Like everyone else, the design field braced for the fallout from the financial meltdown. At the time, some of us argued that good things could come from a period of constraint and reexamination. The consumer culture of design had become overwrought, with limited edition candleholders that sell for $2,700. For all its pain, the downturn gave design a chance to revitalize by taking on the pressing problems of infrastructure, energy efficiency, and transit. Who better than designers to come up with inventive answers to complex problems?
To be sure, green design has produced some unqualified successes, like the California Academy of Sciences (above) by Renzo Piano. But the first wave of designs associated with the new efficiency is also being met with some murmurs of disappointment. In our zeal to be conscientious, are we creating designs that fit our notions of what green should be, but which don't actually look good? To put it another way: Is virtuous design always good design?
In an article published in the Sunday New York Times, curator and critic Alice Rawsthorn lays into the new fleet of electric cars. "Can you think of a better opportunity to wow us with an amazingly seductive object than a brand-new type of car? Probably not," she wrote. "Why then do so many electric cars look so boring? Or, if not boring, ugly?"
Does the new plug-in mark the end of the car as a romantic icon? In Detroit, form always followed fantasy, with exaggerated tail fins and hubcaps gaudy with chrome. It's hard to imagine people collecting the new electric cars as they do vintage Mustangs and MGs. They may be worthy advances, but they hardly quicken the pulse.
In some cases, the urgency to appear green may actually stand in the way of good design. That's the argument Kriston Capps makes in a recent issue of American Prospect. Capps reports that Robert A.M. Stern was hired to design parts of the 2010 Olympic village in Vancouver, but the city fired him when his scheme didn't look sufficiently green. A local firm, Arthur Erickson Corp., filled in with a mandate to focus squarely on function and sustainability. As a result, Capps says, the village structures have "a default 'green' look to them: blocky, all glass, covered in matted foliage. It looks as though the developers simply forgot to design the place."
I suspect that a lot of mediocre design, particularly furniture and accessories, is making its way into the marketplace simply on the dubious claim of sustainability. Is the use of, say, a recyclable metal a raison d'être, or should a table or chair be judged by its appearance and day-to-day function?
Green design may simply be going through an unfortunate adolescent phase as it evolves its way into the new era of efficiency. In truth, it's hard to object to design that emphasizes function and responsibility after so many years of wanton styling from designers like Studio Job, Marcel Wanders and Philippe Starck. But it would be good to have a eye-popping piece of new work to rally around.