Going green? No. Going greener

Today, it seems inconceivable to think of design and not thinking of sustainability. However, it is almost impossible to reach a “green” solution. Therefore, we could think of green as an intention, an attitude, more than a result itself. Thus, one can aim not to go green, but to go greener instead.

Not even the greatest architects are free of having designed environmental disasters, and here are some examples of 10 famous architects who need – or would have needed – to go greener with some of their designs.  


One of the main principles of sustainable design is orientation. The optimization of light and temperature comes implicitly with a smart choice of façade positioning.

Nevertheless, projects as ambitious as those of the famous starchitect Zaha Hadid (or the ones by her firm, after her passing) often incur in complex exteriors and volumes that make it impossible to look for an efficient orientation.

Curves are against this intention, and the Galaxy Soho project is the perfect example of how Zaha’s aesthetics result in non-orientated buildings that allow undesirable lights and shadows.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Zaha Hadid Source: Moove Magazine


Spanish architect Alberto Campo Baeza is well-known for his simplistic cubic designs. But this simplicity is what may become unsustainable. 

In the case of the Zamora Offices, and also related to sunlight control, Campo erred on the glass choice: a single-layered glass gives the building an ethereally beautiful aspect, while it shows a sense of ignorance towards another essential green aspect: climate.

In the heart of Spain, under the permanent incidence of the sun during the warm season, the construction fails to adapt to the climatic condition of its location, creating an oven effect that does not suit an efficient office complex.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Campo Baeza Source: Plataforma Arquitectura
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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Campo Baeza Source: Modern Design Ideas


Its design quickly gained the people’s nickname of the Walkie Talkie, also known by Londoners as the Sky Garden due to the green rooftop it hosts. However, there’s no more green in it than the garden. Because efficiency did not prevail in the design of 20 Fenchurch Street, by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly. 

Sunlight is a powerful aspect to take into consideration while designing. And there’s more to it than just glass-placing or orientation: in the permanently rainy British weather, where the sun is not known for shining every day, the concave shape of this building’s façade ended up creating a massive reflection into the streets of the city. It was unbearable, and the glass needed to be coated to protect every other surface around.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Rafael Viñoly Source: The Standard


Also regarding facades, one of the most notorious failures of building durability was the last century’s construction of the Aon Centre in Chicago.

Edward Durrell looked up to aesthetics first, which resulted in a marble cladding that was too thin to hold. In conclusion, shortly after being built, the falling of marble pieces from the high stories of the skyscraper forced the restoration of the whole exterior.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Edward Durrel Source: Skyrise Cities


As important as the building’s durability is, the longevity of its program cannot be ignored either: while a program is subjected to a human-generation scale of time, constructions are made to stand longer. Therefore, it is key to think of design as something adaptable to any program that may come in the future. 

Frank Gehry has often created designs that could be complicated to reimagine as something else but what they are now. For instance, Spanish Winehouse Marqués de Riscal’s headquarters are visually conceived as a compilation of the wine colors. A late piece of architecture parlante (“speaking architecture”) that speaks well of its present use, but may look out of place in any possible future. 

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Frank Gehry Source: Marqués de Riscal


Not only the buildings can be “upcycled”. The materials can be reused too… At least, some of them.

Peter Zumthor is well-known for using one of the most difficult to upcycle materials ever: concrete. 

Poured onsite, the concrete loses all possibilities of reuse once it’s dried. And so does the steel reinforcements within it. 

The Therme Vals project is the perfect example of a breathtaking construction that should better be appreciated while it stands, as it will never be turned into something new.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Peter Zumthor Source: Pinterest


Talking about efficiency also means talking about local: the closer the source, the more sustainable the production will be.

In this aspect, Norman Foster failed unexpectedly when building the Droneport in Africa: carefully planned as a series of locally-produced adobe vaults, it even made it to the Venice Biennale.

But the actual time to build it came and, when facing more than a simple prototype, the quality of local material was not up to the standards of such thin pieces. So the final material was imported from (far) Barcelona and lost all its self-production character. 

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Norman Foster Source: Norman Foster Foundation


But not only transport comes with a high energetic cost. Also, specialized machinery for complex purposes works against the idea of green

In China, magnificence is the base for the design of important buildings, and Rem Koolhas failed to provide a sustainable solution when designing the CCTV headquarters. 

The complexity of the building, its odd shape, and its size resulted in a 10-year construction process that required some of the least green resources.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Rem Koolhas Source: Pinterest
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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Rem Koolhas Source: Iwan Baan


Something similar happened to Jean Nouvel when he was bringing the Paris Philharmonic to life: as unexpected complications arose, complex and costly solutions were left aside, only to inaugurate an unfinished building.

The saving of time, money, and resources came with a later cost in this case, as it ended up needing a millionaire renovation.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Jean Nouvel Source: Enea Design


The last of the relevant aspects of sustainable design is context. A building cannot be sustainable if it does not merge with its location, both urban and natural.

Santiago Calatrava, more of an artist than an architect, has forgotten this principle on more than one occasion. Perhaps the most notorious one was Oviedo, where his building was so out of context that there’s no possible view to make it fit into the town.

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Architects Who Need To Go Greener-Santiago Calatrava Source: Pinterest


Knowing the principles of sustainable design is a key factor in a greener design strategy. Only when knowing what to pursue you can create an effective and eco-friendly design.

But, as anything still in development, green architecture is learned through practice and mistakes. For sure, these 10 disasters have made their architects reflect on sustainability and approach it from a new perspective afterward.