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The Green Veneer

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The title of a recent article in architectureau was “Doing less is more.” The gist was that

the drive to make every centimetre of a project sustainable can cause us to overlook the fact that the strategy of designing less can achieve more.

The article draws upon Venturi/Scott Brown’s celebrated Duck vs. Decorated Shed categorisation of buildings. A ‘duck’ basically, is any building where the structure is contrived to create a shape.

Pre-Modern? The mouth and nose of The Statue of Liberty – showing how structure has been contrived to create a shape

Predictably, Ducks are not good but neither are Decorated Sheds for these are just the built result of economic, pragmatic and sustainability decisions. (One hears this a lot, but never the converse: The irrational display of consumer surplus and waste is a good thing. This inconvenient truth can never be directly admitted because it is what sustains architects – as we shall see.)

If you follow the principles, the conventional (sustainable) building is almost a readymade. It might have a pitched roof because that gives better insulation performance. There will be sunshades to the north [Australia!], and the windows might not be floor-to-ceiling because that would cause additional heat loss in the winter. The building might be arranged on a regular grid, and produce less waste due to offcuts and being easier to deconstruct. Infill walls might be made from old car tyres because they were going to waste nearby and there was no new energy needed to produce them. The building will achieve a very high star rating. However, it might be ugly, and this is where architecture comes in.

The role of architecture, according to the author, is to counter the ‘ugliness’ that would naturally result if we were to build economically, pragmatically and sustainably. Now we know. Cheers.

Energy efficiency is largely seen as an engineering and auditing problem – R-values, orientation to the sun and local breezes, and low-embodied energy materials. It is nothing to do with expression. As architects, we are interested in art, aesthetics, sculpture, beauty, light and form. The question for architects is: How do we use our skills to create sustainable architecture?

The author admits it’s not realistic for the architect to synthesise all requirements into a unity of structure and ‘expression’ but not because nobody’s asking them to do it anyway, but because doing so requires enormous structural contrivance – which, regardless of the embodied energy, would be commercial suicide for most.

Why not let the sustainable (conventional) building do what it wants? The effects of the elements on buildings – rain, wind, corrosion – can be dealt with by using timeless vernacular models that have been developed over centuries to cope with them.

Agreed, but the author then goes and states that

the role of aesthetics in sustainable buildings is not only about visual and psychological delight – it is also a powerful driver for change, when the expression is spectacular and when sustainable elements are clearly visible and working. It is a radical force in symbolically representing an alternative future.

Personally, I thought we’d gotten past the stage of representing alternative futures and that now really ought to actually doing something about making continued human existence on this planet a bit more bearable than it’s probably going to be.

gratuitous image of gratuitous “greening”

It was never about making wind turbines or green roofs visible. Again, the author says the right thing for the wrong reasons.

We don’t want to become horticultural specialists, or arrangers of utilitarian carbuncles – architects have a greater spatial intelligence. The role of architecture in sustainability is untapped. Spatial and sculptural experiences are the things that define architecture. Aesthetics are important, but we don’t have to design everything. Let’s take a new leaf out of Venturi and Scott Brown’s book. In the 1970s their theory led to postmodernism, but it can also lead elsewhere.

“Our thesis is that most architects’ buildings today are ducks: buildings where an expressive aim has distorted the whole beyond the limits of economy and convenience, and that this, although an unadmitted one, is a kind of decoration, and a wrong and costly one at that. We’d rather see the need admitted and the decoration applied … This is an easier, cheaper, more direct, and basically more honest approach to the question of decoration; it permits us to get on with the task of making conventional buildings conventionally and to deal with their symbolic needs with a lighter, defter touch.”

Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, “On Ducks and Decoration,” Architecture Canada, October 1968, 48–49

I don’t share the author’s enthusiasm for re-imagining Post Modernism, this time with architecture as a green veneer of symbolic content. We have that already. The history of architecture is full of turning points. If only it were a chronology of buildings illustrating the grand narrative supplied by technological and social progress!

Scott Brown and Venturi, Guild House, 1963

In the course of developing Guild House, an elderly housing project completed in 1963, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown proposed that the destiny of modern architecture was not to build heroic monuments but to produce ‘ugly and ordinary’ structures. Observing that clients, uninterested in aesthetics, would inevitably put ill-suited signs on buildings, the architects chose to strike preemptively and add their own sign to announc the structure’s name. Atop the building they mounted a non-functioning, gold anodized antenna to mark the building’s common room and to signify that old people like to watch a lot of TV. Seen by both critics and occupants as a cynical joke at the expense of the inhabitants, the antenna was later removed.

Thanks for that, audc. It seems V&SB’s touch was neither light nor deft. But while we’re here, can we just take a look at the rear of Guild House?

Guild House, Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, 1963

We’ve been here before, in 1929.

Hannes Meyer, Access Balcony Housing, 1929

And in 1954.

Post-modernism added symbolic content – aka ornament – to otherwise orthodox, conventional, economic, pragmatic buildings. It tarted them up, basically. It had nothing to say about the structure of buildings. It had nothing to say about the planning of buildings. It had nothing to say about how we use buildings.

The history of architecture is the history of avoiding economic and pragmatic inevitabilities. The name Modernism once meant freedom from the stylistic baggage of the past. At one stage, it could have been equally well associated to the economic and pragmatic buildings of Hannes Meyer, the arty elitism of Le Corbusier or the aspirational opulence of Mies van der Rohe. By 1927 and the Weissenhof Exhibition, this was no longer possible.

The idea of using a minimum amount of resources for the greatest good died in 1927, not 1972 as is wrongly claimed. If the philosophy of Hannes Meyer had become accepted as architecture back in 1930 then, come 1954, Pruitt Igoe would have been merely the best way to house people. It would have been the norm, not inferior or lacking in any way.

It would not have been necessary to invent anything to delay, disguise or deny our inevitable return to it.


  • the notion of directly linking Venturi’s “shed” to equal “conventional (sustainable)” seems a fundamental flaw.
    is the Farnsworth house a “sustainable” building.
    what is sustainable?
    as i think you point out, the notion that using a material efficient means equals sustainable solution is tenuous at best. again, Farnsworth, significantly delivered to site ready to assemble. maybe this means it is sustainable.
    material efficiency is no more than in cost efficiency. Ludwig Mies just had bigger budgets than most. marble instead of paint.
    the fact that many writers equate the need to demonstrate greenness as in sustainableness to requiring a direct and demonstrated link of material efficiency is folly.

    the raising of the failings of public housing is interesting. I always wanted to live in the public housing in NYC because they had the best immediate site development. trees, open space, grass, basketball courts, but distinctly lacked immediately adjacent commercial opportunities. a suburban solution, not a higher density solution, disguised as higher density.
    typically, the initial cost was minimised then further reduced leading to other issues, as pointed out in the Pruitt link, but I have always suspected that an issue was the lack of identity. you lived in an aggregation of housing units in larger aggregation of buildings. no immediate street address, no immediate identification.