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 – senior partner, Foster + Partners; Carol Willis – director, Skyscraper Museum (introduction)
Organizers: Skyscraper Museum; New York Academy of Sciences

Courtesy Foster + Partners

Will 200 Greenwich Street bring America to the forefront of green design?

Courtesy Foster + Partners

Foster + Partners’ designs emphasize a dialectic between the environment and technology, emphasized the firm’s senior partner, Brandon Haw. Recalling his own 1960s upbringing in an “art family” that treasured the off-the-grid principles of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, Haw was naturally drawn to the early work of Sir Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, and Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky’s dome could have been used for the Willis Faber building,” 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 Foster’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. It’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. Haw’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 unions’ requirement that all workers be within 7.5 meters of a window as a productive constraint. Considering its central atrium space, “gardens in the sky,” 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 “vertical city” currently on the boards, the Moscow City Towers, will resemble “Commerzbank blown apart, turned inside out,” 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; Germany’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 community’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, “We can’t tell the Americans what to do, but when they get it, they’ll get it big-time.” 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, it’s refreshing that we’re beginning to catch up.