Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression
Jonathan Ochshorn

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book cover

It seems trivial to examine the expression of normative building types—"gas station," "office building," and so on—in terms of their utilitarian function. And it seems inappropriate, if not entirely futile—since I am neither connoisseur nor critic—to speculate about the subjective expression of idiosyncratic buildings (Architecture with a capital "A") in relation to their underlying utilitarian functionality. There is, however, one class of utilitarian building—a class that includes everything from gas stations to office buildings—in which architecture often devolves into generalized forms of expression, irrespective of the building's particular occupancy or type: the so-called green, or sustainable, building.

Buildings that seek to express their sustainability often utilize similar formal and material tropes in two broad categories: natural and industrial. Nature is a surprisingly persistent theme in sustainable building design, presumably because it expresses the ideal of a sustainable planet, one in which—and with which—humans could live in harmony. Such an interest in nature shows up in the use of (1) curved forms, since straight lines might be construed as an expression of human arrogance; (2) relatively unprocessed materials such as wood, bamboo, mud brick, and fieldstone; (3) fabric membranes, which evoke a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, i.e., one in which humans were closer to nature; (4) an abundance of daylight, i.e., passive solar energy; and (5) plant material—even if only a monoculture consisting of sedums set into a thin layer of engineered soil medium—covering walls or roofs.

On the other hand, industrial and technologically sophisticated forms and materials also show up as expressive elements in sustainable architecture, for example, in the use of (1) wind turbines and photovoltaic solar panels to capture energy from wind and sun; (2) glass—lots of expensive, high-tech, spectrally selective, double- or triple-glazed insulating glass—primarily to enable daylighting, whether or not this actually represents an energy-efficient (sustainable) deployment of resources (see Chapter 5); and (3) other high- and low-tech devices, often employed to enable the expression of daylight, including such things as light shelves (to bounce incoming light further into the building interior) and automatic or fixed shading devices (to mitigate the problem of glare).

One might think that simply being sustainable would be enough, but this is clearly not the case. The utilitarian functions of sustainability—to create healthy indoor environments; to reduce the use of fossil fuels and, therefore, the production of greenhouse gases; to limit the use of potable water; and to harvest renewable raw material without damaging natural ecosystems (or to recycle nonrenewable material)—are not necessarily consistent with corporate profitability and international economic competition and so, unless required by governmental intervention in the form of energy codes, building codes, and zoning ordinances, they are not likely to be taken seriously. In this vacuum, however, the expression of sustainability has emerged as a value-adding economic strategy for both state and corporate entities, primarily as that intangible asset known in accounting practice as "goodwill."1 Disingenuously expressing the idea of sustainability, rather than actually creating the conditions for sustainability, is often labeled "greenwashing," the impetus for which is parodied brilliantly by cartoonist Rob Esmay, who draws two executives staring out their office window at billowing industrial smokestacks, one remarking wistfully to the other, "Can't we just dye the smoke green"?2


The architect William McDonough and other members of his office wrote (he prefers to use the word "assembled") The Hannover Principles as a design guide for the 2000 World's Fair in Hannover, Germany, to "encourage the design professions to take sustainability into consideration."3 While there is some interest in the utilitarian function of sustainability, the book is primarily concerned with offering advice about the expression of sustainability. To that end, the book consists of nine principles ("maxims") intended to inspire participants in the Fair, followed by guidelines and other supplementary material (including a more "sustained" discussion of sustainability). The principles are all idealistic; they deal not with the reality of building constrained by profitability and competition, but rather with a fantasy landscape "based on the enduring elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit."4 Similar pre-scientific categories appear in Hindu, Japanese, and Greek ancient philosophies; the use of these terms to frame the discussion of sustainability foreshadows a denial of, resistance to, and denigration of science-based knowledge.

The principles, summarized below, betray a moralistic, anti-rational, and pro-business standpoint. This is hardly accidental: forms of expression do not evolve in a vacuum but are validated within particular cultures to the extent that they accomplish an ideological mission—a mission that serves the interest of whomever is paying the bills. Whether or not the authors articulate, or even understand, this function is irrelevant. Invoking morality and mysticism on the one hand, and denigrating science, technology, and social planning on the other hand, provide ideological cover for the continued exploitation of both human and environmental resources.

Principle No. 1: Insist on rights of humanity and nature to coexist. This principle frames the coexistence of humans and the natural world in terms of "rights." But what exactly are rights, where do they come from, and what is their purpose? In his book on the evolution of rights and liberal theory, Ian Shapiro convincingly shows

that the principal reasons for the tenacity of the liberal conception of individual rights, problems and all, are ideological: its Cartesian view of the subject of rights, its negative libertarian view of the substance of rights, its view of individual consent as the legitimate basis for rights, and its essentially pluralist and utilitarian conception of the purposes of rights have, in their various formulations, combined to express a view of politics that is required by and legitimates capitalist market practices.5

Market practices, of course, involve the exchange of property, a practice which turns out to benefit some while impoverishing others. Clearly, a power is needed to enforce the voluntary exchange of property that takes place in such market economies and that constitutes its fundamental principle.

By granting rights, the state is using its power to ensure that every relationship between citizens satisfies the principles of its rule, nothing more. … The 'nature' that demands constitutional rights for humans is the world of competition, in which property does not leave much room for mutual respect. The positive determination of what is human, which the state bestows on everyone, has a purely negative content.6

McDonough's discussion of rights not only abstracts from any consideration of purpose and power, but also idealizes the result of this coexistence as something potentially "healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable."7 Health, support, and diversity do, in fact, enter into the calculations that underlie governmental decisions to support sustainable practices, but only to the extent that they "sustain" the profitable exploitation of humans and natural things. Such calculations—for example, pitting the competitive success of nation-states against the potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming—are both ubiquitous and insidious; politicians and media routinely hold the latter hostage to the former as if such priorities were self-evident. As I write, tariffs are being imposed on imported solar panels by a Republican president, based on calculations about the cost of (imported) renewable energy versus the benefit for American workers and corporations: "On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it would impose steep tariffs on imported solar panels, which could raise the cost of solar power in the years ahead, slowing adoption of the technology and costing jobs. Mr. Trump has long championed trade barriers as a way to protect United States manufacturers from foreign competitors."8

This is clearly not just an artifact of a particular political party gaining power. During the previous Obama administration, for example, the logic of promoting domestic jobs and economic growth, while dealing with perceived threats to national security, also informed decisions about sustainable practices. For example, Obama argued that the U.S. could "become the world's leading exporter of clean energy. We can hand over the jobs of the future to our competitors, or we can confront what they've already recognized as the great opportunity of our time: The nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy."9 The modest initiatives proposed and implemented during that administration were always justified on that basis and were never designed to actually "avoid a catastrophic rise in sea levels."10

Principle No. 2: Recognize interdependence. This is essentially the same as the first principle dealing with coexistence.

Principle No. 3: Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Corporate entities and their designers are asked to take into account "community, dwelling, industry and trade in terms of connections between spiritual and material consciousness."11 This advice is readily accepted by those entities seeking to mask their actual contributions to environmental and human damage—contributions that are unavoidable within a competitive framework defined by the life-and-death struggle for corporate survival—with a mystical appeal to some "higher" principle.

Principle No. 4: Accept responsibility for the consequences of design. This serves as a moral admonition to those competing within capitalist economies within which human and environmental damage are well documented. The system itself, we are told, should never be held accountable: rather, it's your fault (so you need to accept responsibility).

Principle No. 5: Create safe objects of long-term value. This is a puzzling principle to include in a set of sustainability guidelines. The clear implication is that safe objects of long-term value are not the default product of conventional architectural design based on codes, regulations, and practices that have evolved within democratic governments supporting capitalist economies. Furthermore, this principle suggests that it is the responsibility of architects and the property owners who hire them to voluntarily create such things based on a heightened sense of moral righteousness, rather than to work towards the abolition of the conditions which make such objects the exception rather than the rule. The idea that voluntary action of individuals can overcome countervailing tendencies rooted in the competitive need to reduce costs of production (tendencies that historically have worked against the creation of safe objects of long-term value) is itself rooted in the type of market-driven, libertarian ideology that pervades McDonough's book.

Principle No. 6: Eliminate the concept of waste. That is, emulate "natural systems, in which there is no waste."12 There are two problems with this advice. First, waste is inherent in all biological and production processes. If such waste is then transformed into something useful within the human sphere, or subjected within nature to processes of transformation, one still hasn't abolished waste in the first instance. Second, rather than emulating the blind processes characterizing natural systems, modern human societies have found it necessary to develop purposeful strategies for dealing with waste. In nature, bears shit in the woods; within dense human settlements, expensive and technologically sophisticated waste-water treatment plants must be built. Even so, eliminating waste is different from eliminating the concept of waste. The former is a technical and economic problem in which the costs of waste reduction or "recycling" are weighed against the benefits; the latter is pure ideology. In fairness to McDonough, he seems to have retreated somewhat from the concept of no waste, at least as a slogan; in answer to a question about his approach to a "zero-waste" universe, he replied, "I wouldn't use that phrase. If I said zero waste, then it makes it sound like I don't like waste. I love waste!"13

Principle No. 7: Rely on natural energy flows. "Human designs should, like the natural world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income."14 This is misleading on a number of counts. First, many sources of energy used in "human designs"—those based on carbon or hydrocarbon fuels, whether wood, coal, oil, or natural gas—are already derived from "perpetual solar income"; second, even if we understand "perpetual solar income" as the direct use of the sun's energy (or the use of renewable, plant-based, fuels), this still excludes from consideration other renewable energy sources such as geothermal and tidal; third, non-human life forms constituting the "natural world" rely on solar-derived energy just as humans do, and are also constantly running into "problems" of fuel (food) supply shortages. Idealizing the natural world as a place of ecological stasis and bliss sheds no light on the human condition.

Principle No. 8: Understand the limitations of design. With this principle, designers are asked to "practice humility in the face of nature."15 After all, architects cannot solve "all problems" and nothing lasts forever anyway. This is just a repackaging of ancient mythology and postmodern assertions implying human arrogance, the danger of knowledge, and the evils of technology. Its underlying content is that our inevitable failures (since we cannot solve all problems) shouldn't bother us (practice humility) as we emulate nature (our "model and mentor") and eschew science, planning, and collective action.

Principle No. 9: Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. This final principle is an example of the underlying idealism of the text, in that competition between private businesses ensures that knowledge is a resource reserved, to the extent possible, for private gain. Patents and copyrights turn knowledge into intellectual property. Trade secrets are protected jealously. In other words, knowledge is limited because those who have it tend to view it in a proprietary manner and are reluctant to share it. Competing manufacturers vying for market share may not be inclined to publish information that objectively compares their products with others. Even the possibility of gaining knowledge from structural design failure is often constrained because "the commercial nature of engineering works against the wide dissemination of accounts of human error" including, for example, "the practice of sealing the testimony of legal proceedings dealing with liability over design failures."16

The five mystical elements of the guidelines, cited earlier, are used as ad hoc placeholders to organize various strategies and platitudes concerning sustainability. For example, Earth is not only described as "context and material" for buildings but also as the material basis for the development of an appropriate "aesthetic" attitude. This is to be accomplished by wrapping buildings in forms of expression that allow them to serve as "a didactic tool to demonstrate that sustainable thinking can be put into practice in the real world." Building materials should be "considered for their broadest range of effects, from emotive to practical," while local traditions and production should be mined to "emphasize the regional, cultural, and historical uniqueness of the place."17

McDonough is hardly the only architect/writer who values the didactic or expressive qualities of sustainable building. Richard Ingersoll, for example, makes essentially the same point:

The question of what a building looks like, what other buildings or natural things it reminds you of, and what it represents is still of primary importance. This is why the rhetorical function of architecture is so important. A good building must convince one that it is good—it must have appeal as a cultural product as well as a phenomenal, sheltering device.18

Yet while Ingersoll still presumes that a utilitarian functionality must underlie a building's expressive appeal, McDonough's Earth guidelines say very little about actually being sustainable. Instead, utilitas has been replaced with venustas; the prosaic utilitarian function of creating and preserving the necessary conditions for human survival—presupposing a scientific understanding of both human and environmental resources—has been seamlessly converted into the project of selling the idea of sustainability.

One "sells" an idea by appealing to emotions, rather than logical reasoning. It is therefore not accidental that an anti-rational bias permeates this text, emphasizing the fallibility and limitations of human knowledge and social planning: "No one knows the right answers to the challenge of sustainability as of yet."19 "The best examples of it [sustainable development] come from simpler societies … But no simple return to vernacular architecture can help us now."20 "Quality of life needs to be implied in the design itself, not legislated by a list of rules."21 "The built fabric of our world … encourages us to imagine that we comprehend systems more complex than we can ever know."22 "We gauge the success of a design by the experience of it through time. It cannot be judged against a pre-existing checklist of criteria."23 (In other words, our "experience" of the design is considered an acceptable means of judging, as long as we have no objective criteria in mind!) "The idea of efficiency, of minimizing this or maximizing that, reinforces the limitations of mechanistic thinking, which imagines everything we do or experience to be part of a quantifiable system."24 Instead, the text extolls "the unplanned, the fortuitous, the places evolved without any imposed and directing idea."25 "Never has a world exposition chosen to celebrate the fact that humanity does not know very much about the world."26 "The evidence is clear from the record of our [twentieth] century: claims to plan all aspects of the environment have failed …"27 (In other words, "planning" itself is the culprit, rather than the capitalist exploitation of natural and human resources.) McDonough then cites Christopher Alexander's Timeless Way of Building which, he argues, "succeeds because he speaks, Zen-like, circling around the subject rather than holding it up for all to examine."28 What is needed, in other words, is not a scientific understanding and organization of human society in relation to its environmental context, but rather a kind of poetry that might find "the truth of an integrative kind of beauty which is so impossible to describe."29

This anti-rational sentiment is hardly unique to McDonough's Hannover Principles; Anthony Vidler identifies an

antimodern discourse that, since the early 1930s, had been gaining ground with critics skeptical of 'progress' and its supposed benefits. Philosophers on both the right and left of the political spectrum contributed to this sensibility, from Theodor Adorno to Martin Heidegger, Max Horkheimer to Hans Sedlmayr, which amounted to no less than a concerted attack on the founding premises of modernism …30

So much for Earth. Air and Fire are treated rather literally, in that the consideration of "atmospheric effects" of design is not meant to evoke ethereal modes of expression but rather the building's impact on global warming and ozone depletion. Also mentioned in the context of "air" are air pollution, indoor air quality, noise (presumably since it may travel through air), ventilation, wind, and so on. Fire is pretty much taken to stand for "energy." Once that equation is established, sustainable designers are encouraged to prioritize "on-site renewable energy sources" which avoid "fossil fuels or remote electrical generation"—in other words, to avoid using fire as a source of energy.31

Water is also treated mostly as what it is, with practical suggestions on how to use it efficiently ("sustainably"), although designers are also urged to find ways to "celebrate the profound value of this resource on both material and spiritual levels …"32

Spirit is invoked to once again excuse the chaos and damage corresponding to profit-driven development: "Building on the principle of humility, the design philosophy here should realize its inherent limitations in trying to plan and direct both human and natural processes." Planning and direction are ruled out but, perhaps in compensation, participants are advised that their design "must present an aesthetic statement which sets up human society as a conduit toward the further understanding of nature, not as an affront or an enemy to it."33

Consistent with the anti-rational bias of the text is the manner in which sustainability is reconciled with capitalism:

Sustainability is a loaded and slippery term. It names those activities which can be continued far into the future, defining a way of life that will last. The trouble is that it is nothing new—business and industry have always hoped that whatever course they choose will be the sustainable course, one that will not push them out of business. In a sense, there is no practical need to scold business too much. If environmental considerations are something that can really be addressed, they have to encourage business activity, rather than forbid it.34

In other words: don't try to explain sustainability. Actual knowledge is impossible. Don't blame business for environmental and human damage; possibly nothing can be done about it anyway. And whatever is attempted must be consistent with the needs of those businesses which, desiring nothing but unending profitability, are sustainability's natural partners.

That the goal of sustainable development is to sustain exploitation is at once denied and proudly demonstrated. Maintaining a sustainable level of poverty in the Brazilian city of Curitiba is held up as an "inspiring example" of a "truly sustainable community." Garbage there is exchanged "for food and bus vouchers in the poorer parts of town" to encourage recycling; such measures result in a city that is "a favored site for new industries of local and foreign origin."35 Glorification of "successful" unfettered development is later contradicted by a moral critique of both production and consumption that not only abstracts from the actual preconditions for sustained capitalist production, that is, the accumulation (growth) of privately held wealth, but simultaneously misrepresents damage to humans and environments as a consequence of the scale of exploitation, rather than the exploitation itself: "Sustainable development in the end recommends the leveling-off of increases in population and resource consumption. It will finally require a redefinition of values and a commitment from consumers to want and buy less, a pledge from industry to make less, and from builders to build less."36

Critiquing the Hannover Expo in 2000, Ralf Strobach, secretary of Hannover's Citizens' Initiative for Environment Protection, stated that: "For a long time, companies were unsure if they would be putting money in an eco-show or a showcase for their latest inventions." The Hannover Principles, with its predictable blend of morality and capitalist ideology—invoked to explain and advocate for a sustainable world—thus perfectly reflects this confusion. The contradiction of the "green building" project, seeking to reconcile its idealistic goals with an economic system in which global competition for supremacy (or for survival) turns human and environmental exploitation into a virtual "law of nature," is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.


1 Emily York, "Businesses See Advantage in Green Buildings,", September 2, 2010, here.

2 Rob Esmay, "Can't We Just Dye the Smoke Green," New Yorker, May 14, 2007, 101.

3 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 10. To remain consistent with the title of the book, the German spelling, "Hannover," rather than the American or English "Hanover," will be used throughout this chapter.

4 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 10.

5 Shapiro, The Evolution of Rights in Liberal Theory, 302–3.

6 Held and Hill, The Democratic State (in Chapter 2, "Sovereignty—The People—Constitutional Rights—Representation"); bold font in the original for the words "human rights" has been removed.

7 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 8.

8 Ana Swanson and Brad Plumer, "Trump's Solar Tariffs Are Clouding the Industry's Future," New York Times, January 23, 2018, here.

9 Barack Obama, "Text: Obama's Remarks on Solar Energy," New York Times, May 27, 2009, here.

10 Editorial Board, "Is the Paris Climate Accord Too Little, Too Late?" Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2016, here.

11 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 8.

12 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 8–9.

13 Deborah Solomon, "Calling Mr. Green," New York Times, May 20, 2007, here.

14 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 9.

15 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 9.

16 Petroski, Design Paradigms, 7.

17 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 10–12.

18 Ingersoll, "Second Nature: On the Social Bond of Ecology and Architecture," in Dutton and Mann, Reconstructing Architecture, 146.

19 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 24.

20 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 28.

21 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 29.

22 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 30.

23 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 31.

24 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 86.

25 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 86.

26 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 99.

27 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 101.

28 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 102.

29 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 102.

30 Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, 65.

31 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 15.

32 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 17.

33 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 19, (my italics).

34 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 48.

35 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 66–67.

36 McDonough Architects, The Hannover Principles, 107.

37 Ursula Sautter, "Expensive Exposure," Time, June 12, 2000, here.

contact | contents | bibliography | illustration credits | ⇦ chapter 12 | chapter 13 | chapter 14 ⇨