June 22, 2022

My Email Subject
Not So

It’s Russell Fortmeyer, Global Sustainability Leader at Woods Bagot, writing from Los Angeles. Not So Much, presents regular takes on the climate crisis and examples from the AEC industry that are either easing or compounding environmental disturbances around the world. 


It is increasingly difficult to avoid constant signs of climate change around us. There were at least two active wildfires in the mountains around Los Angeles last week, but they were only two of nearly thirty raging across the Western United States, and summer just started. The fires remind us of a few inconvenient truths in the west: our watersheds are beyond dry and tinder-filled, and our human settlements have pushed into sensitive terrain. It is not a winning combination. 

Such obvious displays of the intersection of climate change and risk don’t often occur in the middle of our cities, and we usually have to be more intentional in our observations to find them in everyday life. Art has always had a way of unlocking these sorts of opportunities, which makes the current site-based exhibition, Calling to Our Future: LA Climate Art Actions, in Los Angeles, a good summertime distraction. A group show of three artists, LA-based Mark Bradford and Andrea Bowers, and New York-based Jenny Holzer, the exhibition presents public art that responds to the climate crisis.  

Bradford’s Mithra (2008), which is the most accessible of the artworks, consists of a large, seemingly hastily-constructed boat made of repurposed plywood and steel situated in the middle of the Los Angeles State Historic Park, just north of downtown. The boat suggests the potential for a retreat and was originally made in response to Hurricane Katrina however uncanny it may be to presume a flood of water might precipitate the boat’s use in Los Angeles. And yet, you need only go back 100 years or so to find an era when downtown Los Angeles routinely flooded (this was before the US Government channelized our river with concrete). Bradford’s work speaks both to what has happened and what could happen, leaving interpretation of this universally understood object—a wooden boat—to the viewer. 

Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower

Mark Bradford, Mithra, 2008. Mixed media. Dimensions variable. Installation view, Calling to Our Future: LA Climate Art Actions, Los Angeles State Historic Park, CA, 2022. Photo by the author.

Architecture, like art, is also a form of communication (among so many other things, of course). In the 90s and early 2000s, green buildings gained a bad reputation in certain design circles because they often over-communicated their commitment to “being green” through the use of utilitarian shading devices or solar panels plastered across façades at the expense of architectural delight or some other critical stance in the field. The object of what was rather dull architecture was decorated with devices that communicated something else.  

I heard this complaint for years, often lobbed at buildings I had studied because they achieved some remarkable thing like a LEED Platinum rating or a zero-carbon attribute. I defended the work, but ambivalence has a way of creeping in the older you get. There were certainly many buildings in the “sustainability” era that followed the Kyoto climate conference in the 1990s that embraced a form of virtue signaling that often obscured an underlying problem with the banality of the building itself, namely that design did not lead. 

This bit of personal history is largely unremarkable, but unlike temporary art installations, architecture has a public role that operates on a more permanent basis. We live and work in it, so the question of time factors in much more to our perception of meaning or value. An unimaginative building with a handful of sustainable afterthoughts will always communicate only a handful of possible messages, losing the potential for architecture to inform a much deeper appreciation for things that matter—questions of existence and materiality, community and human connection, harmony with the natural world. A design-led approach to sustainable architecture asks more fundamental questions about where we site a building, how we put it together, define space, and occupy it.  

Leading with design in response to climate change does not neglect the research and analysis that informs the sustainable performance of architecture, however we choose to define that—zero emissions, low embodied energy, water positive—but it understands the value of that analysis only in as much as it is useful for informing a design decision. Thinking in architecture is a skill that can be learned, but it is not taught enough in the myriad academic programs that have sprouted up in response to the promising growth of the sustainability market. To crib from Bradford, we have a lot of people who know what a boat looks like, but we do not have enough people who know what the boat means.  

University of Tasmania (UTAS), Southern Futures Forestry Building – woodsbagot.com.

There are two books I always recommend to anyone who asks me what I mean by “design-led” sustainability. The first, which I own an original, very dog-eared copy, is the 2006 The Green Studio Handbook, written by Alison G. Kwok and Walter Grondzik. It still reads like a relevant cheat sheet to every common-sense sustainable design question you may ever be asked. There have been many updates, so I cannot vouch for the latest version, but the original expressed sustainability always fundamentally as an outcome of a design imperative, the two meeting at the point we would call “integration.” Everyone in architecture says they do integrated design, but read this book and tell me that again with a straight face.  

The second book, from 2017, is Bruce King’s wonderful The New Carbon Architecture, which is a great companion to the first book, as it extends into embodied carbon territory more directly with a focus on materials. When I see projects like Woods Bagot’s ongoing work for the University of Tasmania (UTAS) in Hobart, where our Melbourne studio is renovating and restoring a building that features a large, timber-framed glass atrium between older brick structures, I see how architecture can be wielded to express a position toward consumption and climate that effortlessly speaks to a place.  

Yes, our team is counting carbon and factoring in lifecycle assessment considerations to the overall project procurement, but far from being a limitation, the rigor of that process supports a design vision that was clearly laid out from the beginning. Students and faculty at UTAS will be reminded of our mutual reliance on nature, and the fragility of that relationship, through the materiality of the building itself—its timber beams and finishes—and the native forest planned to be restored to the atrium. It is a message that cannot be communicated enough. 




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