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Green modernism comes to Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/26/07 @ 8:42pm

As a leading practitioner of sustainable design and the son of a famous Bauhaus-trained architect, Carl Stein is well positioned to weigh whether green building and Modernism are at odds. Critics argue modern design is cold and disengaged from the world, but, when Stein travels to Cleveland this Wednesday for a speaking engagement, he hopes to "scratch beyond the surface of the rhetoric," and show how the Bauhaus architects carefully considered sense of place.

"One of the strongest underlying ideas of Modernism is how building form is determined by quantifiable conditions which include program and response to the natural environment," Stein, principal at elemental architecture in New York, says by telephone. "(Bauhaus founder Walter) Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright spoke about understanding architecture not as a style but as a connection between a particular need at that time and cultural continuity."

"Building in response to natural context has been very much at core of what my father (Richard Stein) was concerned about, and it's absolutely inherent in the Modern movement."

What, then, is Stein's response to the criticism that the Bauhaus-and Mies van der Rohe's preference for replicating a simple form on a scale that often did not feel intimate-led to many faceless skyscrapers built in American cities during in the last fifty years?

"In my view, the relatively anonymous skyscraper in some ways is the perfect background for the city," Stein says. "When one is building at a very large scale, it's hard to avoid buildings that stand out. I believe up to certain level of density, a high-rise building is extremely environmentally responsible."

Early in his career, from his days as an intern in the office of Marcel Breuer in 1970, and then as an associate in his father's firm, Stein began to understand the importance of design that responded to real-world conditions like the energy crisis. In 1978, his father wrote the book, Architecture and Energy, which maintained that society could no longer afford "isolated sculptural entities," the New York Times wrote. He called for new architectural values to lower energy consumption with greater use of natural materials, closer integration of buildings to one another and greater variation of design to suit local conditions.

Much of our understanding of "embodied energy" can be attributed to the Steins, who also co-wrote Handbook of Energy Use for Building Construction for the U. S. Department of Energy in 1981. In the introduction, Stein writes, the most environmentally designed building is no building at all. In reality, he adds, we simply need better buildings. His approach is to consider "certain characteristics of appropriateness that inform a building's look and feel. For example, daylighting can save energy. Provision of daylight to occupied spaces not only enhances its quality, but provides for connectedness to the world."

Invariably, the conversation turns to the Marcel Breuer-designed Cleveland Trust Tower, which Stein praises for being context-sensitive and taking great care to frame rather than dominate the Rotunda building on the same site.

With developers preparing bids on the Cleveland Trust site, it will be instructive to know how much embodied energy, and value, is in the existing buildings. And how Stein would approach the feasibility of a "green" rehabilitation for the Breuer tower.

"The building's grid or modular skin makes it ideally adaptable for cellular activities, which might be residential rooms or hotel rooms," Stein says. "The exterior walls were designed to carry heating and cooling, power and phone lines and could be fitted with current technology-including individually addressable components. Most Breuer office buildings are central air with cell-by-cell air movement from a perimeter fan coil. This is a perfect shell for individual heat pumps to accommodate a ground-coupled heat pump otherwise known as geothermal."

"This is a modern idea; that a building designed to use technology of the time, in a distributed way to improve comfort, becomes readily adaptable to technology not available (at that time). The approach to any carefully worked-out building looks at what was intended and ways current technology can be used."

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