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Green clashes with design in S.F. tower

March 21, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The new 18-story federal building here, designed by Thom Mayne and the Santa Monica firm Morphosis, is hardly short on symbolism or story lines.

It is a hulking, aggressive tower in the heart of a city that has seemed wary of bold architectural statements in recent decades. And it is perhaps the most ambitious of the federal government's effort, through the General Services Administration's "design excellence" program, to make new courthouses and office buildings models of forward-looking design.

But the tower is most fascinating, by far, as a measuring stick for green architecture. It shows what happens when a celebrated American architect is compelled -- by his client, by the younger designers in his own office and, maybe, by his conscience -- to embrace sustainability. And it dramatizes a clash between the prerogatives of architectural creativity and the basics of sustainable design -- a clash that promises to be repeated as other architects of Mayne's generation and sensibility begin to build in a more efficient way.

The new focus at Morphosis on green design "is a giant leap forward for us," Mayne said during a recent tour of the $144-million building. And in a lecture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last month, he declared that the federal building represents "where the architectural act and the ethical act are fused."

A more accurate word, to be honest, would have been "feuding." The building, with its natural ventilation and loft-like, sun-filled offices, includes a long list of green elements to go with some architecturally stunning spaces, notably a lobby that slices upward through the lower floors. But for every architectural decision that makes the building greener, there is another that seems to undercut that goal.

In fact, architects at Morphosis say it probably won't qualify even for a silver rating -- let alone gold or platinum -- from the U.S. Green Building Council, a benchmark that the GSA aims to meet or exceed in high-profile new construction. The firm blames that failure on a rating system that is out of date and inadequate for judging buildings as big as this one, which covers 605,000 square feet. But part of the problem surely lies in Mayne's reluctance to temper his elaborate, highly wrought approach to architectural form-making.

The best example of the conflict is probably the system of perforated metal panels that sheathe the tower's wide southern facade. The panels will be familiar to anyone who's seen Mayne's Caltrans building in downtown Los Angeles, where they wrap around the whole building and are deployed mostly to achieve a certain monochromatic visual power. Here Mayne uses them only where they most effectively shade and cool the offices, leaving them off the northern facade altogether. The panels are one reason the main floors require no air conditioning.

So far, so green. But when those panels reach the ground, Mayne extends them, in a series of sharply folded planes, out toward the plaza that sits at the tower's feet. He repeats them on the roof of the tower and atop a free-standing cafe building on the far edge of the plaza.

The folded panels, a Morphosis trademark, are visually dramatic. They are also entirely decorative. (Mayne doesn't even take the simple step of extending the panels over the plaza to shade the cafe's outdoor tables.) And they are supported by huge, V-shaped galvanized metal trusses -- a lot of wasted steel for a building aiming for an eco-friendly label.

The conflict at the heart of the building has been brewing for some time. After all, while we have lately prized famous architects mostly for their Expressionism, green design is based on a different set of priorities. It is by definition local, relying on attention to site and climate, where celebrity architecture is global, dominated by firms with a proven ability to stamp a repeatable brand on any parcel of land in the world, from Milwaukee to Abu Dhabi. It rewards clarity and simplicity more than the complexity Mayne has spent nearly four decades perfecting. It requires architects to think as much about balance as architectural drama.

It might seem unfair to criticize one of our most talented architects on that score. Nobody ever complained that Jackson Pollock was guilty of flinging around too much paint -- or that the wood for his frames wasn't harvested in a sustainable manner. And we have always let architects off the hook for cost overruns, inefficiencies and other basic errors as long as their buildings provided a visceral or virtuosic thrill.

But if architecture, unlike painting or sculpture, is at heart an exercise in balancing purely artistic goals with more prosaic ones -- budgets, gravity and so on -- then green design shouldn't require extraordinary skills or lamentable compromise. And as architects as stylistically opposed as Shigeru Ban and Glenn Murcutt have shown, it's entirely possible to combine sustainability with a bracing sense of creative ingenuity.

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