The Pritzker Prize is not awarded for humility or moderation or being a chill dude. The Pritzker Prize, at least in theory, is awarded to architects who design impressive buildings, and by that standard Frank Gehry eminently deserved the Pritzker Prize he won way back in 1989. Since then, Gehry has continued to do what he does best, which is design fascinating structures like the beloved Guggenheim Bilbao — which architects recently chose as the greatest building of the past 30 years in a Vanity Fair poll — and the Novartis Building, which is seen above. While its (jargon alert) unconventional shape and super-shiny aesthetics unmistakably mark the Novartis Building as a Gehry project, something about it is different than many of Gehry’s others. No, it’s not less shiny — not that we can see, at least. It’s just a lot more energy efficient, which is more the result of Switzerland’s forward-thinking national green building laws — it’s different in Europe, people — than any change of heart on Gehry’s part. But while Gehry has never really evinced much interest in green design, it wasn’t until recently that he weighed in on the US Green Building Council’s LEED program, which — for better and worse, as we’ve discussed numerous times at gbNYC — is effectively the brand name for green building in the United States. He is, to put it gently, a skeptic.
Back in April, Gehry busted some harsh but reasonable battle raps about LEED at the Yale School of Architecture, which BusinessWeek’s Michael Arndt reported here. It’s hard to pick just one quote from this salty array, but this works okay: “A lot of LEEDs are given for bogus stuff. A lot of the things they do really don’t save energy.” Say what you will about the Old Guy Pluralization — it’s not quite “The Google,” but yeah — but the dude is right. When Gehry — whose Stata Center at MIT won LEED Silver, although it wasn’t designed with that in mind — tried to walk back his comments to Arndt a week later, he still couldn’t resist lodging some critiques of LEED. “[LEED has] become ‘fetishized’ in my profession. It’s like if you wear the American flag on your lapel, you’re an American,” Gehry told Arndt. “That’s what I was trying to say. You get people who are holier than thou. I think architects can do a lot, but some of what gets done is marketing and doesn’t really serve to the extent that the PR says it does.” That’s like the Guggenheim Bilbao of extremely qualified praise, right there, but again: the (Pritzker Prize-winning) guy is not wrong.
Again, Gehry’s not a green building maven, and he’s not making any points that semi-mavens like myself — for starters — haven’t been making for some time. While LEED has plenty of potential, it’s really most reliable at this point as an indicator of a developer’s marketing approach — l’affaire Riverhouse may yet bear this out — and green good intentions in the planning stage than it is as an indicator of a building’s performance. But while Gehry’s interest in green building as a pursuit is roughly analogous to David Chang’s interest in serving seitan at Momofuku, the guy is not a troll and he’s not — thankfully — some sort of stealth global warming skeptic or anything like that. In a long and interesting interview on green building with Abigail Leonard of PBS, Gehry gets into greater detail on his feelings about green building’s potential, pitfalls and imperfect certification process:
Leonard: To use the Novartis building as an example, what is the Swiss government doing that ours isn’t? What do you think the government’s role should be in this?
Gehry: They set very particular standards: The Swiss government said the Novartis building couldn’t be air-conditioned. So we had to come up with another way to regulate the temperature. We built it entirely out of glass and cooled it with a geothermal system. The roof panels were made with photovoltaic glass that generates energy. And there is an opening at the top that lets hot air out — like a teepee. In the end, there’s no one way to do it, you have to be creative.
Leonard: So pressure should come from government at the top and builders will respond?
Gehry: In an ideal world, pressure should come from below and from the top.
Leonard: Some critics have taken issue with LEED’s point system, which they say doesn’t always produce the most environmentally friendly buildings. The most commonly sited example is that developers get the same number of points for installing a bike rack as they do for a complex, and expensive, water recycling system. Do you think the point system is useful?
Gehry: Maybe you need the point system to energize this type of building, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. The best way would be a political initiative that requires people to address these issues in order to get a building permit. Then the government can incentivize sustainable building through subsidies and various other things. But this is a global issue, so you need programs that not only we agree on but also that the Russians and the Chinese agree on.
Again, it’s not necessarily groundbreaking commentary, but Gehry’s a smart guy, and his initial skepticism of LEED — warranted skepticism, we should once again point out — might’ve unfairly gotten him tagged as a troll by green building watchers. It’s worth reading, and a nice reminder that the man many consider to be our greatest living architect is actually engaged with building issues not having to do with making things shinier.