For its August issue, Vanity Fair surveyed 90 leading architects, critics, and deans to identify the "greatest buildings of the last 30 years." Based on 52 replies, the clear winner was Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, in Bilbao, with 28 votes—nearly three times as many as the runner-up, Renzo Piano's Menil Collection. As I wrote in my blog on July 6, among the choices was a conspicuous dearth of green buildings, and even the few examples from Piano and Norman Foster, architects known for high performance, are older, less environmentally ambitious works. Sustainability, it seems, is not much on the minds of the architectural elite. While green building has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, the gap between standards of design excellence and of environmental performance could be getting wider.
To test this, I conducted my own poll. I asked 150 green building experts and advocates—including architects, engineers, educators, and critics from the U.S., the UK, Europe, and Asia—to name "the five most-important green buildings since 1980," using whatever criteria they liked. The first 52 responses (to mirror the VF survey) produced 121 projects, and the 18 that received more than a few votes each offer a glimpse at the canon of sustainable design. If Vanity Fair documented architecture's A-List, consider this the G-List.
Top Green Buildings Since 1980
- Adam Joseph Lewis Center (Oberlin, Ohio), William McDonough + Partners, 2001
- California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco), Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 2008
- Bank of America Tower (aka One Bryant Park) (New York), Cook + Fox Architects, 2009
- Dockside Green (Victoria, B.C.), Busby Perkins+Will, 2010
- Omega Center for Sustainable Living (Rhinebeck, N.Y.), BNIM, 2009
- New York Times Building (New York), Renzo Piano Building Workshop/FXFowle Architects, 2008
- Aldo Leopold Legacy Center (Barabook, Wis.), Kubala Washatko Architects, 2007
- Druk White Lotus School (Ladakh, India), Arup, 2005
- Swiss Re Tower (London), Foster + Partners, 2003
- Colorado Court (Los Angeles), Pugh + Scarpa Architects, 2002
- Institute for Forestry and Nature Research (Wageningen, The Netherlands), Behnisch Architekten, 1998
- Commerzbank Headquarters (Frankfurt), Foster + Partners, 1997
- Menara Mesiniaga Tower (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), Hamzah & Yeang, 1992
Top Green Building Since 2000: California Academy of Sciences, Renzo Piano Workshop (7 votes)
The communities represented by the two surveys appear to have dramatically different tastes or standards. Not one building from the VF list recurs in my survey, and not a single American architect appears on both. Only two—Piano and Foster—do, but with different buildings, and their work here is newer. Each of these architects, as well as Behnisch Architekten, has two projects each in the top 18. (Of all the architects on the VF list, only Foster had more than one project.) These facts appear to confirm the widespread impression that Europe is well ahead of the U.S. in high-performance buildings, a belief expressed by many of the voters.
As with the VF list, respondents also named their choices for the single-best building of the 21st century so far. While Oberlin's Lewis Center, by William McDonough + Partners, nudged out the California Academy of Sciences in the "since 1980" category, in the "since 2000" category, Cal Academy was the only project to receive more than two votes, garnering seven. (The VF list's winner in this category, Herzog & de Meuron's "Birds Nest" stadium, also received seven.) Oberlin didn't get any nods here, even though it was completed in 2001. Do people think it's older than it is?
In fact, all but three projects on the G-List were completed in the past decade, and the average age is less than seven years, compared with 17 years on the VF poll. As I wrote in my blog post, the A-List seems riddled with nostalgia. For example, Le Corbusier's Saint-Pierre church in Firminy, France, built posthumously four years ago, received the second-highest number of votes as the most significant work of this century—even though it was designed in the middle of the previous century. (It was Peter Eisenman's only nomination in either list.) Do today's experts long for yesterday's icons?
By contrast, is the G-List more progressive or forward-looking than the A-List? Despite conventional wisdom, sustainable design was born long before LEED launched 10 years ago; most of its practices are decades old, and its principles are ancient. Yet, the G-List is heavily focused on recent projects, which makes sense for a movement founded on effecting change and improving performance. The highest-rated buildings here barely received half the number of votes that Gehry's Guggenheim did in VF, and the disparity between the top pick and the rest of the G-List isn't as dramatic. What this suggests is that the green movement may be motivated more by innovative strategies than by single works. In fact, several people declined to respond, specifically because they felt that highlighting individual projects is misguided; of the search for sustainable buildings, one participant remarked, "There is no such thing—yet."
Alternatively, perhaps the lack of a large number of votes for one building suggests that the green movement has yet to produce a singular iconic structure, a signal of sustainability. This is not to say that green design hasn't produced powerful work; if anything, this survey confirms not only that sustainability can be attractive—it could, in fact, produce better places. Having visited most of the top picks in both polls, I can safely say that much of the G-List holds its own against the A-List by any criteria of comparison. The projects by Piano and Foster, the two architects represented on both, are arguably more compelling than their projects in VF. And most of the other projects here, compared with those in VF, are better scaled, more responsive to context, more humane, more comfortable, and possibly more attractive—in other words, better designed. Consequently, while these projects certainly were picked at least partly using rational standards—that is, well-documented performance data for these buildings—they also hold up to scrutiny against more traditional, intuitive standards of taste. Could the G-List make a suitable A-List?
Someday, maybe standards of "good design" and "green design" will match, but we're not there yet. Not by a long shot.
Lucia Athens, City of Austin, Texas
Kate Bakewell, Hart Howerton
Bob Berkebile, BNIM
Dana Bourland, Enterprise Community Partners
Angela Brooks, Pugh + Scarpa Architects
Hillary Brown, New Civic Works
Bill Browning, Terrapin Bright Green
Will Bruder, Will Bruder + Partners
John Cary, Next American City
Rick Cook, Cook + Fox Architects
Randy Croxton, Croxton Collaborative Architects
Betsy del Monte, Beck Architecture
Rick Fedrizzi, U.S. Green Building Council
Thomas Fisher, University of Minnesota College of Design
Pliny Fisk, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems
Eric Corey Freed, Organic Architect
Kira Gould, William McDonough + Partners
Walter Grondzik, Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning
Brad Guy, Material Reuse
Robert Harris, Lake/Flato Architects
Volker Hartkopf, Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics
Lisa Heschong, Heschong Mahone Group
Michelle Kaufmann, MK Designs
Allison Kwok, University of Oregon Department of Architecture
Mary Ann Lazarus, HOK
Charlie Lazor, Lazor Office
Marc L'Italien, EHDD Architecture
Vivian Loftness, Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture
Ray Lucchesi, Lucchesi Galati Architects
Jason McLennan, Cascadia Region Green Building Council
Kirstin Miller, Ecocity Builders
Steven Moore, University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture
David Orr, Oberlin College
Sergio Palleroni, Portland State University Department of Architecture
Jason Pearson, GreenBlue (formerly)
Susan Piedmont-Palladino, National Building Museum
John Quale, University of Virginia School of Architecture
Jonathan Reich, California Polytechnic State University Department of Architecture
Quilian Riano (via Ed Mazria), DSGN AGNC
Traci Rose Rider, Emerging Green Builders (USGBC)
Anne Schopf, Mahlum Architects
Jennifer Siegal, Office of Mobile Design
Henry Siegel, Siegel & Strain Architects
Alex Steffen, Worldchanging
Susan Szenasy, Metropolis
Rives Taylor, Gensler
Gail Vittori, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems
Donald Watson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture
Andrew Whalley, Grimshaw Architects
Dan Williams, Dan Williams Architect
Kath Williams, Kath Williams + Associates
Ken Yeang, Hamzah & Yeang
Disclosure: Lance Hosey is a former director with William McDonough + Partners, but he had no influence on the voting in this survey.
Correction: The original post of this story incorrectly reported the number of votes for Sidwell Friends School. The KieranTimberlake building received five votes, not six. We regret the error.
Click on to page 2 to see the rest of the G-List!