The Common Dilemma of Architecture and the Environment

architect and the client cartoonMost of us probably have a friend that is either an architect or an environmentalist. Okay, maybe not. Perhaps most of us know someone that is either in a creative design profession or cares about the natural environment–enough to know that both groups have some common threads. Both work too many hours for too little money despite being devoted to their work. Both find it difficult to convey the full range of their roles to those outside of their profession. Both struggle with the task of trying to achieve greater relevance in the eyes of American culture. Architecture and the environment; an odd pairing perhaps given that buildings and nature are not exactly best friends right now, but their similarities could result from the fact that both groups ultimately face the same uphill battle.

The optimist in me would venture to say that the goals of environmentalists and architects (a healthy natural environment and a better built environment) are appreciated by Americans. We like clean air. We like beautiful buildings. We appreciate clean water. We revere majestic spaces. Some us of may go as far as to read the environment section of the newspaper or buy an issue of Architectural Digest.

But according to both professions, America doesn’t present a model of progress for their respective fields. Our environments, both natural and constructed, are arguably still degrading faster than they are improving–most likely because both worthy pursuits are considered just that: admirable goals, but not daily essentials. While the developer special, American “dream homes” are probably based on designs once drawn by an architect, few Americans end up hiring one for our own houses. An architect remains a luxury of the wealthy in the eyes of most of the country. Though the majority of Americans believe in climate change and most of that majority believe it is caused by the actions of humanity, few are prepared to alter their lifestyle enough to induce change. Environmental policy is still a luxury of wealthy nations, or rather when wealthy nations have extra wealth lying around.

green scare tactics cartoonA friend of mine (also both an architect and a proponent of sustainability) recently said succinctly that “the fact remains that design is not economically valued.” The core problem is that both architecture and the environment are not economically valued despite the fact that the quality of both relate directly to our quality of life. Quality of space and efficient construction methods play much less of a role in buying a home than the number of square feet or garage bays. The societal and environmental “costs” of cheap, coal power never make it onto our power bill despite the fact we end up paying for them eventually anyway (maybe we need a warning label?). With these complex systems deployed over vast areas, it is easier to notice when they are operating poorly rather than investing to make sure they continue to operate well.

Then again, the common irony of both architects and environmentalists is that their respective cultural disconnects could be largely self-inflicted. For decades the practice of architecture has veered away from engaging the American public, drifting further into isolating, esoteric terminology and critique. Meanwhile, environmentalists have latched on to the single facet of global warming rather than the multi-faceted idea of sustainability. The frustration of our collective lethargy in ecological progress only pushes their message towards the goal of making others afraid rather than educated.

I’m interested in some outside comments and thoughts, but for me any hope of changing the perception of cultural relevance of these pursuits is less about making the economics work and more about conveying the value proposition in a way people can understand and why it is important. Part of redefining the practice of architectural and environmental advocacy has to focus on helping people engage with them.

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