The Tower of Positive Thinking

Architects color the skyscraper green

Carol Willis, the founder, director, and curator of the Skyscraper Museum, is a connoisseur of big buildings and everything that goes along with them. So when she lavishes praise on a particular elevator ride in a particular skyscraper, it's like a seasoned restaurant critic recommending a great entrée at a restaurant. Do yourself a favor, and go along for the ride.

Willis lately approves of the elevators at 7 World Trade Center—the 52-story building designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill overlooking ground zero. Willis explains that in addition to being unusually silent, steady, and well lit, the elevators are coordinated by a direct dispatch, computer-controlled system that maximizes efficiency and, thus, saves energy en route. "The elevator ride is an underappreciated experience in and of itself," says Willis.

In the months to come, Willis will have ample opportunity to joyride the elevators as she welcomes visitors to the 40th floor of the building. There, at the recently completed headquarters of the New York Academy of Sciences, in a conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, she will be co-hosting a series of public lectures called Mixed Greens, investigating the relationship between sustainable design and skyscrapers.

Get a rise out of the 7 World Trade Center elevators
photo: Ruggero Vanni
Get a rise out of the 7 World Trade Center elevators

In recent years, much of the public discussion about environmental issues, particularly global warming, has obsessed over the role of cars while more or less ignoring the major impact that buildings have on the consumption of water, energy, fossil fuels, and raw construction materials.

But Willis says that within the profession, the conversation on the environment began to change around the time that the National Building Museum held a seminal exhibit called Big Green in 2003. "It was really the first time that architects took responsibility for the wastefulness of buildings," recalls Willis.

In subsequent years, Manhattan has witnessed the rise (and planned construction) of many new buildings—from the Hearst Tower on 8th Avenue to the Bank of America Tower at Bryant Park to 7 World Trade Center—that embrace environmentally sustainable design strategies. The ins and outs of many of these skyscrapers were on display last year when the Skyscraper Museum put together an exhibit, called Green Towers, at its cozy headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

Willis says that this time around, the lectures will continue to focus on the sustainable design of skyscrapers, but will extend the scope to international projects from China to Germany to Malaysia. On March 15, architect Helmut Jahn will be discussing a number of his energy-conscious high-rise projects around the world, including the Deutsche Post Tower in Bonn, Germany. On April 5, architect Ken Yeang will speak about his work on a "bioclimatic skyscraper" in Kuala Lumpur.

Willis says she purposely invited the "Jahn and Yeang" of architecture because they represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of green design. "Helmut Jang takes a very technological approach," says Willis. "The buildings are all glass, extremely elegant modernism. Helmut will say 'I'm not a green architect.' He's just an architect who believes that buildings should be efficient and beautiful. Whereas Yeang has a history of designing these plant-laden buildings that use passive environmental techniques, such as shade and shadow. He's on the low-tech end of the spectrum."

The series concludes on May 8, when Roger Frechette, an engineer with Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill discusses his work on the Zero-Energy Tower, in Guangzhou, China. "It's actually supposed to generate electricity rather than consume it, through wind turbines and heat recapture," says Willis.

Throughout the series, while audience members sit and ponder the future of man and skyscraper they can gaze out over the city's skyline and contemplate its past. The final encore? A choice elevator ride back to street level.

Lectures begin at 6:30 PM, 7 World Trade Center, New York Academy of Sciences, 212-968-1961

Curbside Enthusiasm

Nothing says furious, unbridled idealism like a first-year graduate student. Too fresh to be jaded, too naive to be guarded, and too excited to know better, they create for the love of creating, no matter how outlandish the outcome. In Lost & Found City, 10 graduate students in their first year of curatorial studies and contemporary culture at Bard, let loose their fledgling optimism in a series of exhibits and installations exploring the relationship between private lives and public flux. Along the way, expect meditations on gentrification and, apparently, mysterious suitcases. March 3–24, Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare, 212-431-5795

The Un-departed

Is there anything worse in the cycle of domestic life than having to move your parents or grandparents into a nursing home? Emotional questions of independence aside, such moves often raise troubling logistical issues, such as, what am I supposed to do with Grandpa's exhaustive collection of Civil War memorabilia, not to mention the two decades worth of rubber bands he kept stashed under the sink? With any luck, future generations may be able to duck such questions. In House_n, MIT's home of the future, Dr. Kent Larson, director of a joint venture between MIT's Department of Architecture and its Media Laboratory, discusses how technological progress may enable old folks to remain in their own homes for longer. March 5, 5:30pm, Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Pl, 212-683-0023

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