Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Expect more

Big-box retailers are an easy … target, when it comes to the window-dressing that’s often done on sustainability. “We’ve heard a lot of that … that word,” said our guide on a dazzling tour of Target’s corporate headquarters on Nicolett Mall in Minneapolis, where some 5,000 planners and others have descended for the annual American Planning Association. We were in the company’s 60-person architecture and engineering division, which if it stood alone would be the fourth largest such firm in Minnesota, after strolling through the Café Target and the art-adorned Great Hall, where pairs of employees talked earnestly on simple fabric furniture. What of the green innovations? The ubiquitous green roof, of course, skylights, recycling plastic hangers, tote bags to replace those bright white bullseye-dotted plastic bags, minimizing and decking parking, and plantings (Japanese maples, red of course, and “perennials with a neat appearance that align with Target’s brand image,” according to guidelines). Our guides were subdued about the greenest thing Target can do, which is to build or rehab in urban locations – the Minneapolis store is a nice example, with its slightly Dutch-feeling shopping-cart escalators, very well used when I was there. Depends on the cost of land, the market analysis, and whether it’s part of a development project, they said: “It has to be practical.” One factor is the delivery and handling of products in cities – from more compact loading docks to the need to move goods to multiple floors – which can raise labor costs. Over the nearly 200 projects in the works, most were conventional big buildings with big parking fields (though I did spot a nice roundabout drawn in to replace an intersection in one set of plans). The claim is that more building rehab is being done; no word on ending the practice of tear-downs after 10 years. Through a program of overhauling libraries and in other ways, Target proclaims interest in building communities. Truly harnessing its branding power could broadcast a message of green amid all that red.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Buckminster Rem

Rem Koolhaas was at Harvard tonight, and did not disappoint. He was the keynote for the Ecological Urbanism conference at the Graduate School of Design, a role he confided he first thought was some kind of "cruel joke." He suggested that green sensibilities began at least with Vitruvius, and continued with Ian McHarg and Buckminster Fuller, in a co-existence of culture and nature, and the ventilating walls and other features of "tropical architecture" he learned about as a young man. He was scornful of the "apocalypitc streak" of those predicting environmental calamity, citing the Club of Rome's "Limits of Growth." Showing a collage of contemporary skylines including Dubai, London and his own CCTV building in Beijing, he acknowledged that "that's out," in terms shortcomings in green performance. But he said "our responses are not that deep, equating responsibility with literal greening" -- green roofs, lining walls with grass -- and pilloried Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Piano's defense of the grassy-knolled creation was either "outrageously innocent or deeply calculation, and probably both," he said. In a house-of-mirrors moment came when he criticized Nicolai Ouroussoff's praise of the building. A more effective approach that goes beyond "good intentions and branding," he said, was the Nordzee wind power project in The Netherlands, in combination with the harnessing of tidal and solar power southward across Europe. That was the kind of marriage of "politics and engineering" that Buckminster Fuller was getting at some 40 years ago, Koolhaas said. Fair enough. I regard Koolhaas much the way that Jane Jacobs appreciated Louis Kahn or Mies van der Rohe; the Kunsthall and Seattle Library are certainly compelling. His take on the green mandate and architecture's response was nothing if not provocative.