I got to know Metropolis magazine columnist Philip Nobel last November while we were on a press trip for a museum opening, the Ullens Center in Beijing. I found him to be a nice guy, if quite the chain smoker. We and a couple other journalists had fun scurrying away by taxi from a gala dinner with champagne and caviar held in a building with no heat (that's China in a nutshell). But in his column Philip has somewhat of a curmudgeonly reputation.
That's definitely true when it comes to green building. "And not only because it's boring," Philip writes in this month's column. "As saving the Earth has become the cause of all causes, I thought this might just be my usual knee-jerk recoiling from things earnest and popular. Now I know it's a deeply principled stand based on the defense of public manners." He continues:
"When one does something good, does one then crow about it, seeking gain? That would be the opposite of grace. But that is exactly what we see in page after page of project after project, each claiming to be LEEDier than thou. Here, planet, I've done you this kindness. Look everyone, I'm saving the planet!"
"Clearly there's a place for a specialized literature, a quiet little spot on the journalistic margins where green architects and clients can trade best practices and grow the field. It's the right thing to do. But that doesn't mean we need to hear about it."
Philip is really just 'taking the piss', as the English say, crowing in a provocative way that makes entertaining copy. I hesitate to dive into defending green building for fear of seeming too earnest and popular. And because green building doesn't really need defending from Philip.
Still, even if he's just joking, it's too bad if Philip or others who grow weary of green building talk think it's only about saving the planet.
Let's suppose for a moment that they discovered global warming wasn't happening after all, or that there was some infinitely plentiful new energy source that made efficiency and alternatives to fossel fuels less urgent. Even then, I'd take the chance to live or work in a green building in a heartbeat, because they're better places to be. Spend a day working in front of a window, then the next in an artificially lit basement. When were you most productive? Happy?
Philip is right, though, that green buidling needs to develop an identity based more on altruism and back-patting for meeting LEED strictures. How can we capture people's imagination with green buildings without just rattling off the points they score for recycling or low-flow showerheads?