Is Frank Gehry an Enemy of the Environment?
Last month, Frank Gehry, the legendary 81-year-old architect, gave a talk in Chicago. According to Susan S. Szenasy, the editor of Metropolis Magazine, Gehry “summarily dismissed the movement that’s working to make the built environment more responsive to our deteriorated natural environment.” (She called her article “You Are So Wrong, Frank Gehry!”)
I didn’t attend the talk, but I read Blair Kamin’s account in the Chicago Tribune.
According to Kamin, Gehry, was asked about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the leading system by which the “greenness” of buildings is measured in the United States. Gehry responded that the issue of green building is “finally a political one.”
I don’t think, by saying so, he summarily dismissed the environmental movement. He merely dismissed the idea that LEED, a voluntary, developer-funded system, can solve the vast environmental problems we now face.
I publish some 50 articles a year, most of them on architecture. My work requires me to view hundreds of projects, and to read about thousands more. And so I feel qualified to say that, far too often, LEED gives eco-cred to buildings that, in many cases, shouldn’t have been built.
One prominent example is CityCenter, the Las Vegas complex that contains more than than 5,000 hotel rooms, plus casinos and shopping malls and restaurants and nightclubs — altogether, 18 million air-conditioned square feet in the Mojave Desert.
I can’t imagine a greater environmental disaster than this complex (which, in addition to requiring vast resources to build and operate, is intended to draw travelers from around the world). And yet it was awarded LEED Gold status.
Is CityCenter a net gain to the environment? No, it represents a huge net loss to the environment. But LEED gave it the cover of sustainability.
Without that cover, many more questions would have been raised about the decision to build CityCenter; perhaps it wouldn’t have been built at all. And Gehry is right — the question is political. If there were robust public debate, Americans might decide that projects like CityCenter pose environmental costs that far outweigh their benefits. Zoning regulations, taxes, and other tools of government could then be used to stop such projects. LEED, by contrast, cannot stop wasteful projects from being built, nor does it attempt to.
LEED awards points for specific green features, without considering whether the project makes sense as a whole. That is true of nearly every checklist system, like the one in California that allowed a 10,000 square foot house to receive a “green” designation.
Gehry’s other comments were innocuous. He said, “A lot of LEED is given for bogus stuff.” Everyone who has analyzed the point system, well-intentioned as it is, agrees with him.
And he said that the cost of making a building green may not “pay back in your lifetime.” That is certainly true, and it isn’t necessarily an argument against making buildings as sustainable as they can be. It was simply an elaboration of his central point: deciding what gets built is a political question. Since developers, with rare exceptions, won’t expend large sums of money for green features that won’t pay for themselves in three to five years, government has to step in, offering developers tax credits and other inducements to “go green.” Only the public can make that happen, by making its views known to politicians.
Using LEED as a measure of “sustainability” has allowed society to avoid tough questions — tough political questions — about what it should and shouldn’t build.
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