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Green Design and Reconfiguring Tradition

Can you talk about your green design and using copper and other materials?

(BA): What I have learned is that copper is one of the most sustainable materials know to humankind. 80 percent of all copper ever produced is in some form of use today. It makes the house more responsible. I've used sustainably harvested red cedar and bamboo on nearly all my projects.

In the case of the sod on the roof, did you bring that idea to the client?

(BA): This was the first house we did it on. Duncan brought it up; he was thinking of doing it. We both researched it.

Is it a special type of grass?

(BA): Yes, it is an energy sod product. I first discovered the product manufactured by Toyota House, a new subsidiary of Toyota that is getting into the industrialized housing market. The grass is a special grain that is low maintenance, needs to be cut a few times a year, light weight and grows in the shade -- it's cool.

Duncan sounds like a pretty enlightened builder. That is always such a gift for an architect to collaborate with.

(BA): Yes, Duncan is willing to take a risk, building something that is forward-thinking. Duncan fits right in, young guy, with young family that appreciates this type of housing.

Is there a market emerging yet for modern, progressive, energy-efficient housing? Do you see it on the horizon?

(BA): Yes. As for the horizon? Since the housing market is so bad right now it is hard to say where we need to go from here, but I feel this approach is best suited for moving forward.

Art House combines red-cedar and copper (left) to form new statement. A house in Weston, Mass., (middle and right) was designed for the use of solar collectors and capturing energy. Notice greenhouse section caught between adjacent forms.

I think culture is still catching up with the idea of green housing. America in particular is still struggling to get rid of their eight-cylinder cars.

But don't you think that the more society gets adjusted to a more technological way of living -- to save our planet, to save our resources -- that domestic architecture will begin to reflect that agenda, aesthetically?

(BA): I think there is still some stigma attached to this technology, like the stigma associated with collectors on the roof. But there is some interesting stuff coming out of Germany and elsewhere. Frank Gehry is covering his buildings with interesting new technology. Some of these new collectors are translucent, some become screens. Some are now iridescent chips -- solar chips -- that can cover the entire volume and can be made to disappear or be celebrated.

Right, high-profile architects like Gehry are key influencers..

(BA): If this tech can be seen as cool ...maybe at some point these collectors can be like iPods, where everyone will want one. At the same time green does not always mean seen. We are constantly looking for ways to build responsibly.


Comfort versus Responsibility

(AFR): Speaking of iPods. They are so clearly modern and people are so clearly comfortable with them. Why does domestic modern architecture still struggle on this emotional level? What is traditional architecture giving us -- most of us -- that modern architecture fails to provide?

(BA): That's a great question. With architecture something happens where there is an emotional charge. I think there is fear of change, of the new. Architecture is used as comfort. When architecture starts to change our world starts to change. It is under-valued as a change unit.

Isn't this just another way of saying our culture has a narrow world view of what constitutes beauty? This is about fear.

(BA): Most people want architecture to be beautiful. In art, as in other media, it is okay to be controversial. It is okay to subvert and try to change. In art you can look at the whole range of human experiences, from those things that tear you apart and scare you to those things that make life pleasant. But with architecture you can't do that. You hide the underbelly of our human nature, you protect it so that no one will ever see it.

So we have Katrina, we have dying polar bears, melting ice caps, dangerous and erratic weather and death. But you would never know it from the "comfort food" architecture of Martha Stewartland. Don't architects have real social responsibility here?

(BA): Of course. Douglas Darden, a theoretical designer I greatly respect, described the American experience as holding the Sears catalog in one hand and the Old Testament in the other. I think that's a great challenge to architecture, to not only provide commodity but to respond to the deeper human needs and experiences.

A minute ago you spoke elegantly about comfort and architecture. Comfort is a word you normally don't hear much in serious architectural discourse. Perhaps because it is a word that betrays our social responsibilities.

I think we've reached the head of the problem here. How do we reconcile our need for technology in architecture to be "responsible" yet manage to keep domestic architecture in particular, all about comfort, in the end expression?

(BA): I think we must learn to get comfortable ourselves with the technology first. Have you been to the Prada store?

In New York? No.

(BA): It's modern, it's techy and its cool. You watch people. I like that because so much of architecture is given away. So here is technology that says "come touch me, talk to me, don't read that big sign, how does it feel?"

There is a lot of discovery in that.

(BA): Absolutely. That is the edge of technology for me that it can engage you in a discussion. The architecture dialogues and collaborates with you, rather than making everything safe and signed out, accessible, so all is given away.

One of the big changes coming with computer technology interfaces is the tactile user interface, what is called the haptic interface. We see with the Wii and we see it with the iPhone. More of our body is interfacing with digital technology now.

(BA): And the technology can sense us. Now glass can sense us and change from transparent to opaque in the dressing rooms in a store. This is how technology in architecture can change its perceived value for us, when it engages with us, when it is proactive.

And when it can help form that comfort.

(BA): Yes, that's one opportunity.

Let's shift gears a bit because we are talking about stores. Apple's stores are hugely successful financially and its happening at a design level. As an architect looking in, what is working so well at Apple's stores?

(BA): An Apple Store is graphic design with space wrapped around it. It allows you to see the product. There is not a lot of product, but a lot of repetition. You would never see the same mannequin in Macy's with the same outfit on repeated a dozen times in a row. At the Apple Store the product has become the architecture. One touches and experiments. You might call it a learning laboratory.


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