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The Ugly Pet

This spring I spent a few days in Munich at the Oskar von Miller Forum, which serves as a locus for interdisciplinary thinking about construction. The Forum building, designed by Thomas Herzog and funded to showcase just how elegantly the Bavarian construction industry can deliver innovative sustainable architecture, feels a bit like the hopeful future of the perfect city. It doesn’t hurt that it’s near the Englischer Garten, as it was summer hot. People were already swimming (and surfing) in the Eisbach, the stream that passes through the park. You can float its long length, then return dripping to your stuff using a regular streetcar line without a ticket (you need a ticket if you’re dressed or dry).

It would be difficult to stay at the Forum without knowing about its environmental agenda and sustainable systems. The building, widely published, is intended as a manifesto — that’s one reason many students and scholars apply to study and work there. Each residence unit is stocked with the beautiful book that describes the project’s “environmentally friendly and emissions-reducing innovations.” The Forum’s director, Werner Lang, shared technical information via email before I arrived, and in Munich he and I walked through the building as he explained it all in depth. So, trying to sort out how the architectural space affects the experience of inhabitation was complicated: it was hard for me to separate my sensations from all the mediation .

The experience of sustainable space is hyper-mediated, each building scripted like some organically and ethically sourced food product.

In general this is a frustrating upshot of the sustainable revolution in architecture. Unlike, say, the development of the steel frame, or the invention of concrete, most sustainable material development does not have any significant, self-identifying formal consequence — sustainably sourced wood looks just like wood that isn’t. And this is true of many building systems as well: how can you know from the architectural form if, for example, the heat source is geothermal? (You can’t, unless you know what to look for). The pure value and capacity of space and form to convey the crucial information falls away, like the disappearance of elegant cursive writing. In order to get traction, the experience of sustainable space has to be hyper-mediated, each and every building scripted like some organically and ethically sourced food product, with an explanation of its goodness provided, somehow . Hence all the words. Frustrating.

At the Forum, then, much non-spatial mediation is needed in order to appreciate the sophisticated systems that have been designed to ensure your comfort in its elegant spaces. For example, the building has in-floor (i.e., hidden) radiant cooling and heating that work in concert with other active and passive temperature-controlling strategies, like mechanical window shades that allow sunlight deep into the building or not, as needed. As a matter of policy, the allowable temperature range in any one space is fairly broad, in part because heating up and cooling down occur slowly by these means, and their control is determined by several interconnected variables. An inhabitant can regulate his or her room temperature by opening or closing a window (or, especially, by opening or closing a second window to help or hinder cross ventilation), but the overall baseline temperature is set centrally. As a result you’ll feel more or less uncomfortable — hot and humid — than you would in similar contemporary buildings. But because you know — because you’ve been told — what the Forum is trying to achieve environmentally, you quickly make your peace with that. You proudly roll up or down your shirtsleeves, put on or take off your shoes (I found the radiant floor to be especially key). In many buildings — in which if you can even open a window not much happens — you’d be frantically searching for the thermostat.

Although each component of the Forum is considered with respect to its effect on all others, each was developed largely in isolation; e.g., what are the issues that need to be resolved for this particular program, for that specific exposure? For this reason the building reads like an assembly of different pieces which fit thoughtfully together but which are not clarified or organized by an over-arching architectural language — as they would be in, for example, a neoclassical building, or a Renaissance palazzo, or a Frank Lloyd Wright building, or anything by SANAA. This pieced-ness is a sensible outcome of one strain of thinking about sustainability: by developing and then monitoring each building component, you can supposedly get an accurate, detailed environmental performance profile to let you know what really works and what doesn’t. The hyper-specificity of the parts is thus theoretically in the service of betterment, and the appearance of the building as an assembly seems self-justifying.

I’m interested in how buildings affect the experience of landscape — controlling that experience is one of the foremost responsibilities of an architect.

I mention the outward appearance of the Forum here because I’m interested in how buildings affect the experience of landscape — I think controlling that experience is one of the foremost responsibilities of an architect, and it’s been a hot-button topic since the collapse of the Modern movement. I’m particularly interested in how sustainable buildings might affect the experience of landscape differently — actually better , differently — because, as a human being, I’m hoping for more sustainable architecture, and, as an academic (and as an architect), I’m thinking the consequences should be revolutionary to architecture, as the consequences of every other major technological revolution have been. But they haven’t been, at least not yet. As I argued in an earlier essay in this journal, the architects who are struggling to express a new technology are inevitably feeling their way forward. A building put together from many hyper-specific parts might be the way. But how, then, does such a building affect experience of its setting, of its urban or natural landscape?

In that same earlier essay I discussed the Loblolly House, designed by Kieran Timberlake: a well-known example of contemporary sustainable architecture which exhibits the hyper-specificity of carefully monitored parts I’ve been describing. Its various pieces are even more distinct than those of the Forum: at the time of its construction, in 2006, the building was promoted for the potential replace-ability and recycle-ability of its components, if these were found to under-perform. One’s appreciation of the Loblolly House increases with knowledge — with non-formal mediation — as it does with the Forum, and I compared the building to an ugly pet :

… something that, while ugly by normal aesthetic parameters, becomes beautiful because of the extraordinary amount of care and effort that has gone into seeing the creature to maturity, like nursing a sick cur from the pound to health, and finding you love the damn thing, which has somehow become pleasing to the eye. Here, beauty is conditional rather than universal, and exists in the eye of the beholder, rather than broadly. … The Loblolly House [is] about as homely a well-intentioned construction as is imaginable, something, in terms of aesthetic dimension, that only a mother could love (I say that with admiration).

One conceptual difference between the Oskar von Miller Forum and the Loblolly House is that, at the latter, no concerted effort appears to have been made to ensure that the pieces had something in common before they were put together: this randomness is actually what gives the building, located on a sparsely populated island off Maryland, its counter-intuitive charm. Whereas at the Forum, in Munich, the performance parameters include consideration for historical type-forms and for the urban context, and the pieces go together very elegantly. A limited measure, rhythm, and palette all work to tie the components together, and their differences are further masked by the application of screening devices — like the partly transparent solar array over the central south façade — that impart a larger scale commensurate with the metropolitan setting. The building’s presence in its urban landscape is also predicated on your sense of it as the coordinated sum of the constituent parts. Let’s call the Forum a modified ugly pet — one that’s been trained and groomed.