Plants on Rooftops: Greenwashing in Architecture

BY ETHAN OLSON


With buildings accounting for 39% of carbon emissions worldwide, distinguished architects are scrambling to promote their own projects as environmentally sound. Green roofs, windmills atop buildings, and computer-rendered images of buildings perfectly in tune with the surrounding natural environment are visually appealing, sure, but they may be just that — for show, and little else.

Art by Sophia Hidalgo


If you’ve looked into any proposals for acclaimed architectural projects within the past few years, you’ve likely encountered an exciting trend that is throwing the architecture world into a frenzy — building for “sustainability.” World renowned architects are pitching their elaborate designs with zeal, touting them as eco-conscious, environmentally friendly, or at the very least, green. In the modern architecture world, “sustainability” itself has transitioned from being a buzz word to a necessary descriptor for firms that want to succeed.


This passion for going green seems like a reason to be optimistic about the future of our cities and planet. Of course, it would be, if all of these architects were willing to confront some of the deeper issues propelling our current climate change crisis. In reality, many of these new projects — however bold, futuristic, sleek, or optically extraordinary — too often staple a green facade to a construction that is otherwise materialistically destructive or ignorant of deeper socio-economic and environmental problems.


This greenwashing problem is perverse, but it is particularly discomforting in its prevalence among global “starchitects.” These world-renowned architecture idols, constituting names such as Bjarke Ingels, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster, promote their ambitious (and almost always physically massive) designs as sustainable endeavors that do not just take less from the environment than traditional buildings, but that actually contribute something back to the world around them. Furthermore, some of these future-driven superstars border on the edge of proclaiming that architectural design is the key to solving climate change through bold plans for eco-cities and other monumental rehaul projects, all of which promise to escort humans into a comfortable and stylish future through the design process alone.


However visionary their designs may be, this perspective for mitigating the climate change catastrophe is painfully closed-minded. Making our buildings carbon neutral is, of course, incredibly important. Discounting the energy sector (which fuels most others), buildings make up roughly 39% of global carbon emissions worldwide, with 28% coming from operational use, and 11% from construction. However, sustainable development is about far more than chic design.


There are deeper problems that must be addressed, most notably the very nature of our current economic system, which functions by extracting resources from nature and thrusting the negative consequences on the poor or future generations. Too often, eminent architects and their projects profit from, feed into, and support this system, rather than address its role as the foundation of our environmental crises.


Consider the new Apple Park, a monumental work designed by Norman Foster with a 2.8-million-square-foot main building. Foster and Apple have not shied away from publicizing the building’s green features. The site is powered by 100% renewable energy, boasts 9,000 drought-resistant trees, and includes 17MW of on-site solar power. However, as landscape designer Wade Graham notes, the new Apple headquarters will contribute to San Francisco's suburban sprawl and be another building that cements the functions of a destructive transportation system, with a location right next to a freeway and vast swaths of parking. Furthermore, with a price tag of $5 billion, it is hardly a secret that the futuristic “green dreams” of many architects are ones that will only be largely experienced by the wealthy. To top it all off, this building was constructed for a company that has benefited from our current form of capitalism so successfully, to the extent that calls for it to be broken up are gaining momentum in American political discourse. Another tech-giant, Google, is also looking to build its headquarters in a sustainable light, with starchitects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick designing a similarly illustrious complex in Mountain View, California.


Apple Park by Norman Foster. Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash


Bjarke Ingels, the young Danish architect who has risen to architecture superstardom in recent years, has come under fire for meeting with the climate change-denying president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and for seemingly greenwashing his projects. Ingles’s firm — BIG — is known worldwide for its emphasis on sustainability, modern designs, and, fitting for its name, massive constructions. His famous Mountain Dwellings feature gardens on terraces, his upcoming River Street Waterfront Masterplan includes marshes and tidal ponds, and virtually all include energy efficient heat, cooling, and lighting systems.


In an interview from 2018, Ingels lays out his vision for cities and buildings that are “ecologically but also economically profitable, and where the outcome doesn’t actually force people to alter their lifestyle to have a better conscience. They can live exactly the way they want, or even better because the world and the city are designed in such a way that they can actually do so.” For Ingels, sustainability can be achieved through the design process alone; comfort and sustainability can go hand in hand. This may be easy for him to say, since most of his projects are completed for giant corporations like Google or high-end urban real-estate developers. Who really benefits from a massive apartment tower in Manhattan? The people who can afford to live in it. Particularly in the case of expensive residential projects, gentrification forces poorer groups out. These communities, which are often marginalized and already more susceptible to environmental racism, are often forced to move to neighborhoods that are cheaper, less healthy, and less green.


BIG's proposal for a River Street Waterfront Masterplan in Brooklyn


The sustainability emphasis seems more like an advertising strategy for many architects than a procedural process. The reality is that environmentally-conscious buildings are being built every day, earning their LEED certifications and meeting different emission standards. Meanwhile, vast swaths of older buildings are being retrofitted to become more energy efficient. Solar panels, green roofs, and installing LED lighting are all great features for architects to include in their new buildings — but they’re more necessary than praiseworthy. With major countries setting goals to become carbon neutral within a few decades, achieving better “sustainability” should not be a selling point; it should be a requirement for architects. Many designers seem to understand this, building more sustainable buildings — with or without fancy garden terraces — that give back to the community. A good case in point is Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean architect who forgoes the expensive and flashy designs that many starchitects specialize in, and instead uses his expertise to build sustainable, low-cost housing and public buildings for working class people.


Finally, we cannot pretend that by simply being creative in the design process — by planting some trees on a roof, or adding windmills to the site — will fix, or even confront, the underlying socio-economic problems that are powering climate change. Architects must become less obsessed with marketing their grandiose visions of green designs and more cognizant of how they participate in, benefit from, and all too often, support, the underlying systems that are at the heart of our crisis.


As Wade Graham notes, “today's green urban dream is too often about bringing a technologically controlled version of nature into the city and declaring the problem solved, rather than looking at the deeper causes of our current environmental and urban discontents.” Making the building green is the bare minimum. To truly go above and beyond as an architect in today’s world, one must think about the broader implications of the building itself.

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