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Updated: A green answer to Vanity Fair's architecture poll has its own blind spot

July 27, 2010 |  5:05 pm

Academy

When Vanity Fair magazine recently released the results of a survey ranking the most significant pieces of architecture of the last 30 years -- with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, topping the list -- the poll was met with more than a little grumbling. Some people griped about the many architects, including Richard Meier and Daniel Libeskind, who voted for their own work (talk about a vanity fair!); others noted that the average age of those polled, a group including architects, critics and academics, seemed to be pushing 70.

But the biggest complaint, by far, was that the results seemed completely to ignore green architecture, among the most significant movements in the field since the emergence of modernism a century ago. In response, Lance Hosey, a writer and an architect who worked for years at William McDonough + Partners, a Virginia firm known for a commitment to sustainable design, organized an alternative survey for Architect magazine in which he polled a number of leading green architects and others. (Hosey e-mailed me earlier this month asking if I'd take part in the voting, which I decided not to.) He used the same format as Vanity Fair: He asked each voter to name the five most important green buildings since 1980, and separately the single most significant sustainable building finished since 2000.

The results were released Tuesday. The winner in the first category was the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, a 10-year-old building by McDonough + Partners that relies on solar panels, among other green-design features, to produce 30% more energy than it uses. (Hosey says his old affiliation had no impact on the results.) Renzo Piano's 2008 California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which is topped by an undulating green roof made of native plants, was named the most important sustainable building since 2000.

I don't have any quibbles with the results of Hosey's alternative survey: I admire both the McDonough and the Piano buildings, and I can understand the desire to confront the obvious limitations of the Vanity Fair project. (Similarly, given the way the Vanity Fair poll was set up, the Guggenheim Bilbao strikes me as a reasonable, even unimpeachable, choice.) In the end, though, I have the same basic problem with Hosey's effort as I did with the first poll: Asking voters to submit a list of single buildings necessarily produces results that give a skewed view of the way architecture -- and more important, the way we think and write about it -- has evolved in recent years.

Among critics and architects alike, there has been a growing understanding that architecture is not just about stand-alone icons but is tied inextricably to real-estate speculation, urban planning, capital flows, ecology and various kinds of networks. Similarly, ambitious architecture criticism now means a good deal more than than simply writing about impressive new landmarks, green or not, produced by the world's best-known firms.

Indeed, sustainable design and its champions deserve significant credit for helping architecture as a whole adjust its values and move toward a wider, richer sense of how to measure its progress and chart its signal achievements. In that sense, it seems to me that Hosey wound up falling into the same trap as the Vanity Fair tastemakers whose shortsightedness he hoped to correct.

Maybe, in other words, the most important achievement in green architecture over the last 10 or 30 years is not a single building at all. Maybe it's a collection of schools or linked parks or the group of advisors brought together by a young mayor somewhere. Maybe it's a new kind of solar panel, a tax credit or a zoning change. Maybe it's tough to hang a plaque on -- or photograph for a magazine spread.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

www.twitter.com/hawthornelat

Photo: Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Credit: Tim Griffith.

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