Why is Europe greener (really)?

The Solar Siedlung Housing Project, Freiburg Germany (c) 2007 Solarsiedlung.de

In case you missed it, The New York Times Magazine was devoted to green architecture on Sunday. It printed several articles, including a piece by the Times’ chief architecture critic, Nicolai Ourousoff, that I found especially interesting. In it, he asks, not entirely rhetorically, Why Are They (Europe) Greener Than We (The US) Are?

The article gives a nice overview of recent architectural history:

Americans did not always lag so far behind; much of our most celebrated architecture has had a green strain. Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra all sought to create a more fluid relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, man and nature. At the height of the cold war, architect-engineers like Buckminster Fuller envisioned marshaling the immense resources of the American military-industrial complex to create a more ecologically balanced world. Fuller’s geodesic domes, which he hoped would one day house all humanity, were cheap and lightweight yet held up in extreme weather. They could also be erected in a matter of hours. In the late 1960s and ’70s, the Whole Earth Catalogue, with its D.I.Y. ethic and living-off-the-land know-how, encouraged a whole generation to dream of dropping off the grid.

By the ’80s the green dream had faded somewhat. Faced with corporate and governmental clients who saw little financial benefit in investing in sustainable design, American architects often ignored ecological questions. The few who didn’t tended to focus on small-scale projects that could serve local populations: mud-brick construction in Arizona or rural shacks made of recycled materials in Alabama.

In Europe, by contrast, where the E.U. and national governments often play a greater role in planning and regulating building, the effort to develop sustainable architecture gathered momentum. By the mid-90s, all new construction in Europe had to meet basic requirements in energy consumption, and many European architects began to make sustainability a central theme in their work. This was true of established architects like Norman Foster, whose 1997 Commerzbank in Frankfurt was conceived as a soaring high-tech glass-and-steel tower punctuated by open-air gardens. But it was especially true of younger European architects who were just beginning to practice their craft at that time and saw sustainability as a basic moral responsibility.

I’m not sure, though, that the two locales can so easily be compared based only on the last forty years. In most European countries, but especially in Germany and the former East, people remember a time when they had nothing … no bread, no water, no housing … and many conserve because they recognize the recentness of that history. In Spain and Portugal, still struggling out of the economic hardships brought on by dictatorships, indoor heating and air conditioning is considered a luxury; in the heat of those countries, energy efficiency in buildings is a must. Electricity in Andalusia remains sporadic enough that using a dishwasher and microwave at the same time can cause power failures for an entire neighborhood. For both of those reasons, both architecture and people’s lifestyles have to be “green”.

Population density here also demands a greater attention to resources and community-minded housing projects. Germany, as an example, has to fit 80 people in the same area that the US has to fit 3. One of the reasons people here tend to live in more eco-friendly multi-family homes instead of McMansions is simply a lack of space.

Environmentalism here is a necessity, more than just a zeitgeist issue. In The Netherlands, where finances are better, the country’s future depends on people being green – built on a complex dyke system, much of the country could be underwater soon if oceans keep rising.

This is not to disparage Europe’s green-ness (one of the reasons I live here!) or to counter what the Timeshad to say. But maybe comparing it with the US is more like looking at apples and pears. There are a lot of lessons the US can take from Europe (including, but not limited to, realigning our federal policy to cap emissions and provide more incentives for greening). Still, based on this country’s history of innovation, Americans should be teaching Europeans a few things about being eco-friendly.