Design on the Edge

HIGHER EDUCATION is a big business getting bigger, as the billions spent by colleges and universities on new construction demonstrate. Sadly, many of these institutions erect buildings with only short-term cost savings in mind; hence they are energy inefficient, create upstream supply havoc, outgas toxins into classrooms — and actually teach students that bad design is an acceptable standard of living.

David Orr, an environmental educator at Oberlin College, is one of our most eloquent, literate, and humorous advocates for a public-works policy that acknowledges not only our damage to the environment but our potential to do something about it sooner rather than later. Orr’s involvement with Oberlin’s Lewis Center for Environmental Studies began simply as an attempt to build a facility that practiced what was preached within. It grew into an ongoing process that was an education for his students, the college, and the surrounding community, and that, not coincidentally, also produced a landmark building, the first substantially green high-performance facility on an American campus.

The planning started in 1992 and, through public design charettes (an architectural term that describes an intense effort to solve an architectural problem within a limited time), the participants developed three principles: that the building and associated landscape “would cause no ugliness, human or ecological, somewhere else or at some later time”; that the project would be an active ecology integrated within the curriculum; and that new analytic tools would be developed to measure fully the performance and cost of the facility. When the 13,600-square-foot passive-solar building opened in 2000, all that had been achieved, as well as a building that looked good and proved popular even with campus leaders.

Orr’s tale is a memoir, a political cautionary tale, and a jeremiad with enjoyable digressions into anthropology, economics, natural philosophy, philanthropy, and petrochemical engineering. Just as the Lewis Center raised the standard for academic architecture, so Orr once again raises the bar for those of us pondering the multiple intersections of architecture, environment, and politics. His book is one of the liveliest and more important books on architecture you could ever read.

William L. Fox is a writer whose work is a sustained inquiry into how human cognition transforms land into landscape. His numerous nonfiction books rely upon fieldwork with artists and scientists in extreme environments to provide the narratives through which he conducts his investigations. He also serves as the Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Fox has published poems, articles, reviews, and essays in more than seventy magazines, has had fifteen collections of poetry published in three countries, and has written eleven nonfiction books about the relationships among art, cognition, and landscape. He has also authored essay for numerous exhibition catalogs and artists’ monographs.