Greening Modernism: Preservation, Sustainability, and the Modern Movement






Publication: Planning for Higher Education
Author: Bumstead, Richard C
Date published: January 1, 2012

Greening Modernism: Preservation, Sustainability, and the Modern Movement by Carl J. Stein W.W. Norton & Company 2010 296 pages ISBN 978-0-393-732832

Reviewed by Richard C. Bumstead

In a world of diminishing resources and ever-expanding population, author and architect Carl Stein takes a compelling look at the impacts buildings have on the use of those resources, both in their construction and operation, in his book Greening Modernism. His primary focus is on the intelligent utilization and conservation of energy. This is a timely book that focuses on the ongoing debate regarding how we proceed to both provide shelter and conserve resources.

It is no coincidence that the rise of modern architecture followed the development of cheap energy - and by cheap energy, I mean fossil fuels used to create both power (electricity) and heat. During the early years of the 20th century, the industrial machine enabled both the skyscraper and the expansion of the city outward into the suburbs. We are now facing the full impact of those movements and finding it necessary to address the issue of how to use that body of architecture in the 21 st century. The old approach of demolishing and rebuilding is no longer the only approach and arguably should be the last resort; when looking at the potential lost energy from demolition and landfills, the case for reusing those buildings begins.

Stein takes great pains to differentiate Modern Architecture (with a capital 'M') from modern architecture (with a small 'm'), the work of which is found throughout the world in every town and city. His premise is that Modern Architecture reacted to its site and environment; however, while the common modern architect took many design signals from the masters, he or she forgot or misunderstood their origins and thus created an unsustainable style of architecture. With cheap energy, the architects and clients of modern architecture could easily overcome the environmental issues of heat gain/loss, poor air circulation, and poor lighting by using energy-intensive technologies to address these design shortcomings. Those days are coming to an abrupt end as more and more cities embrace LEED certification for new projects.

After a brief yet comprehensive review of high-school physics and a primer on energy production, the reader understands the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, Entropy, and Thermal Mass (if only my high-school physics teacher could have made it this understandable) and how they relate to our buildings. Next, the book addresses its main premise: how the modern architecture movement has left many cities with blocks of buildings (some distinguished, most not) that are grossly inefficient in their use of energy from both a construction and an operational viewpoint. Stein looks at various ways that these buildings can and should be retrofitted to become highly energy efficient, including the use of new forms of glazing, heat gain/loss control, ventilation, roofing technologies and materials, lighting, and mechanical controls. In an interesting aside, he critiques the use of green roofs and their current vogue, pointing out their increased weight loads, the increased energy needed to install them, and their ongoing maintenance needs as well as the loss of opportunity to use skylights, solar panels, and high-efficiency roofing materials.

To reuse many of these buildings, some of the old standards for how buildings were programmed will have to be challenged. Stein uses the example of how the "urban loft" has revolutionized the American home, creating broad acceptance of the open-concept floor plan. Current commercial office plans are following suit, and the demise of the private office is at hand.

As examples of building renovations using this green approach, Stein shares three case studies from his architectural office, TPS/Elemental Architecture in New York: the 1971 Cleveland Trust Tower by Marcel Breuer in Cleveland, Ohio; the 1907 Shepard Hall in New York City by George Post; and the 1999 South Jamaica Branch Library in Queens, New York, by Stein's own office. I would guess that the Cleveland Trust Tower is representative of Modern Architecture, while Shepard Hall is a Gothic Revival beauty on the campus of City College; I'm not going to make any judgment calls on whether the Jamaica Branch Library is modern architecture with a small or capital 'm.' For me, it would have been more useful - and broadened the overall appeal of the book - if there were more examples from a wider variety of environments across the United States. I would assume that Stein is well acquainted with architects having a similar philosophy; some of their examples would have significantly bolstered his arguments.

The book itself is lushly illustrated and a beautiful addition to any coffee table. It is ironic that in a book focusing on doing more with less and promoting sustainability, the editors and designers included so much white space and so many blank pages. Easily a third, if not half, of the book's 296 pages could have been cut to better support its overall premise. The selection of dark-gray sans-serif type, while elegant, was a bit of a challenge to read unless you were in a well-lit room.

In closing, Stein writes, "It is, however, the responsibility of architects to carry out their work in a way that gains maximum results from the expenditure of precious nonrenewable resources" (p. 159). This seems to sum up the premise of the book and is an appropriate mantra by which all architects and designers of the built environment should live.

Author affiliation:

Richard C. Bumstead, ASLA, is the associate director of campus environment at the University of Chicago. In 2002 he received a Getty Foundation Grant for the development of Preservation Guidelines for Contemporary Architecture for the university.

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