A case study approach to two Living Buildings in the Pacific Northwest.
In order to effectively probe how architecture can help humanity dwell in the Anthropocene, I will dig deeply into the lives and stories of two Living Buildings in the Pacific Northwest. Both buildings are certified to the highest sustainability standard in the world (Living Building Challenge) and house the environmental science programs in schools (one public and one private), and are said to be important pedagogical tools for science education.
Architectural phenomenology is a brach of architectural theory in which an observer records his or her lived experience of a building and uses these recordings as data for analysis. Architectural phenomenology absorbs the concept of subjectivity, placing the importance of analysis on the engagement or conversation between subject/object instead of solely on the object itself. Thus, architectural phenomenologists are able to extract relevant aspects of a building’s current reality which extend beyond the object’s formal qualities. Architectural phenomenological analysis may highlight aspects of subject-object interaction (building-user) that a mere formal, semiotic or hermeneutic analysis could not. For example, an architectural critic may look at a set of stairs and argue for the success of visual balance, material/textural qualities, etc. While an architectural phenomenologist will discuss not only these aspects of the staircase, but will also comment on the experience of ascending and descending the stairs, the feel of the handrail, the view from the landing, and more. Thus, the phenomenologist acquires a more robust and situated understanding of a building, the flows of daily live through its spaces, and the impact the object-environment has on users and their interactions. The phenomenological way of “knowing” a building, you could say, is more full, with the added dimension of understanding the “social lives” of buildings.
Interviewing the architects and users of the two living buildings will allow me to grasp many aspects of the buildings’ lives that I cannot experience in a limited amount of time. By interviewing the architects I will be able to directly ask how their own ideas of sustainability, climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss, education, and so much more influenced their design choices. I will attempt to understand how they imagine their designs communicate ideas and lessons of sustainable behavior. Do the architects of Living Buildings think their designs influence and inform behavior? Furthermore, I will attempt to understand how the architects interpreted the desires of the clients (as well as their ideas of sustainability), Living Building Challenge guidelines, local building code, and more in the design of the building.
By interviewing the daily users of Living Buildings I will be able to understand how successfully the buildings achieve the goals set by both the architects and commissioners of the project. In these interviews I will try to see if the user feels his or her behavior is in fact influenced/informed by the design of the building, and if they feel the building is a successful pedagogical tool in environmental education. Additionally, by speaking with daily users of the buildings I will be able to catch on to any incongruities or anomalies in the buildings’ intended operations.
website content analysis.
My analysis of content published about the two buildings on various websites (school pages, Living Building Challenge website, Architect’s websites, News sources, etc.) provides a platform from which to evaluate the buildings. Does the information published online about these buildings hold-up in light of my phenomenological analysis and interviews? By understanding how other people (specifically the schools, the architects, and the Living Building Challenge evaluators) talk about and promote these buildings, I will be able to focus my evaluation on aspects of the buildings that seem problematic, as well as find the blind spots in the discourse and illuminate them with my detailed inquiry.
Putting the Anthropocene in conversation with architectural theory and production highlights the most important of current problems in the field; how to continue developing the built environment while not exacerbating humankind’s negative impact on global systems. Not only does the Anthropocene complicate the status quo of architectural production (building big, building cheap, building to last, building with disregard for user experience) it endangers the existential condition of dwelling for humankind (homelessness in a world of our own creation, but not of our own design). For this thesis I have done a thorough and close reading of Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” and will apply his philosophical insights into dwelling to the Anthropocene. Heidegger’s insights into dwelling help establish a framework which can be used to discover a dwelling appropriate to the Anthropocene epoch. By drawing on the work of Bruno Latour, I will be able to argue that architecture, as challenged as it may be by the Anthropocene, is in fact the best way to discover a new dwelling appropriate for life in this new epoch.