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A unique exhibition examines the influence of environmental design strategies in modern architecture
Cocoon House. Paul Rudolph with Ralph Twitchell, 1957.

By: Kevin Bone

NEW YORK, NY.- As we move forward into the 21st Century, it has become increasingly evident that we must address the environmental complications unleashed by global industrialization and the impact of concomitant population increase. To meet the challenges of a more efficient and less environmentally dangerous human enterprise, architects, engineers, planners and builders are developing and applying new technological strategies. But in conjunction with our pursuit of technological panaceas, we should remind ourselves that the embedded knowledge of past architectural investigations remains a useful resource.

Architects have looked to history for inspiration and guidance in response to environmental issues before. In the 1960s, in reaction to the anxiety of the atomic age and the ugliness of rapidly expanding human landscapes, Yale Professor Bernard Rudofsky (notably among others), examined vernacular constructions, traditional building methods and indigenous techniques for insights into designing for a more livable world. But the heart of the 20th Century, the modern age and the vast body of architectural experimentation associated with Modernism has been largely overlooked in the quest for environmental design ingenuity. Modern architecture is often presented as antithetical to environmentally responsible, climate-based and ecologically rooted design. But this perception is incorrect. Upon examination it is clear that many modern architects designed important works that contain ideas that espouse architectural collaboration with the natural world. This exhibition demonstrates that at the core of the modern movement, the great architects we all regard as the heroes of the discipline, as well as other lesser known practitioners, were in fact attuned to the cycles of nature and used these cycles to improve their architectural works.

Lessons From Modernism looks at twenty-five examples of modern architecture created between 1925 and 1970 that incorporate environmental strategies integral to the architecture and solve critical problems of comfort, use and economy by recognizing and adapting to natural agencies. While none of these examples meet a perfect definition for today’s green building best practices (a moving target in any case), nor would they qualify for certification under any of our many systems for evaluating environmentally appropriate architecture, these projects do present a catalogue of architectural ideas that accomplish much of what green design aspires to do. To that end, the twenty-five works in this show reflect a range of project types, environmental design ideas and solutions to the challenges of particular climate zones that are still relevant today.

Much of early modern architecture was executed before the advent of mechanical equipment solutions to regulate interior atmospheric conditions. To make buildings more livable, more useful and more comfortable architects developed strategies that emphasized passive heating and cooling, natural lighting and ventilation. These architects realized climate regulation through plastic solutions, the incorporation of sun-breakers, layered facades, the optimization of building forms and orientation, the use of water basins, natural shading and planting programs for cooling, as well as sheltered outdoor space and protected gardens to expand the comfort zone of the buildings. These are design ideas that produced better-performing buildings and resulted in distinctive architecture.

Many of these buildings demonstrate an aesthetic of simplicity. They are small in scale, required modest capital to realize and through the adaptability of the spaces remained valuable and useful throughout their life spans. The modern project pursued structural innovation. Engineering and building construction methods aspired to maximize efficiency and minimize the use of materials. Site design strategies sought to promote integration with the setting, embrace the natural surroundings, limit disturbance of natural landscapes and reintroduce park and garden areas into urban environments. All are informed by the climate of a given site and most profoundly, all respect the universal and elemental relationship of the architecture to the daily and annual movement of the sun. These are projects where the architecture responds to the solar dictates of place.

The very argument of modernism that put forth a case for buildings stripped of excess and designed to find their beauty in function and space is in sync with the green manifesto that declares one should use only what one needs, and not more. Early modern architects rejected the ornamentation that characterized much of the design of the late 19th century. The heavy materiality of building embellishment was deemed unsuitable for the modern world. This aesthetic, or really these values, inform the green building movement today. The collected works in this show seek to illustrate that point.

There are numerous other projects that could have been included, many of which would have furthered the show’s thesis. Ultimately, the faculty advisors, students and research team all argued for their favorites. We hope these omissions, many of which are cited in the exhibition’s timeline, will be explored in future studios. Indeed, the goal of this exhibit is to inspire students, practicing architects and the general public to examine a broader body of work through the lens of the environment and to discover other lessons from modernism. We should not go forth thinking that sustainability or green architecture or environmental design is in the realm of consultants and secondary players in the practice of architecture. But rather, environmental considerations must be initiated at the very beginning of the architectural idea. As educators, we seek to inform an architectural culture that not only does less harm, but also imagines a built environment that reverses damage done and regenerates the biological balance of life.

The exhibition opened at The Cooper Union’s Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery on January 29th.

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