Wonders of the World: The Buildings of 2006

The major trend of the year, seen in everything from houses to skyscrapers: Environmentally benign design

Over the centuries, Western architecture has had its movements—Gothic, Beaux Arts, International Style. Indeed, over the past decade new design and construction tools have allowed for curvilinear structures that are sometimes referred to as “blobbism,” though we hope future historians will come up with a less silly name. But year to year, architecture is not a trendy practice.

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius famously wrote that a building should have “firmness, commodity, and delight.” In other words, it should stand up, it should serve a purpose, and it should be beautiful. Architects working today and last year and the year before that face the same challenges.

That said, many of our favorite buildings of 2006 reflect a trend that has been gaining strength: sustainable design. People such as William McDonough, the author of Cradle to Cradle, and Arcosanti founder Paolo Soleri have been making green buildings and/or promoting more environmentally responsible principles for decades. But 10 years ago the large-scale green building was still a pipe dream.

Cycle of Innovation

Most of the designs were the architectural versions of horsehair shirts, neither very comfortable nor very pretty. Using less energy inherently meant making do with less—less heating, less cooling, less of the symbolism and grandeur that define great architecture.

Today green has become glamorous, and even economical. The cycle of innovation for sustainable building technologies is now staggeringly short, given how long it takes to complete a building. We are close to the tipping point at which green design becomes the default option for smart building.

Consider the Hearst Building, by Norman Foster & Partners, which opened in August, becoming the first building to receive a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating in New York City.

The diagrid (a diagonal grid building structure) frame of the tower used 20% less steel than a conventional frame for the same sized building, and more than 90% of the steel contains recycled materials. The roof collects rainwater that is used to irrigate trees and plants inside and outside the building.

High-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems use outside air to ventilate and cool the building 75% of the year. And the list goes on.

Breathing Buildings

The Hearst Building may have been a first for Manhattan, but it was hardly the only green structure to make our list of the wonders of the year. Richard Rogers’ National Assembly for Wales made use of local sustainable materials and employed natural ventilation systems.

Thom Mayne’s San Francisco Federal Building was the first office tower in the U.S. to eliminate air conditioning, at least over 70% of its area. It accomplishes this through a computer-controlled skin, developed with engineers at Ove Arup, which actively adjusts to weather changes. Its narrow floor-plate allows for natural ventilation, while metal sunscreens shade the floor-to-ceiling windows.

We saw the sustainability trend play out in smaller-scale projects as well. The Big Dig House, by a promising young firm in Cambridge, Mass., was constructed using materials discarded from Boston’s massive infrastructure project of the same name. Steve Glenn’s House in Santa Monica, Calif., irrigates itself, powers itself, and is the first house in the country to earn a Platinum LEED rating.

As we surveyed the year for new edifices that broke records and otherwise amazed us, we also found some that simply represented feats of engineering. The new Wembley Stadium in London, will be the largest soccer stadium in the world. The Donghai Bridge, connecting Shanghai and Yangshan, takes the title of longest oversea bridge in the world. So take a walk through our collection of wonders.


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