Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
"Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural wild and free."
and Tadao Ando
build some of the most striking buildings in all of contemporary architecture. Further, both men seem dedicated to the idea that we can mitigate human impact on the natural environment by improving our built environment. Yet the men approach that task in very different ways. Ando builds from a series of ethical principles that not only makes people aware of their relation to the land but also facilitates exchange between land and man. Foster's approach, on the other hand, reveals no fundamental ethical break from the lineage of Western architecture that seeks to insulate man from his natural environment.
The modern science of ecology has gone a long way toward demonstrating the interdependence of all living things. It has established that land, as a matter of scientific fact, is a community built on the constant and unavoidable exchange between individual actors. The idea that this relationship should be protected and preserved, however, is a matter of human ethics. What we refer to today as environmental awareness grows not out of scientific knowledge or advance, but out of a moral commitment to the continued viability of living things. Aldo Leopold
articulated this vision of morality simply and elegantly: all things that tend to increase a person's awareness of his relationship to the land community are morally correct, and all things that ignore this relationship are morally wrong. The shaping of his built environment is one of the most fundamental ways in which man relates to his natural environment. Consequently, the formal vocabulary of a building, as well as the structural and technological elements that enable its form, acts as a symbol for the man-earth connection as it is defined by Leopold
. A building can tell us much about the ethical assumptions of a culture, especially with regard to that culture's relationship with the land.
The story of Foster's development as an architect, according to the Pritzker foundation
, traces out a "real-life Horatio Alger story:" the first in his family and neighborhood to go to college, Foster worked hard, studied the canon, and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. After receiving his masters from Yale, he traveled America, studying the work of Louis Kahn
, Frank Lloyd Wright
, and especially Mies van der Rohe
. Most notably, in 1968, Foster began his first of many collaborations with Buckminster Fuller
. Fuller's brand of technological optimism, taking its most concrete form in the geodesic dome he had designed for the Montreal World's Fair the year before he met Foster, is clearly evident in Foster's design philosophy. Especially in the Commerzbank headquarters
and other ecologically sound structures (his project for the Millennium Tower
in Japan, his design of Swiss Re headquarters
in London, and his renovation of the German Reichstag
), Foster reveals that he has inherited Fuller's endless faith in the ability of technology to effect social change. However, he also accepts Fuller's limited view of the social system which that change will touch -- that is, the ethical changes brought about by technological advance as envisioned by Foster and Fuller are not extended past the realm of human-human interactions. As such their view is fundamentally in line with the "land ownership" ethic described by Leopold and not the "land community." Further, Fuller's vision of a world of glass- and steel-enclosed, climate controlled structures is hardly in line with Leopold's vision of a man-earth community, but has clearly proved to be an inspiration to Foster. Finally, both men take Le Corbusier's idea that the house is a machine for living in and blow it up to the natural systems level. The environment as a whole becomes a machine for man to live in. It is not alive itself, nor does it participate in a community with men.
The body of both Fostser's written and built work bears the marks of Fuller's influence. "Ever since man came out of the cave he has been on the cutting edge of technology, always pushing the limits," says Foster. "Technology is part of civilization and being anti-technology would be like declaring war on architecture and civilization itself." From the standpoint of Leopold's land ethic, this is simply not true, for any technology that further subjugates the man-earth community and hides their mutual interdependence cannot be considered progressive: "Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry." The Commerzbank
headquarters fits nicely into the technologically optimistic version of conservation put forth by Foster in the tradition of Fuller. First, steel
are the hallmarks of human-kind's technological might. Their availability is a product of the industrial revolution and has historically symbolized man's mastery of his environment. High-grade steel, polished to the point of sparkling, reveals nothing of the natural state of the materials that went into making that steel and does nothing to accept the marks of the natural processes that surround it. The attitude Foster brings to his materials focuses more on their machine-age refinements than on their elemental origins. This is a building that, by design, will not weather -- Foster has chosen the most durable forms of his materials available.
Further, while there are trees
in the building, they do not foster exchange with the land community. Their purpose is to move air through the building, only exchanging with the outside in areas far away from human use. The trees generate oxygen within an essentially closed system. Thus, the building's interaction with the surrounding environment is somewhat nominal (a good many suburban malls have trees in them too). The trees are not there as part of an ethical commitment to the land community. And, while they do make an effort to bring nature into the workplace, they by no means present the natural state of things. It is possible, even, that the clipped and refined image of nature that these manicured gardens present reinforces the idea that nature is there for us to own and manipulate
Finally, the policy of "maximum use" (European Charter for Solar Energy in Architecture and Urban Planning
, Preamble) of energy by which Foster abides, whether that energy be solar or otherwise, is fundamentally a possessive one. While that use may be less invasive than the harvest of fossil fuels, it is not ethically different. What Foster built in Frankfurt is an example of technological innovation -- it is not the extension of human ethics
that Leopold calls for. The eco-friendliness of Commerzbank is largely enabled by technology and driven by "human needs" so that human exploitation of natural processes may continue for future generations. There is no sense of obligation to the land in the built environment that Foster presents.
Next week Mr. Romansky tackles Tadao Ando's Church on the Water. And bruises himself mightily in the process.