March 29th, 2011

Why do some architects mention cycling at all?

When architects are sufficiently famous, they see it as their role to speak on urban consolidation, society's energy use, cycling, the big bang, the existence of god... anything really, other than what actually steered the design of their buildings, one way or the other. I mean, why does Norman Foster preface a talk about a green roof, and some interstitial space between floors to run wiring (see clip below), with a damming analysis of Detroit's urban sprawl? I see nothing in Foster's oeuvre that would help make a world with fewer Detroits, or a world with more cycling, so why mention either?

The building of Foster's with which I'm most familiar, having been taken on the tour while it was under construction, is Deutsche Bank Place, Sydney. It is hardly a tour de force in sustainable design. It's a sealed glass box. The atrium is a sealed glass box. The lift carriages are sealed glass boxes, air-conditioned lest their occupants roast in the sun. Some office workers are as far as 20meters away from a window—not that any window provides access to the outside, other than a glass sealed view. Aside from the obligatory pumping of heat this way and that, via whatever wiz-bang system was new at the time (chilled beams maybe, I can't remember) the greenest thing about this building is the roof top element. Why? It looks like Foster's own Moulton bike.

From left: a useless pocket of still air called an atrium; one of those CIAM meetings; Bono

He is of a generation though who were raised upon CIAM-style rhetoric, about architects saving the world with their superior faculties of problem solving. The problem they could never solve, was growing to sound like stupid old codgers, parading as experts on matters other  than those for which they are recognized. Take Norman Foster, who is famous for his exquisitely detailed and executed buildings. An enormous feat, actually. Grand enough, that saving the world during lunch break, seems like something best left to Bono.