Architect addresses environmentally-friendly approach to design

William McDonough, an architect and planner internationally recognized for his environmentally conscious design, spoke last Wednesday in Brooks Rogers. The lecture, entitled “Redesigning Design from Molecules to Countries,” focused on environmental responsibility and local sustainability. McDonough discussed his new technologies and the importance of site-specific designs, stating the problem with today’s architecture is that “the world has changed, but our system of design has not.”

McDonough is the founder of the McDonough and Partners architecture and planning firm, co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and a professor and former dean at the University of Virginia.

He is also the author of “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.” McDonough’s work is also featured in the new film “The Next Industrial Revolution,” which chronicles his steps towards an environmentally conscious economy and planning philosophy.

Carlos Silva ’04 introduced McDonough and his role in “exploring new and innovative ways to landscape.” In particular, Silva focused on the relevance of McDonough’s philosophy to the campus in light of building projects the College will undertake in the near future. Following ideals such as McDonough’s would allow the College to “take steps to a greener campus,” Silva said.

McDonough began his lecture by describing how design serves as “the first symbol of human intervention.” In terms of human design and its effect on the environment, he explained, “we’re at a point in history when we can no longer say we’re not responsible.”

In accordance with these philosophies, two questions motivate McDonough’s designs: “how do we love all the children of all species of all time?” and “when do we all become indigenous people?” After asking how many audience members considered themselves indigenous to the Berkshire area, he discussed what it means to be a “native” and how design can respond to this.

Next, McDonough mentioned a few

of the people whose philosophies

influenced him, including Thomas Jefferson. While a dean at the University of Virginia, McDonough lived in a house designed by Jefferson and, as a result, came to value his design legacy. He described how Jefferson’s architecture and campus plans serve as “declarations of interdependence,” revealing that “education requires [the] fierce clash of ideas.” If still alive, Jefferson would recognize today’s environmentally harsh designs as “[tyrannies] across time.”

The work of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs also caused McDonough to question the integrity of design today. Responding to Carson and discussing the current misinterpretation of the doctrines of the founding fathers, he asked, “when did we give people the right to pollute, kill?”

McDonough also ascribed many of his social and environmental concerns to his time spent abroad. He was born in Japan and grew up in Hong Kong, yet spent the summers in Puget Sound, where his grandfather was a lumberjack. He returned again to the United States to attend Dartmouth College. However, he began traveling again immediately after college and held his first job working with the Bedouins in Jordan. That experience was particularly eye-opening, he said, because he was exposed to local technologies specific to the landscape and


Next, McDonough described his problems with modern architecture and how his work responds to such issues. He explained that modern architecture can “forget where the sun is” with buildings no longer specific to their sites. Elements such as glass are often used ironically rather than seriously and thus “mean to connect us, but seal us.”

McDonough presented the New York City plan as a positive example of a conscientious design model. By setting the grid so that all buildings would receive light in the morning, planners had found “the fundamental connectivity to the way

the sun, the air and the water move.”

Reemphasizing the problems with today’s architecture, he explained that “we have the ability to track water, ozone. . .but architects forget where the sun is.” Also often forgotten is that architects must “understand what the building is about before [they] start to build.”

McDonough then moved on to a showing and discussion of his work. He began with the first solar-heated house in Ireland, which he designed while still a student.

Another innovative work he discussed was a skyscraper in Warsaw, Poland. To offset the global warming of the structure, he requested that the company plant ten square miles of trees.

Also discussed was McDonough’s memorial to the Holocaust at Auschwitz, which depicts the camp as “a machine for killing in.” The memorial, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, features a crystal shape in a pool of tears. The work is interactive – visitors first descend the stairs into darkness, then arrive at an empty chamber to pray in, and end up in a giant empty amphitheater.

McDonough used the rest of the lecture to discuss the theories and principles of his design firm. The firm’s goals include recognizing nature’s right to exist, recognizing the interdependence of design and the world, respecting the relationship between spirit and matter, accepting responsibility for the consequence of design, creating safe objects for future generations, eliminating the concept of waste, relying on natural energy flows, understanding the limit of design and seeking improvement through the spread of knowledge.

McDonough also explained the principle of efficiency, joking that “the problem with efficiency is that nature is not efficient.” Instead of striving for efficiency, his firm strives to be “eco-effective,” a term they coined to describe a vision for the future that reaches beyond sustainability. This design philosophy lies in the balance between economy, ecology and equity.

McDonough’s experimental building at Oberlin College is one building that particularly embodies this philosophy. When finished, this “living machine” will make more energy than it needs to operate. The building, which is a small center for environmental studies, was designed in response to the question, “What if a building could be more like a tree?”

McDonough has also designed environmentally friendly products, including a chemical-free fabric now used by many airlines. His other products include shoes and shampoo.

Another triumph is the Gap corporate campus in San Bruno, California, which was named “the most energy-efficient office building in California.” The complex was built on the principle that all workers should have light, windows and breathing space. The undulating roof blends in with the landscape and is even planted with grass.

McDonough also designed Nike’s European campus, a complex designed to be eventually convertible into housing. Again, McDonough emphasized the importance of knowing the site and the clients and designing specifically to their needs.

McDonough’s projects ha
ve also included a 12,000-family community in Indiana. In particular, McDonough looked to create “a group of people who communicate” by planning transport systems and amenities to unite the old and young. Also, the town’s energy output in total will have zero effect on global warming.

The New Museum is one of McDonough’s current projects and is dedicated to many of the principles he works with. The Museum will focus on the “web of life” and the interconnected nature of people and place.

“It was inspiring to hear about an approach to design in which we can actually help improve the world, rather than maintain the status quo,” said Jason Davis ’05. “While I had believed that such actions would require a ‘return to nature,’ McDonough showed that we can make these strides within the bounds of industrialism.”

The lecture was sponsored by Greensense and the Center for Environmental Studies as well as the Lecture Committee, the Dean’s Office and the Leadership studies and American studies departments.

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