Earthly Reasons to Build Skyward
Event: The Sustainable Works of Foster + Partners: A Mixed Greens Lecture
Location: New York Academy of Sciences, 7 WTC, 02.22.07
Speaker: Brandon Haw â€“ senior partner, Foster + Partners; Carol Willis â€“ director, Skyscraper Museum (introduction)
Organizers: Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences
Courtesy Foster + Partners
Foster + Partnersâ€™ designs emphasize a dialectic between the environment and technology, emphasized the firmâ€™s senior partner, Brandon Haw. Recalling his own 1960s upbringing in an â€œart familyâ€ that treasured the off-the-grid principles of Stewart Brandâ€™s Whole Earth Catalog, Haw was naturally drawn to the early work of Sir Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, and Buckminster Fuller. â€œBuckyâ€™s dome could have been used for the Willis Faber building,â€ he commented. Some features of that forward-looking Foster-designed 1975 building have become staples of sustainable design and corporate communitarianism: a green roof, open-plan workspaces, escalator-based vertical transportation, and raised floors. Then-and-now photos show how little modification this building needed as its occupants adapted to computerization and other changes over three decades.
As widely as Fosterâ€™s designs have varied, they have implemented recurrent principles: functional cladding, external positioning of cores, and attention to the details of airflow, heat exchange, and light. A point-by-point system of ecological analysis from site to materials guides all Foster projects, skyscraper-scale and otherwise. Itâ€™s become common to preface discussions of green design strategies with Al Gore-style data graphics on global temperature, carbon dioxide, demographics, and resource use. Hawâ€™s presentation of this material was bracing without being alarmist; he recognizes the urgency of curbing greenhouse emissions has reached cultural and economic realms, and he applauds businesses that recognize common interests linking carbon footprints, quality-of-life improvements for workers, and financial performance. Foster + Partners is dedicated to building tall as much for the anti-sprawl effects of high urban density as for the customary financial motives.
The triangular Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt (1997), arguably the first green skyscraper, treats German unionsâ€™ requirement that all workers be within 7.5 meters of a window as a productive constraint. Considering its central atrium space, â€œgardens in the sky,â€ and ample natural ventilation (used 85% of the year, improving on the original target of 65%), its internal offices are in higher demand than those facing outward. A mixed-use â€œvertical cityâ€ currently on the boards, the Moscow City Towers, will resemble â€œCommerzbank blown apart, turned inside out,â€ incorporating negative-pressure ventilation and energy systems that employ river water. For Aldar Central Market, a tower/souk complex in Abu Dhabi, the firm studied indigenous architecture to combine traditional heat-management strategies (sloping roofs, wind-catching chimneys) with modern photovoltaics and thermal tubes.
Similar structural and solar-energy-capturing strategies in the ill-fated 980 Madison tower ran into local opposition, but Haw promises the firm will return to the Upper East Side with a new design. Europeans have outpaced their U.S. counterparts in building green; Germanyâ€™s tight regulatory environment, in particular, makes eco-technology a priority in projects like the Reichstag, New German Parliament restoration, and the Free University in Berlin (the biomorphic “Berlin Brain”). The American architectural communityâ€™s focus on stylistic debates strikes Haw as frivolous, but he notes and hails rapid change on this side of the pond. Some years ago he remarked to colleagues, â€œWe canâ€™t tell the Americans what to do, but when they get it, theyâ€™ll get it big-time.â€ The Hearst Headquarters and similar buildings have proven Haw prophetic in that regard. Since Fuller and other Americans established green-design in the first place, itâ€™s refreshing that weâ€™re beginning to catch up.
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