to put human faces to these abstract concepts we concern ourselves with.  Climate change is one of those issues; it is often faceless, nameless, not human.

While climate change is not directly an issue I choose to rant about with any regular or particular fervor, poverty is.  And the two are more directly related than is often realized.  As with many issues faced by world citizens, the poor bear the worst brunt, and they often are not the most significant causers.  If I can do nothing more than be a voice for the poor, who are often voiceless, I will at least feel that I’ve done something.  The truth is that my regular life, my regular education, my regular privilege—all give me the opportunity to speak.  The poor don’t usually have this opportunity, because without privilege, education, and the confidence born from them, no one wants to listen.

I prefer to take the stance that climate change is a humanitarian issue, not just an environmental one.  Maybe it seems a bit moronic, and blatantly apparent to state that humans and environment must cohabitate peacefully, but I still believe it needs to be said.  I’m constantly drowning in drivel and droning about greenhouse gases, global warming, peak oil, the evil of cars, conserving water, sustainable-this, sustainable-that, eco-this, eco-that, green-this, green-that—but rarely, if ever do I hear anyone talk about what any of this means, and who it’s really going to affect.

The truth is, those who will suffer most from the effects of climate change are—you guessed it—the poor.  And the even sadder truth is that they are, in most cases, the smallest contributors to the problem.

I could say that design is just a small piece of the climate change puzzle.  But I like to think big.  Holistically.  Outside the box.  And so I will say that design is the entire puzzle.  Pretty much everything we look at, touch, inhabit, drive, ride, wear, write on, write with, type on, research with, eat from, drink from—is designed. Our lifestyles have been designed.  Designers shape the world by creating the things we live with.

It’s a powerful position to be in—and as with any power—it can be abused.

This topic is so vast that my monologue could become a book if I’m not careful, so now I’ll have to reel it in a bit.  In order to make this effective, I have to simplify to ideas, not details.

It is my opinion that most of the current tactics we employ for being ecologically conscious are simply futile and not effective.  I don’t think it’s enough to merely utilize different products and materials that allow us to continue going on about our lives in a “business as usual” kind of way.  I believe that if we truly want to have an impact on climate change, we must change our behavior.  We must redesign the way we live.  The great thing is that it’s possible.  If we were able to design our lives as they are now, why can’t we redesign them to effectively survive our current and future environmental conditions?  We are humans, after all.  We are adaptable.

On the other hand, the unfortunate part about this is that I believe it requires doing less, not more.  We can’t continue to be consumers of objects and things the way we currently are.  We can’t continue to build and make and build and make at the rate we currently are.  What this really means is that we can’t design the way we currently are.

It is far more sustainable to reuse and adapt what we already have—buildings and objects—than to create new ones, no matter how the new ones are made.

So what does this mean for designers?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  But I believe that if the focus of our intentions changes, the work that is spawned will follow suit.  If you keep in mind the faces of the innocent human beings your work will affect, chances are you will come up with a solution that may hurt them less.  If you recognize that every action you take has a resulting reaction—even though it may be one you can’t see—chances are you’ll make different choices.  If you consider that by designing or using something wasteful, someone across the globe may lose his access to food, water, and shelter—maybe you’ll reconsider.

Really, it’s a simple set of solutions, but it’s a complicated world we live in.  And while the optimist in me believes all this is possible, the cynic in me believes it is not probable.  We are, in fact, adaptable but we are also a species like all others—which means “survival of the fittest” is at play.  In this case, I’m afraid those who are fittest are those who have the most money.

Think back to Hurricane Katrina.  Who suffered the most?  Those who were most poor. Those who didn’t have the means to escape in time, simply didn’t.

There is an entire population of people, spread far and wide across the globe, who don’t have the tools, technology, or money to deal with the ramifications of our gluttonous lifestyles.  So if we won’t make drastic changes and sacrifices for the sake of the Earth, how about for the sake of the innocent people who will die if we don’t?

Save the Polar Bears: Build a Shopping Mall

Honesty.  Forthrightness.  Candor.

Just call it like it is.  Is that too much to ask?

I suppose it’s just human nature—a form of self-preservation—to use popular ideas to benefit oneself.  I’m not much of a businessperson or economic genius of any sort, but I do understand that surely this is an important undercurrent in moneymaking business models.  Capitalize on trends—sounds like a smart enough idea.

However, it disturbs me deeply to see ideas that were rooted in benevolence become mutated into marketing ploys, preying upon the emotions of well-intentioned people.

At this stage in the game, it is no longer even worth discussing whether or not architecture should be designed and built in the most ecologically responsible way.  It is pretty much a given at this point.  But where ideas, ideals, and ethics diverge is in the practical application of this theory—i.e. how we execute the plan.

I’m educated as a designer, so I tend to approach most topics as I would a design problem.  Any designer worth their salt will tell you that a good design is hardly possible without a solid driving concept.  The concept is like the backbone, the foundation.  It gets you through the dark and stormy times when you want to go all willy-nilly and get hung up on the details.  Don’t get me wrong; details matter, but concept must come first.  Without a concept that is evident and ever flowing throughout a design, the details really aren’t effective.

So when I read the Vision of The Greenville Project, a new shopping mall developer with Eva Longoria Parker as one of its partners, I think about the sustainability concept and I get a little green, as in feeling a bit greenwashed.  The fact that we have had to coin the term greenwashing to explain the practice of expressing “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue” indicates to me that the well-intentioned sustainability and green building movements have gone way off track.

My biggest question is this: Can a shopping mall truly be sustainable?

I don’t doubt that one shopping mall can be better or worse than another as far as its environmental impact goes.  But isn’t it a bit of an oxymoron to claim that a project that inherently feeds the consumerism monster is doing a good deed for the environment?

By the sounds of GreenVille’s Vision, one would think they really are going to save the polar bears by building shopping malls:

“It was probably the video of a polar bear drowning from exhaustion because there is not enough ice left to rest on.  Yes, that was enough.  Enough to first devastate us, then enrage us, and ultimately motivate us to want to take a stand.”

Really?!?!

There are a few things about GreenVille’s promotional material that I take umbrage with, and this is one of them.  How does building a shopping mall do anything to positively affect the melting ice caps?  If anything, it does just the opposite.

Yes, there are better and worse ways of building.  And yes, GreenVille seems intent on employing certain “green” standards, such as utilizing alternative energy sources, conserving water, and encouraging patrons to use public or other alternative modes of transportation.  I would agree that these steps are better choices than some others GreenVille could make.  But I can’t get behind the concept that building any kind of shopping mall is going to save polar bears from drowning.  Or add any positive ecological impact for that matter.  It could be done in worse ways, but do GreenVille’s choices really merit such virtuous talk?

It’s not that I believe we should all have the same ideals, passions, or ethics.  I don’t even want that; it would make for quite a boring world.  But I do believe in calling it like it is.  If you want to be a shopping mall developer—fine.  Just don’t call it sustainable.  There is nothing about our current consumer behavior that is truly sustainable.  And to insinuate that a shopping mall is going to save the Earth from certain disaster is rather insulting to the intelligence of the public at large.

And maybe I’m being too much of a wordsmith here, but when a company’s tag line combines the words “hip” and “sustainable,” this says to me, “Sustainability is hip.  Let’s profit from it.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Just be honest, please.