18 oct 08 | Globe and Mail

Market panic? Bring it on

By Lisa Rochon

If there is a new imperative in this desperate economy, it is surely to build more intelligent architecture. To think optimistically in uncertain times and trim the fatty, frivolous excess to favour what must absolutely be achieved. Cancel the mediocre, the cheaply built, the towers and housing developments that ignore sustainability. To build is a vote for human productivity. To build well confirms a sophisticated, thinking society.

The faith in work that endures has been kept before. Despite the darkness of the 1930s, the Depression must also be remembered for its brazen architecture. The Empire State Building was conceived as a vertical city and completed in 1931.

Rockefeller Center, a wildly optimistic gesture made in the name of urbanity, was built between the years 1931 to 1940. Consider the irreverence of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, a house cantilevered over a stream in Pennsylvania. It was started in 1936 and completed in 1939. Was it hunger that provoked some brave new thinking in architecture? In Canada, governments built during the Depression to remarkable standards, the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant in Toronto's east end being a shining example.

If market panic means questioning and then cancelling the crap that regularly passes as architecture, then, hallelujah, bring on a new season of sobriety. Yes, the banks in Canada are being far more cautious about developments involving investor-driven transactions. But I'm also hearing that insurance companies here and in Europe are beginning to ask developers for assurances of sustainable design as well as building flexibility and longevity. And Geoff Smith, CEO of EllisDon Corp., tells me that with careful planning and design, achieving the environmental standard of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver is possible without extra cost. He should know.

His company is currently building the Bay Adelaide commercial tower in downtown Toronto scheduled for completion in 2009 with a stamp of LEED Gold.

Architecture now needs to provide some guarantee that it can stand the test of time. It's no longer chic to build obsolescence into architecture the way car manufacturers have done since the postwar era.

The marketplace has grown savvy to healthy living. People want hormone-free chicken and the antioxidants of green tea, as well as plenty of fresh air and natural light in the spaces they occupy. Vacation money may be tight over the next couple years, but the right to healthy buildings belongs to the new, me-generation literacy - it can no longer be traded away.

Escalating energy prices means old architecture - and our cities are mostly made up of buildings constructed prior to 1945 - needs to be retrofitted and new architecture needs to be designed so they become highly intelligent living organisms. The Manitoba Hydro building, nearing completion on Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg, has been designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects to be one of the most sustainable buildings ever attempted in North America. Here's what that means: about 2,200 hydro employees, previously scattered through 13 locations, will be centralized into an 18-storey, entirely glass tower with a three-storey base consisting of retail and an interior street. With natural light penetrating deep into the column-free building, employees will rarely use artificial light. The windows can be opened and, on some days, all heating and cooling systems can be turned off. To be sure, Manitoba Hydro - being in the energy business - is motivated to use the building as a showcase for ways to save on energy. KPMB principal Bruce Kuwabara led the design of the monumental initiative with Luigi LaRocca, a KPMB associate and the project's managing director.

There was a time, not very long ago, when much was made of the singular, intrepid architect - the Frank Lloyd Wright-like figure crusading for truth against the world. These days, architects and developers align early on with people like Thomas Auer, a really smart climate engineer, whose Stuttgart-based firm advises on how to create the highest possible comfort in buildings with the lowest impact on the environment. Wanting to do the right thing, and at Auer's urging, Manitoba Hydro invested seriously upfront; its geothermal system required 280 bore holes dug more than 150 metres below the building footprint, a feat that required some five months to accomplish.

In a northern city such as Winnipeg with soil temperatures much warmer than the winter air, the system makes extraordinary sense: 100 per cent of the cooling is accomplished by the geothermal and 50 per cent of the building's heating is ensured by the underground system. Here's a piece of architecture that's not particularly flashy. Within a city of heavy Tyndall Stone, the Manitoba Hydro headquarters creates a discreet profile of razor-sharp angles and lightness.

Even in places of stupendous oil wealth and formidable desert conditions, there's a sense that global warming might matter. Last week, during his lecture at the World Architecture Congress in Dubai, the Los-Angeles self-styled prophet of architecture Thom Mayne rightly declared that the unfettered, unplanned city of Dubai is headed toward an "ecological nightmare" unless serious consideration is given to a sustainable urban infrastructure. The lack of connective tissue between its megalomaniacal towers is setting up a car-dependent city much like Los Angeles.

In contrast, Abu Dhabi is positioning itself as the country with the eco-conscience within the United Arab Emirates. (Don't be fooled: It's at least partially a marketing ploy.) But, on this front, the public - across the world - deserves full credit for dictating delirious new heights of sustainability in cities and buildings.

The Chicago-based firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture is banking on a newly invigorated global consciousness. Two years ago, the brains behind the 160-storey-plus Burj Dubai, touted as the world's tallest tower, left Skidmore Owings & Merrill to start their own firm. Adrian Smith, Gordon Gill and Robert Forest do not look like tree huggers, yet they have founded their studio on a philosophy of sustainability. "There's been a shift in the mindset among developers," says Forest, a Carleton University architecture graduate. "Even if there are developers who don't care about sustainability, they're doing what's better for the environment to be competitive."

For Abu Dhabi's Masdar Institute (a centre devoted to sustainable energy R&D), the Chicago firm is championing the need for weaning the UAE from its reliance on fossil fuels.

A roof canopy covers the entire building, providing shade from the extreme desert heat. Some aggressive strategies are being considered, says Forest, such as solar air conditioning that uses the sun's heat to drive an absorption chiller that cools the building. Photovoltaic energy-producing cells in the shape of film, tiny spheres and glass beads will be applied to the exterior glass walls.

Maybe during last week's tanking of the stock market, builders were burning their blueprints, says Forest. Maybe today they're digging through the ashes to see what ideas are worth building. A sudden financial panic works wonders for sharpening the mind.