Function over form?
Architect Travis Price thinks the green building movement he’s been part of for thirty years has veered off course. His new book makes a case for restoring the movement to its spiritual and aesthetic center. But will his ideas take hold?
Wed, Apr 15, 2009 at 10:11 AM
Photos: Ken Wyner
The architect Travis Price spoke at the Odegard showroom, a high-end carpet and furniture dealer in Manhattan. Standing before the kilim rugs with sweeps of silvery hair and a white scarf draped around his neck, he excused himself for being a poor public speaker. (He is not.) Then he presented a slide show of his work, and the images spoke for him: copper-sided and glass houses that hug steep hills; light-filled, rounded, and graceful structures.
In his heyday, Price was a pioneer of the solar building movement that arose in response to the 1970s energy crisis. His master’s thesis on passive solar design (a term referring to structures heated and cooled by their shape and orientation to the sun) culminated in the cofounding of a solar home-building company in New Mexico. He later became a housing organizer in New York City, fighting to make renewable energy available to the poor by day and socializing with celebrities by night. He worked on the Carter administration’s energy policy, and in the 1980s he oversaw the design of the million-square-foot, solar-powered Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters in Chattanooga. Eventually, as the energy crisis waned, and this early green building movement with it, Price settled in Washington, D.C., where he has lived ever since.
Since then, of course, green building has been resurrected and reinvented, thanks in no small part to the voluntary LEED standard, a point-based system that ranks buildings according to factors like energy efficiency and use of recycled materials. More than 1,000 buildings have been certified through LEED since the standard’s inception in 2000 (with 7,400 under construction and applying for certification), and scores of government agencies have adopted it as a baseline standard for new construction.
But Price hasn’t jumped on the LEED bandwagon. Its goals may be noble, he says, but its methods prize what he calls a “checklist” approach to architecture, rather than nature and inspiration. “The whole green thing today is about engineering, not architecture,” he said when I spoke to him in June. Architecture should be about “making a form, a shape, an experience—not just solving a bunch of technical problems. You’re inspiring people or it’s not architecture anymore, it’s just building.”
So armed with his new book—The Archaeology of Tomorrow: Architecture & the Spirit of Place—and invigorated by his new role as director of a master’s program he helped create at Catholic University focusing on sacred spaces and cultural studies, Price is setting out to create a new vocabulary and philosophy of architecture: “the mythical modern and the ecology of the spirit.”
Despite the 94-degree heat in Georgetown, Price looked perfectly cool sitting at his conference table in a black T-shirt, black jeans, and orange sneakers. His office, in a Federal-style building next to the Ukrainian Embassy, perches above the C&O Canal, a block from M Street where 20-something bearded boys sell “Start a Revolution” T-shirts. His 14-year old Dalmatian, DixieDoodle, holds court (she’s half Southern, he explained, like him).
Price was born in Augusta, Georgia. A military kid, he was shuffled between Georgia; Heidelberg, Germany; and the wilds of Panama. All this cultural diversity may explain a little about his ability to synthesize opposing personality traits: European and Deep Southern sensibilities; unabashed embracing of capitalism and self-acknowledged Marxist tendencies; inflammatory statements about green design and spectacular green buildings.
He says he flunked a year of high school in Augusta for espousing a pro-civil-rights philosophy. That cost him his school of choice, M.I.T., so he went off to Georgia Tech, where he was “trained as an architect, but not educated,” he says. “I wanted a philosophic base to designing for our times, but the only way to know the philosophies of your time is to know all philosophies.” So he headed to St. John’s College in Annapolis for a philosophy degree, and then to a summer seminar at their satellite campus in Santa Fe. Finally he earned a master’s in architecture at the University of New Mexico.
Santa Fe was not yet a tourist mecca, but a wild land of artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe as well as Price’s own mentors, artist and architect Bill Lumpkins and landscape architect J.B. Jackson. He loves to wax nostalgic about those years. “Suddenly, I was surrounded by all these activists, and I ran into a bunch of architectural renegades hibernating around the University of New Mexico,” he says. “Antoine Predock”—the renowned architect—“was just down the street, and we’d talk all the time.”
In this idea-rich environment, Price underwent an awakening of sorts. While studying the structure of the ancient Pueblo Chaco Canyon, he says, “I saw this big curved surface with all the snow melting in it. They had this landscape-based knowledge about melting the snow passively.” It inspired him to write his thesis on passive solar homes. “I was looking at what nature was telling these people to do, and what the most extraordinary technological innovations to do it were.” The solution was fairly simple: lengthen the building east to west and orient it toward the winter sun, but add overhangs that shade the structure during the summer, when the sun is strong and high in the sky.
Price and his cohorts formed a development company, Sun Mountain Design, and created passive solar homes just outside Santa Fe. But it bothered him that the houses were geared toward the upper reaches of society that had trickled in during his stay—“scientists, lawyers, and millionaires,” as he characterizes them. “All my Marxist influences were saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing this for the poor?’” he says. “And I was saying, ‘I don’t know how yet. I’ll do this first and figure it out.’ But it really plagued me.”
So in the mid-1970s he moved to New York City, where he became a housing organizer, eventually helping tenants in the then-blighted East Village win the right to install solar panels and a windmill atop their building when Con Edison shut their power off. But even while helping the poorest of the poor, he was straddling two worlds. “I’m in the ghetto all day and then I pick up my girlfriend on 70th and Park and we pick up Bob Redford—she was his agent—and we’d all go to flicks together,” he says.
After three and a half years, he’d burned out on both New York and his girlfriend. He decamped for D.C. and started over again. “I went from seventy percent activism and thirty percent practice to the reverse,” he says. He ramped up the teaching he’d done at places like the University of New Mexico and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, focused on his private practice, and began to hone a philosophy that would take him another 20 years to succinctly express.
Price’s criticisms of the eco-building movement began in the 1980s, after he’d worked on the TVA building. “It’s not that these ideas are wrong, it’s who administers them,” he says, referring to his work with the Carter administration on BEPS—Building Energy Performance Standards—an early rating system for green buildings befallen by what Price called “a dictatorship of codes.”
The same problem persists today, he says. Architects are focused more on piecemeal solutions than lessen the environmental impact of buildings—more insulation here, more recycled materials there—than creating spaces that celebrate nature or use it as inspiration for the building’s form. “We’ve reduced energy costs by 80 percent in houses just by updating the building codes,” he says, referring mostly to requirements for better insulation. “It’s the boring six inches of foam that does all the work. So if a standard says I have to be one percent more efficient, fine, it can’t hurt—but it’s not really revolutionary.”
Price’s good friend Keith Bellows, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, where Price is a contributing editor, describes him not as a revolutionary but as a “shark in the water”—constantly moving. “He’s a reader. He’s a thinker. He’s a very curious guy. And he’s pushed himself beyond the four walls of architecture.” Price’s strength, Bellows thinks, comes from his unusual resumé and associations with people from so many disciplines and walks of life. “He’s dimensionalized himself,” Bellows says. “If you hang around with your peers too much, you start to drink the water.”
So Price remains skeptical where others have gone gung ho, particularly about LEED certification. While he admires its mission, he feels LEED is in part responsible for adding even more standards (and cost) to the creative process, and for focusing more on things like how far materials are shipped to a job site than on creating beautiful buildings. (Buildings certified through LEED are subject to an extensive technical review, a sometimes lengthy and expensive process.) “Whether I get my glass from Pittsburgh or from Chicago, it’s going to be so piddlysquat in terms of energy expenditure,” he says. He also chafes at how these measures restrict free trade and free thinking. “You can’t impede bringing in Plyboo [sustainable hardwood flooring] from China because it’s not local. That’s hippie-dippie talk. We slaughtered that idea in 1972 at one of our meetings in New Mexico.”
The real issue is suburban sprawl—as bad for our souls as it is for the environment, Price says—and the exportation of the American way of life to rapidly urbanizing places like China and India. The first chapter of The Archaeology of Tomorrow is entitled “Assault on the Spirit: Sprawl, Mall, & Tall.”
Yet he doesn’t believe that mandating green building techniques or smart-growth plants is the answer, either. “Checklist architecture is what’s killing architecture,” he says. “If you start telling me I had to do it green, eventually I would have no freedom to design.”
His proposal? Deregulate but inspire. “Have beauty contests,” he says. “Applaud the things that people do well, but don’t dictate it.” What Price wants is to send architects and those who hire them to a kind of beauty school, to introduce them to the three design tenets he outlines in his book: stillness, movement, and nature. “I want to lead that charge that to me is the new ecology movement: the architecture of the spirit,” he says.
Stillness, to him, means timelessness, or emotional sustainability. He achieves this by incorporating a symbolic, almost anthropomorphic quality into his buildings. A home he’s creating in the shadow of the National Cathedral has curved copper sides around tall sweeps of glass—he calls it “two hands holding a sculpture.”
But if future generations are going to enjoy buildings designed today, they must be of our time. That’s the movement part, which he calls “time-fullness” in his book. “It has to be modern and dynamic,” says Price, who does not favor retro architecture that resurrects Italianate or Victorian styles. “Without glass, without shape and sculpting, you’re not here—you’re in another century.” Most of his buildings use materials seen elsewhere in their immediate neighborhoods, but with a twist: Instead of putting copper on a roof, for instance, he’ll use it as siding. The buildings may be in conversation with their surroundings, but they’re using different words.
And then there’s the last lens: nature. “I make it green because it puts me in touch with nature and fulfills my spiritual and tactile needs,” he says. Giant glass boxes, no matter how energy efficient, don’t seem to Price to be particularly current or to necessarily respect, or reflect, their settings.
“His architecture is about building within the context of the earth,” Bellows says. In the “Spirit of Place” course Price teaches at Catholic University, students travel to majestic places—from Machu Picchu to glaciers in British Columbia—and use local materials to create reverent structures, from temples to outhouses (yes, an outhouse can be spiritual). “The course is about preserving and glorifying these incredible global icons that are really important to us,” he says. “It’s classic and it’s a really important movement and Travis is right on top of it.”
Any great building, Price thinks, must be inherently green. You’d want to use the best windows, the thickest insulation, to maximize natural light and minimize indoor pollutants, to celebrate the local architecture and materials—but he stresses that these characteristics should be integral to the design, not regulated.
Though Price’s sentiments are compelling, they’re a familiar refrain among architects, even the green ones. “It’s easy to pick on LEED,” says Henry Siegel, the chair-elect of the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment and principal of Siegel & Strain Architects in Emeryville, California, a firm that designs eco-friendly homes and other buildings. “The standard doesn’t adequately take into account different strategies that work in different climate zones, or passive techniques for energy efficiency. That said, it’s been the single most important tool for transforming the market to green building practices.”
Michelle Moore, vice president of policy and public affairs for the U.S. Green Building Council, the group that developed LEED, suggests it might be Price himself who’s missing the point. “Part of the USGBC’s mission is that we would all enjoy sustainable buildings within a generation, and that green building would be the way we operated,” she says. But if you don’t happen to be a pioneering solar architect, you’re going to need education and guidelines. “For green building practices to become mainstream, you need measurable, achievable goals. To launch a critique that LEED constrains the aesthetic freedom of the architect is
misunderstanding the system. It’s about a building’s performance and what it delivers for its occupants—and architecture is about more than sculpture.”
Even if Price is able to merge his philosophies with the goals of LEED and other standards, he’ll still face the challenge of widening his visibility. Even his large-scale commercial work, like the National Geographic’s Explorers’ Hall, hasn’t raised him to the green star-architect level of, say, Norman Foster (the British architect who designs green commercial buildings like the Hearst Tower in New York). Most of those familiar with his projects reside in the Washington, D.C. area. To change green building, he’ll have to take his message to a broader audience.
In the end, perhaps Price’s philosophy isn’t checklist-y enough. Though he’s rejected the idealism that marked his early career in green building, his vision for how to change architecture seems, well, hippie-dippie. But even if some critics discount his goals as too broad or too idealistic, they might perk up at his passion. When he gets excited—often the case when he’s talking about his design philosophies—his eyebrows flit up and down involuntarily. It’s hard not to catch his fever, especially when leafing through his book and visiting his buildings in person.
Unlike many architects who work on projects that never get built, Price gets to live among his creations every day. He lunches at a café he designed, tours neighborhoods where his houses simultaneously stand out and blend in with the existing fabric, and comes home to the rather extraordinary house he built for himself in the Forest Hills neighborhood overlooking Washington’s Rock Creek Park.
Surrounded by grand Tudor homes on a steep hillside, Price’s house is perched on two steel columns to avoid affecting the trees below, while two steel drums filled with concrete (he calls them dangling earrings) help counterbalance the house on its posts. Its open floor plan allows for passive heating and cooling; the scheme also inspires visitors to embrace nature because you can see outside from practically anywhere inside.
It was glorious to behold, and as soon as I stepped inside, I knew what he meant by stillness, movement, nature. Sure, the house made me appreciate the natural surroundings, as did all of his work that I saw. But can they really spur a new type of green architecture—the archeology of tomorrow, as he calls it?
“His perspective is absolutely dead-on,” his friend Bellows says. “Do I think it’s going to last? Well, it has to.”
“It doesn’t change environmental woes but it changes my love of nature,” Price admits. There’s something naïve and yet inspiring about his confidence in the power of beauty, and in his belief that his design philosophy will become his legacy.
“I’m very optimistic,” he says. “That’s what architects get paid for.”
Story by Lisa Selin Davis. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in November 2007.