In the popular imagination, energy-efficient design has been understood to be a byproduct
of the oil embargo initiated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting
Countries (OPEC) on 19 October 1973. On that date, Western consumers of fossil fuels
became painfully aware of the energy-intensive nature of their built environment and
their fragile dependence on foreign energy sources. The practice of energy-efficient
design gained public recognition only after the related conditions of overconsumption
and scarcity became so dramatically apparent. The political drama of the mid-1970s,
however, only documents the prior suppression of long-emergent scientific doctrines.
The German physical chemist Rudolf Clausius (1822–88) was one of the first to
articulate the second law of thermodynam-ics, which he expressed in 1865 as the concept
of ent ropy. On the basis of his observation of thermal transfer, Clausius argued that one could
not finish any real physical process with the same amount of energy as that with which
one started. Once energy is expended, changing it from a usable form to an unusable one,
it cannot be replaced. In any closed system—such as our solar system—entropy measures
the amount of energy not available to do work. By the 1920s, this modern understanding
of basic physics prompted natural scientists to develop the doctrines of energy economics . These doctrines
express various ethical and economic imperatives to expend energy as efficiently as
possible, thus delaying the inevitable chaos associated with advanced states of entropy.
Despite the proliferation of neo-Malthusian predictions in the scientific community,
energy economics found little support among architects or in the realm of public policy
until the effects of World War II were realized by energy-poor nations such as Germany.
In the postwar era, concerns for the national security of energy-importing nations
stimulated numerous government-sponsored research programs intent on rationalizing
energy production and consumption. These pragmatic proposals for rationalization were
bolstered by the ideological proposals of the political Left. Marxists in general sought to
transform architectural production into a science capable of completing the modern
In the United States during the 1950s, Victor (1910–) and Aladar (1910–) Olgyay
published research that reintroduced the concerns of biology, meteorology, and
engineering into architecture. This research culminated in the appearance in 1963 of the
influential Des ign with Climate: A Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism. In 1968, the founding of EDRA (the Environmental Design Research
Association) documented the academic acceptance of the Olgyays’s scientific approach
to architectural design. This approach is clearly expressed by Buckminster Fuller’s
(1895–) Dymaxion Principle, which promotes maximum gain for minimum energy input.
In minds less energetic than Fuller’s, however, the principles of energy-efficient design
produced many projects distinguished only by low rates of energy consumption. The
relentlessly quantitative nature of the scientific approach to architecture eventually came
into conflict not only with traditional formalists but also with those intent on conserving
nature in other than instrumental terms.
The term ecology was first used by the German zoologist Ernst Haekel (1834–1919) in his Generelle Morphologie
of 1866. Although Haekel did not fully develop the scientific concept as it is understood
today, he did help popularize the notion that biological entities cannot be understood
outside their natural environment. He argued from a philosophically monist position that
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 766
is opposed to the Cartesian dualist assumptions of Western science. It is not surprising,
then, that the latter-day supporters of ecology, awakened by the 1962 publication of
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, would reject a purely quantitative approach to the conservation of
nature. In their holistic view, the reductive assumptions of modern science are understood
to be the source of resource depletion and environmental degradation—not their cure.
Many historians argue that ecologism emerged as a somewhat romantic idea at the beginning of
the 20th century in Germany, England, and North America. Ecologism, however, did not
mature as a political idea until it merged with the concept of energy economics in the era
of the OPEC-induced energy crisis and the Vietnam War (1961–75). In that politically
divisive climate, the proponents of ecologism and those of economic development
clashed with increasing intensity. A significant contribution to the tentative resolution of
that conflict has been the concept of sus tainability, first used in “World Conservation Strategy,” a
1980 publication by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural
Resources (IUCN). In that document, the seeming opposition of nature conservation and
economic development is subsumed in the synthesis of sus tainable development, meaning “those paths of
social, economic, and political progress that meet the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” More developed
definitions, such as that proposed by the planner Scott Campbell in 1996, understand the
concept of sustainability to be a set of related but competing discourses in which the
economic interests evident in the socially constructed concept of energy efficiency are
balanced with the interests of environmental protection and social equity.
In Europe, the scientific—as opposed to the romantic—interpretation of sustainability
has been appropriated by the practitioners of the high-tech aesthetic, such as Sir Norman
Foster (1935–), Nicholas Grimshaw (1939–), Thomas Herzog (1941–), Renzo Piano
(1937–), and the engineering firm of Ove Arup. In the 1970s, these designers were
concerned principally with the expressive potential of structure. At the end of the century,
however, their interests turned equally to the energy engineering problems inherent in the
environmental control of large buildings. Foster’s Commerzbank project (1994) in
Frankfurt, Grimshaw’s British Pavilion (1992) at the Seville World Fair, Thomas
Herzog’s exhibition hall (1995) for the Deutsche Messe in Hanover, and Piano’s office
building (1998) for Daimler-Benz at Potsdammerplatz in Berlin are significant works that
demonstrate the formal incorporation of energy engineering into architecture.
In North America, the concepts of energy efficiency and sustainability have been
associated more with the environmental impact of material selection and the reduction of
embodied energy in buildings than with expressive technology. The Croxton
Collaborative’s design for adaptive reuse of the National Audubon Society office
building (1992) in New York; the Advanced Green Builder Home (1997) by the Center
for Maximum Potential Building Systems of Austin, Texas; and William McDonough’s
proposal for the Environmental Studies Center (1999) at Oberlin College are equally
significant examples of how the concept of energy efficiency has evolved into a more
complex approach to the conservation of both natural and social systems.
In its most rigid form, energy-efficient design has been characterized as an attempt to
reconstitute the practice of architecture as a purely instrumental applied science. In its
most expansive form, however, energy-efficient design challenges society to understand
buildings not as static objects of aesthetic value but rather as dynamic entities that
participate in a complex system of natural energy flows and political consequences.

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