Design for a Vulnerable Planet

[ Architecture ]

Design for a Vulnerable Planet

By Frederick Steiner

Spotlighting innovative design projects in places ranging from Texas to Italy and China, this book sounds a call for architects, designers, and regional planners to create a built environment that works on a regional scale in harmony with the planet's ecology.

Roger Fullington Series in Architecture

April 2011

$45.00$30.15

33% website discount price

Hardcover

8.5 x 11 | 304 pp. | 217 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-72385-6

We inhabit a vulnerable planet. The devastation caused by natural disasters such as the southern Asian tsunami, Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and the earthquakes in China's Sichuan province, Haiti, and Chile—as well as the ongoing depletion and degradation of the world's natural resources caused by a burgeoning human population—have made it clear that "business as usual" is no longer sustainable. We need to find ways to improve how we live on this planet while minimizing our impact on it. Design for a Vulnerable Planet sounds a call for designers and planners to go beyond traditional concepts of sustainability toward innovative new design that fosters regeneration and resilience.

Drawing on his own and others' experiences across three continents, Frederick Steiner advocates design practice grounded in ecology and democracy and informed by critical regionalism and reflection. He begins by establishing the foundation for a more ecological approach to planning and design, adopting a broad view of ecology as encompassing human and natural, urban and wild environments. Steiner explores precedents for human ecological design provided by architect Paul Cret, landscape architect Ian McHarg, and developer George Mitchell while discussing their planning for the University of Texas campus, the Lake Austin watershed, and The Woodlands. Steiner then focuses on emerging Texas urbanism and extends his discussion to broader considerations beyond the Lone Star State, including regionalism, urbanism, and landscape in China and Italy. He also examines the lessons to be learned from human and natural disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill. Finally, Steiner offers a blueprint for designing with nature to help heal the planet's vulnerabilities.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Interdisciplinary Design and the Fate of Our Planet
  • I. Living Urban Environments
    • 1. Architecture and the Wealth of Regions
    • 2. Sustaining Design: The Solar Decathlon Competitions
    • 3. Twenty-First-Century Architecture
    • 4. Architecture Has Left the Building: The Sustainable Sites Initiative
    • 5. Making Territory: The Potential of Landscape Urbanism
  • II. Lessons from Paul Cret, Ian McHarg, and George Mitchell
    • 6. City Limits: Pioneer Plans in Austin
    • 7. The Woodlands: The Ecological Design of a New City
  • III. Emerging Urbanism in Texas
    • 8. The Trinity River Corridor: Another Emerald Necklace or an Emerald Choker?
    • 9. Making Limoncello from Lemons: The Blanton Museum of Art Plaza Design
    • 10. True Urbanism: The Design of Performance Park in the Dallas Arts District
    • 11. Legacies
  • IV. New Regionalism in Texas and Beyond
    • 12. The Green Heart of Texas
    • 13. Envision Central Texas
    • 14. The Texas Triangle Megaregion
    • 15. New Regionalism
  • V. Learning from Abroad
    • 16. Environmental Readings: The Italian Design Tradition
    • 17. Autumn Moon: Design and Planning in China
  • VI. Learning from Disaster
    • 18. In Search of a Fitting Tribute: The United Flight 93 Memorial
    • 19. Resilient Foundations: Planning for the Gulf Coast After Hurricane Katrina
  • VII. Conclusion
    • 20. The Sedimentation of Our Minds: Prospects for New Design Thinking
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

The planet is in peril. The Earth will go on with or without us. But we know enough about how human actions are impacting the planet to change the role we play.

Designers conceive the future. Therefore, design can help us address this planetary emergency. Designs involve plans to guide deliberate actions. Oberlin environmental philosopher David Orr suggests that designers need to learn to make five key contributions: to use nature as the standard, to power the world on current sunlight, to eliminate waste, to pay the full cost of development, and to build prosperity on a durable basis. These contributions derive from looking closer at the world around us, understanding nature better in the process, then applying that knowledge to use the power of the sun and to see waste as a resource. By understanding the full costs—economic, social, and environmental—of development, we can design a brighter future.

Although designers and planners and their educators must think about integrating sustainability at every scale, the regional scale provides a good starting point for thinking about change. Through understanding the landscapes of the regions in which they work, architects and planners can critically consider cultural and ecological processes at the broad scale that can be employed locally.

This book explores how we can make the necessary changes through planning and design. The book contains seven parts. Part I establishes the foundations for a more ecological approach to planning and design. Ecology includes human and natural, urban and wild environments. The second part explores precedents for human ecological planning and design provided by the architect Paul Cret, the landscape architect Ian McHarg, and the developer George P. Mitchell. I discuss emerging Texas urbanism in Part III. This exploration is extended to broader considerations of regionalism in the fourth part, which also expands beyond the Lone Star State. In Part V, I reflect on lessons from abroad, most specifically from Italy and China. The sixth part is dedicated to learning from disaster; the final part to reflection and prospects for the future.

Part I contains five chapters that build the case for new regionalism. In Chapter 1, I look at three essential needs for integrating ecology into architecture and planning: thinking comprehensively, making places matter, and designing with time. I advocate a new approach to architecture. Such an approach is necessary because of the pressing issues we face and the failures of Modernism and Postmodernism. Modernism moved architecture, art, and design away from history and context toward free expression and abstraction. In architecture, the resulting emphasis on geometric form divorced buildings from their surroundings, creating autonomous structures floating in the landscape. Practitioners of Postmodernism, with borrowed images from the past, designed buildings and spaces with little regard for the contemporary city.

In the second chapter, I focus on the University of Texas at Austin's efforts to advance sustainable design. In addition to establishing a Center for Sustainable Development and a Master of Science in Sustainable Design, our School of Architecture has participated in three Solar Decathlon competitions, organized by the U.S. Department of Energy. These hands-on competitions involve architecture and engineering students designing and building solar-powered houses, then displaying them on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

From these first two chapters, ideas for twenty-first-century architecture, the focus of Chapter 3, begin to emerge. Five elements are suggested as important considerations for architecture: the location of a site, energy efficiency, water conservation, building materials, and beauty. I use examples to explore each of these elements.

Landscape design and planning at all scales will benefit from the Sustainable Sites Initiative, led by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. Chapter 4 reviews how this initiative adds to standards for buildings developed and promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council.

In Chapter 5, I close Part I with an argument in support of the emerging multidisciplinary field of Landscape Urbanism. Seven key concepts contribute to Landscape Urbanism: the constant change of the places where we live, the connective power of technology, the distinctiveness of certain places and regions, the ability of some cities to foster the creative class, the repetition of patterns across scale, the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, and the resiliency of human settlements.

Part II includes two chapters about projects that pioneered alternative paths for design and planning in Texas. If these precedents had been followed more widely, a very different Texas would exist today. The projects offer lessons for the future of Texas and beyond. In Chapter 6, I discuss the design for the University of Texas campus and the Lake Austin drainage area. In both cases, the principal designers and planners—Paul Cret and Ian McHarg—adapted their work to the specific characteristics of the site and the drainage area and significantly improved the quality of the built environment.

The campus and the drainage area are both located in the Austin metropolitan region. In Chapter 7, we shift to the Houston region, where I review the planning and design of The Woodlands. I analyze this community's environmental, economic, and social successes and shortcomings. The leadership of its developer, George Mitchell, and its ecological planner, Ian McHarg, is central to The Woodlands' story. Its design, like the Lake Austin plan, was undertaken in the 1970s, an important period in American history when public policy focused on environmental concerns and turned to the environmental design arts for solutions. We need to build on the lessons learned from those pioneering efforts.

Emerging urbanism in Texas is the focus of Part III, which includes four chapters. Texas helps to make the case for a new regionally based approach to design and planning. The state possesses strong regional traditions and identities, and its large cities also have distinct, diverse identities. Indeed, the very word "Texas" sparks strong reactions. Texas iconography has been successfully appropriated by sports teams and musicians. However, except for the extensive use of Lone Stars on highway overpass bridges, regional identities have not been successfully incorporated widely into Texas architecture and city planning. Examples of promising beginnings follow.

In Chapter 8, we move to another Texas metropolis. Dallas and Fort Worth differ strikingly from Austin and Houston. In fact, even though the region is known as "The Metroplex," these two neighboring cities are quite different from each other. In fact, all the rapidly growing cities in Texas vary and are competitive with each other, which makes the state an interesting urban laboratory for design and planning.

Designers frequently must make the most from less-than-ideal circumstances. The ninth chapter describes the work of a leading landscape architect on the University of Texas at Austin campus. Peter Walker entered the design of the Blanton Museum of Art after a prominent Swiss architecture firm left the project amidst controversy over the building design. He not only completed the design of the plaza between the two buildings but also presented a broader vision for the campus, inspired, in part, by Cret's earlier plan. Walker's design has been embraced by the university's leadership. In this case, a landscape architect salvaged a project where architecture had faltered.

In Chapter 10, design and planning are explored through the Dallas Arts District. This project is transforming a major section of the city's downtown and provides significant new venues for the performance arts. Its planning also illustrates the challenges in designing urban landscapes. The two major new facilities in the district were designed by prominent architecture "stars," a continuation of the Texas tradition of importing brand-name outsiders to design significant buildings. Although the two star architects certainly produced dramatic buildings for the Dallas Arts District, the design of associated outside spaces faced serious challenges, as it failed to respond to its social and environmental context.

Chapter 11 focuses on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Mrs. Johnson contributed much to Central Texas and the nation. As first lady, she championed environmental quality and helped create the foundation for many of the federal environmental laws of the 1960s and 1970s. Back in Austin, she established the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. She advocated native plants as an indicator of regional environmental health. In founding the Wildflower Center, Mrs. Johnson also insisted on the use of state-of-the-art green building technologies for its structures. She directed the architects to site the buildings as if "God had placed them there."

Part IV focuses on regionalism and includes four chapters. In Chapters 12 and 13, I return to the regional scale and Central Texas. I describe in more detail the ecology and human ecology of this green heart of Texas and reflect on an innovative regional visioning effort called Envision Central Texas. I have been deeply involved in this organization and offer my perspective from that participation.

In Chapter 14, I explore the relatively new concept of megaregions or conglomerations of metropolitan areas. The focus is on the Texas Triangle, one of the eleven fastest growing megaregions in the nation. With Houston and San Antonio forming the base and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex at its apex, the Texas Triangle offers a new way to approach planning. In addition to practical applications, four theories for megaregions are presented: descriptive, analytical, normative, and procedural.

Buildings and landscapes should respond to their regions. As the Sustainable Sites Initiative is a national effort to advance the way we design landscapes, America 2050 seeks to strengthen the role of regions in national planning. Chapter 15 reviews the leadership of the Regional Plan Association, the Rockefeller Foundation, and others in the America 2050 effort.

In Part V, we move from the United States to Italy and China, countries with deep histories in regionalism, architecture, and urbanism. Both countries face challenges similar to those in Texas (and the United States) when it comes to incorporating regional thinking into architecture and planning. For example, in rapidly growing China, leaders are well known for seeking international "star architects" to design new landmarks, with mixed results. Architecture is an old discipline.

In many Italian universities, large numbers of students pursue architectural studies. At Milan Polytechnic, for instance, around a fourth (9,800) of its 37,000 students were architecture and planning majors in 2008, with another 4,200 industrial design students.

"What do they all do?" Americans ask.

"What do all your business majors do?" Italians respond.

Italian architecture education provides the basis for making fashion, film, automobiles, furniture, and a multitude of products we use every day. Knowledge of architecture and urbanism are considered fundamental for being a well-educated Italian. Architecture and urbanism are regarded as much as humanities as professions.

Urban planning has ancient heritages in China and Italy but, as professions and academic disciplines, they are more recent (Figure 1). In Italy, planning emerged in the early twentieth century (Figure 2). Although Benito Mussolini played a strong role in Italian planning during the 1930s, the field also had more democratic influences. In 1942, Italy approved one of the most advanced planning laws in all Europe. Unfortunately, it remained unimplemented for years. During the reconstruction following the Second World War and the economic boom period, the law was only partially enacted. In the 1970s, the national planning system acted as a framework for the urban laws approved by the Italian regions. Most recently, some regions enhanced their urban laws to give more power to single cities and to reduce bureaucracy. Academia, and hence the urban planning theory literature, was influenced mainly by France (because of the similar cultural heritage, except for the centralistic tendency). In China, the field came into being just after the Second World War. Mao Zedong and the Communist Party loom large over Chinese planning. However, Chinese urban-level planning has more diverse and complex strains. Architects, trained in prewar America and Europe, influenced planning discussions and ideas somewhat, even during Mao's reign. Since the 1990s, Chinese planning has opened to even wider influences.

Garden design also has ancient lineages in both Italy and China (Figures 3 and 4). Landscape architecture is a more recent development and is capturing considerable interest. I have been present at the academic birth of landscape architecture in both nations. In both cases, I played a small role as more of an observer than a participant. In my own nation, I participate in shaping landscape architecture more directly as well as architecture, planning, interior design, historic preservation, architectural history, urban design, and sustainable design. This list gets long. As a result, I have used design as an umbrella term in the title of this book. In the pages that follow, I attempt to give all the fields in my School their due consideration, but I admit my direct involvement is greater in some than in others.

I focus on the villas and gardens in and around Rome in Chapter 16. These places reveal much about Italian design ideas and the origins of Italian views concerning the environment. Italian architecture and urbanism have had enduring influences on the western tradition of city building.

From Italy, we travel to Beijing in Chapter 17, where I served as visiting professor in the new landscape architecture program at Tsinghua University. In addition to discussing my teaching activities, I review my impressions of Beijing: its rapid growth, ancient culture, environmental challenges, and architecture and urban traditions. In particular, I describe the physical planning activities for the 2008 Olympics. The resulting Olympic Forest Park provides vast new open space and recreational areas for the citizens of Beijing.

Part VI focuses on disaster and what we can learn from our resilience in the face of hardship. One challenge is how to remember the victims of terrorism. Chapter 18 is devoted to the design of the memorial for United Flight 93. I was part of a finalist team for the memorial. We sought to create a memorial that would recall the valor of the passengers and crew of Flight 93, as well as restore a Pennsylvania landscape ravished by years of strip mining.

The post-Katrina Gulf Coast region exemplifies the need for better planning. In Chapter 19, I explore the concept of resilience in the context of an exhibit prepared for the 10th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, the major global venue for new architectural explorations. The 10th Architecture Biennale was devoted to the future of large city-regions around the world. Resilience involves the ability of communities to bounce back from disaster. As New Orleans and the Gulf Coast illustrate, the future of city-regions rests between vulnerability and sustainability. Resilience is necessary to move away from risk toward restoration on to resurrection and regeneration.

In the final chapter, I reflect on architecture and planning in Texas and our nation. I suggest some directions for architecture, planning, landscape architecture, and interior design. I conclude with four positive steps for healing our planet and saving humanity. First, we should acknowledge the relationship between health and the built environment. Second, we need to build green. Third, we should stop sprawling and do a better job restoring and conserving the built environment. Fourth, we need to think regionally.

Design and planning both offer hope and help distinguish us as a species. In his insightful The World Without Us, Alan Weisman notes how we advanced as a species as we learned the skill to plan. Planning requires both "memory and foresight." As we inhabited temperate regions, we learned to store food in times of plenty for the winter. These are times that call on us to remember how we have built successful environments in the past, as well as to have the foresight to construct more sustainable environments in the future.

Frederick Steiner is the Henry M. Rockwell Chair in Architecture and Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the American Academy in Rome. His most recent books include The Essential Ian McHarg: Writings on Design and Nature, Planning and Urban Design Standards: Student Edition (with Kent Butler), and Human Ecology: Following Nature's Lead.

"The strengths of Design for a Vulnerable Planet lie with its engaging, diverse, and reflective narrative. Steiner draws on decades of firsthand experience and knowledge of the architecture, landscape architecture, and planning fields. The chapters are (mostly) short and readable, and they provide a breadth of views on design and a variety of scales of action…. The book contributes to our understanding of the process and product of ecological and regional design, particularly in Texas, and the dynamics and challenges of projects that increase sustainability. It also enhances the foundation and awareness of the new regionalism and landscape urbanism and bridges design disciplines, providing an inside view of how the groups can—and do—work together toward the same goal of sustainable design. Design for a Vulnerable Planet will be of interest to students who endeavor to understand how planners and designers can build a healthy, attractive, and resilient world."

—Amy J. Lynch, University of Pennsylvania, Journal of Planning Education and Research