The G-List

Is the rift between design excellence and environmental performance getting wider?

By:Lance Hosey
For its August issue, Vanity Fair surveyed 90 leading architects, critics, and deans to identify the “greatest buildings of the last 30 years.” Based on 52 replies, the clear winner was Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, in Bilbao, with 28 votes—nearly three times as many as the runner-up, Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection. As I wrote in my blog on July 6, among the choices was a conspicuous dearth of green buildings, and even the few examples from Piano and Norman Foster, architects known for high performance, are older, less environmentally ambitious works. Sustainability, it seems, is not much on the minds of the architectural elite. While green building has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, the gap between standards of design excellence and of environmental performance could be getting wider.

To test this, I conducted my own poll. I asked 150 green building experts and advocates—including architects, engineers, educators, and critics from the U.S., the UK, Europe, and Asia—to name “the five most-important green buildings since 1980,” using whatever criteria they liked. The first 52 responses (to mirror the VF survey) produced 121 projects, and the 18 that received more than a few votes each offer a glimpse at the canon of sustainable design. If Vanity Fair documented architecture’s A-List, consider this the G-List.


Top Green Buildings Since 1980

13 Votes
– Adam Joseph Lewis Center (Oberlin, Ohio), William McDonough + Partners, 2001

11 Votes
– California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco), Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 2008

9 Votes
– Genzyme Center (Cambridge, Mass.), Behnisch Architekten, 2003

7 Votes
– Beddington Zero Energy Development/BedZed (London), ZEDfactory, 2002
– Chesapeake Bay Foundation (Annapolis, Md.), SmithGroup, 2001

6 Votes
– Bank of America Tower (aka One Bryant Park) (New York), Cook + Fox Architects, 2009

5 Votes
– Sidwell Friends School (Washington, D.C.), KieranTimberlake, 2006
– Advanced Green Builder Demonstration (Austin, Texas), Pliny Fisk, 1998

4 Votes
– Dockside Green (Victoria, B.C.), Busby Perkins+Will, 2010
– Omega Center for Sustainable Living (Rhinebeck, N.Y.), BNIM, 2009
– New York Times Building (New York), Renzo Piano Building Workshop/FXFowle Architects, 2008
– Aldo Leopold Legacy Center (Barabook, Wis.), Kubala Washatko Architects, 2007
– Druk White Lotus School (Ladakh, India), Arup, 2005
– Swiss Re Tower (London), Foster + Partners, 2003
– Colorado Court (Los Angeles), Pugh + Scarpa Architects, 2002
– Institute for Forestry and Nature Research (Wageningen, The Netherlands), Behnisch Architekten, 1998
– Commerzbank Headquarters (Frankfurt), Foster + Partners, 1997
– Menara Mesiniaga Tower (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), Hamzah & Yeang, 1992

Top Green Building Since 2000: California Academy of Sciences, Renzo Piano Workshop (7 votes)

The communities represented by the two surveys appear to have dramatically different tastes or standards. Not one building from the VF list recurs in my survey, and not a single American architect appears on both. Only two—Piano and Foster—do, but with different buildings, and their work here is newer. Each of these architects, as well as Behnisch Architekten, has two projects each in the top 18. (Of all the architects on the VF list, only Foster had more than one project.) These facts appear to confirm the widespread impression that Europe is well ahead of the U.S. in high-performance buildings, a belief expressed by many of the voters.

As with the VF list, respondents also named their choices for the single-best building of the 21st century so far. While Oberlin’s Lewis Center, by William McDonough + Partners, nudged out the California Academy of Sciences in the “since 1980” category, in the “since 2000” category, Cal Academy was the only project to receive more than two votes, garnering seven. (The VF list’s winner in this category, Herzog & de Meuron’s “Birds Nest” stadium, also received seven.) Oberlin didn’t get any nods here, even though it was completed in 2001. Do people think it’s older than it is?

In fact, all but three projects on the G-List were completed in the past decade, and the average age is less than seven years, compared with 17 years on the VF poll. As I wrote in my blog post, the A-List seems riddled with nostalgia. For example, Le Corbusier’s Saint-Pierre church in Firminy, France, built posthumously four years ago, received the second-highest number of votes as the most significant work of this century—even though it was designed in the middle of the previous century. (It was Peter Eisenman’s only nomination in either list.) Do today’s experts long for yesterday’s icons?

By contrast, is the G-List more progressive or forward-looking than the A-List? Despite conventional wisdom, sustainable design was born long before LEED launched 10 years ago; most of its practices are decades old, and its principles are ancient. Yet, the G-List is heavily focused on recent projects, which makes sense for a movement founded on effecting change and improving performance. The highest-rated buildings here barely received half the number of votes that Gehry’s Guggenheim did in VF, and the disparity between the top pick and the rest of the G-List isn’t as dramatic. What this suggests is that the green movement may be motivated more by innovative strategies than by single works. In fact, several people declined to respond, specifically because they felt that highlighting individual projects is misguided; of the search for sustainable buildings, one participant remarked, “There is no such thing—yet.”

Alternatively, perhaps the lack of a large number of votes for one building suggests that the green movement has yet to produce a singular iconic structure, a signal of sustainability. This is not to say that green design hasn’t produced powerful work; if anything, this survey confirms not only that sustainability can be attractive—it could, in fact, produce better places. Having visited most of the top picks in both polls, I can safely say that much of the G-List holds its own against the A-List by any criteria of comparison. The projects by Piano and Foster, the two architects represented on both, are arguably more compelling than their projects in VF. And most of the other projects here, compared with those in VF, are better scaled, more responsive to context, more humane, more comfortable, and possibly more attractive—in other words, better designed. Consequently, while these projects certainly were picked at least partly using rational standards—that is, well-documented performance data for these buildings—they also hold up to scrutiny against more traditional, intuitive standards of taste. Could the G-List make a suitable A-List?

Someday, maybe standards of “good design” and “green design” will match, but we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.

Survey Respondents
Lucia Athens, City of Austin, Texas
Kate Bakewell, Hart Howerton
Bob Berkebile, BNIM
Dana Bourland, Enterprise Community Partners
Angela Brooks, Pugh + Scarpa Architects
Hillary Brown, New Civic Works
Bill Browning, Terrapin Bright Green
Will Bruder, Will Bruder + Partners
John Cary, Next American City
Rick Cook, Cook + Fox Architects
Randy Croxton, Croxton Collaborative Architects
Betsy del Monte, Beck Architecture
Rick Fedrizzi, U.S. Green Building Council
Thomas Fisher, University of Minnesota College of Design
Pliny Fisk, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems
Eric Corey Freed, Organic Architect
Kira Gould, William McDonough + Partners
Walter Grondzik, Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning
Brad Guy, Material Reuse
Robert Harris, Lake/Flato Architects
Volker Hartkopf, Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics
Lisa Heschong, Heschong Mahone Group
Michelle Kaufmann, MK Designs
Allison Kwok, University of Oregon Department of Architecture
Mary Ann Lazarus, HOK
Charlie Lazor, Lazor Office
Marc L’Italien, EHDD Architecture
Vivian Loftness, Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture
Ray Lucchesi, Lucchesi Galati Architects
Jason McLennan, Cascadia Region Green Building Council
Kirstin Miller, Ecocity Builders
Steven Moore, University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture
David Orr, Oberlin College
Sergio Palleroni, Portland State University Department of Architecture
Jason Pearson, GreenBlue (formerly)
Susan Piedmont-Palladino, National Building Museum
John Quale, University of Virginia School of Architecture
Jonathan Reich, California Polytechnic State University Department of Architecture
Quilian Riano (via Ed Mazria), DSGN AGNC
Traci Rose Rider, Emerging Green Builders (USGBC)
Anne Schopf, Mahlum Architects
Jennifer Siegal, Office of Mobile Design
Henry Siegel, Siegel & Strain Architects
Alex Steffen, Worldchanging
Susan Szenasy, Metropolis
Rives Taylor, Gensler
Gail Vittori, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems
Donald Watson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture
Andrew Whalley, Grimshaw Architects
Dan Williams, Dan Williams Architect
Kath Williams, Kath Williams + Associates
Ken Yeang, Hamzah & Yeang

Disclosure: Lance Hosey is a former director with William McDonough + Partners, but he had no influence on the voting in this survey.

Correction: The original post of this story incorrectly reported the number of votes for Sidwell Friends School. The KieranTimberlake building received five votes, not six. We regret the error.

Top Green Buildings Since 1980

3 Votes
– San Francisco Federal Building (San Francisco), Morphosis, 2007
– National Library (Singapore), Hamzah & Yeang, 2005
– City Hall (London), Foster + Partners, 2003
– 4 Times Square (New York), FXFowle, 1998
– Tjibaou Cultural Center (New Caledonia), Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 1998

2 Votes
– Dell Children’s Medical Center (Austin, Texas), Karlsberger, 2007
– Save The Bay (Providence, R.I.), Croxton Collaborative Architects, 2006
– Solar Umbrella House (Venice, Calif.), Pugh + Scarpa, 2005
– Paper Church (Kobe, Japan), Shigeru Ban, 2005
– World Birding Center (Mission, Texas), Lake/Flato, 2004
– Bundestag (The Reichstag), Berlin, Germany, Foster + Partners, 1999
– GSW Building (Berlin), Sauerbruch Hutton, 1999
– 901 Cherry/Offices for Gap Inc. (San Bruno, Calif.), William McDonough + Partners, 1997
– CK Choi Building (Vancouver, B.C.), Matsusaki Wight Architects, 1996
– Harris “Butterfly” House (Mason’s Bend, Ala.), Rural Studio, 1996
– Furniture House (Yamanashi, Japan), Shigeru Ban, 1995
– Marika Alderton House (Nothern Territory, Australia), Glenn Murcutt, 1994
– Audubon Headquarters (New York), Croxton Collaborative Architects, 1993
– Next 21 (Osaka, Japan), Yositika Utida, et al., 1993
– Magney House (New South Wales, Australia), Glenn Murcutt, 1984
– Gregory Bateson Building (Sacramento, Calif.), Sim Van der Ryn/Calthorpe Architects, 1980

1 Vote
(Note: Two projects that received a single vote are not listed: one because it preceded 1980, the other because there is a lack of information.)

– Combs Point House (Ovid, N.Y.), Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, 2010
– 99K House (Houston), Hybrid/ORA, 2009
– Aqua Tower (Chicago), Studio Gang, 2009
– King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Thuwal, Saudi Arabia), HOK, 2009
– Kroon Hall, Yale University (New Haven, Conn.), Hopkins Architects, 2009
– Make It Right Housing (New Orleans), various architects, 2009
– Solar Decathlon entry (Washington, D.C.), Darmstadt Technical University, 2009
– Twelve West (Portland, Ore.), Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, 2009
– VNA Senior Living (Somerville, Mass.), Chia-Ming Sze Architect, 2009
– Vancouver Convention Centre (Vancouver, B.C.), LMN Architects, 2009
– Victorinox Special Edition Airstream (mobile), Airstream & Victorinox, 2009
– 355 11th Street (San Francisco), Aidlin Darling Design, 2008
– Cellophane House (New York), KieranTimberlake, 2008 (temporary)
– European Investment Bank (Luxembourg), Ingenhoven Architects, 2008
– Hostler Student Center (Beirut), VJAA, 2008
– InHaus2, Fraunhofer Gesellschaft (Duisburg, Germany), Unknown, 2008
– Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Center (South Africa), Lerotholi Rich Associated Architects, 2008
– The Mountain (Copenhagen), Bjarke Ingels Group, 2008
– Shangri-La Botanical Gardens (Orange, Texas), Lake/Flato, 2008
– Solaris (Singapore), Hamzah & Yeang, 2008
– Special #9 House (New Orleans), KieranTimberlake, 2008
– Trail Magic Home (Oberlin, Ohio), Donald Watson/ Joseph Ferut Architects, 2008
– Center for Alternative Technology (Machynleth, Wales), Pat Borer and David Lea, 2007
– Desert Living Center (Las Vegas), Lucchesi Galati, 2007
– Habitat Research and Development Centre (Windhoek, Namibia), Nina Maritz Architect, 2007
– Queens Botanical Garden Visitors Center (Flushing, N.Y.), BKSK Architects, 2007
– Yodakandiya (Sri Lanka), Susi Platt/Architecture for Humanity, 2007
– Community Center (Ludesch, Austria), Hermann Kaufmann, 2006
– Big Dig House (Lexington, Mass.), Single Speed Design, 2006
– Darwin Martin House Visiting Center (Buffalo, N.Y.), Toshiko Mori, 2006
– Hearst Tower (New York, N.Y.), Foster + Partners, 2006
– Heifer International Headquarters (Little Rock, Ark.), Polk Stanley Rowland Curzon Porter, 2006
– Plaza Apartments (San Francisco), Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, 2006
– Ballard Library (Ballard, Wash.), Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, 2005
– Denny Park Apartments (Seattle), Runberg Architecture Group, 2005
– Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (Toronto), Behnisch Architekten, 2005
– Folsom + Dore Apartments (San Francisco), David Baker + Partners, 2005
– Heelis, The National Trust Headquarters (Swindon, UK), Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios, 2005
– Federal Environment Agency (Dessau, Germany), Sauerbruch Hutton, 2005
– South Lake Union Discovery Center (Seattle), Miller Hull Partnership, 2005
– ZEO Building (Malaysia), unknown, 2005
– Alder Creek Middle School (Tahoe Truckee, Calif.), Lionakis, 2004
– Artists for Humanity Epicenter (Boston), Arrowstreet, 2004
– Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (Austin, Texas), LZT Associates, 2004
– Grundschule Riedberg (Frankfurt), 4a Architekten, 2004
– Global Ecology Research Center (Stanford, Calif.), EHDD Architecture, 2004
– Seattle Central Library (Seattle), OMA, 2004
– School of Nursing and Student Community Center (Houston), BNIM w/ Lake/Flato, 2004
– Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre (Hyderabad, India), Karan Grover and Associates, 2004
– Turtle Bay Pedestrian Bridge (Redding, Calif.), Santiago Calatrava, 2004
– Bren School, UCSB (Santa Barbara, Calif.), Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, 2002
– IslandWood (Bainbridge Island, Wash.), Mithun, 2002
– Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center (Portland, Ore.), Holst Architecture, 2001
– Phoenix Central Library (Phoenix), Will Bruder + Partners, 2001
– Freiburg Vauban Zero-Energy Housing (Freiburg, Germany), Rolf Disch, 2000
– Eden Project (St. Blazey, UK), Grimshaw Architects, 2000
– Glass Chapel (Mason’s Bend, Ala.), Rural Studio, 2000
– Japanese Pavilion (Hannover, Germany), Shigeru Ban/Frei Otto, 2000
– Taylor House (Bahamas), Frank Harmon Architect, 2000
– EarthCraft House (Atlanta), Southface/Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, 1999
– Mont-Cenis Training Center (Herne-Sodingen, Germany), Jourda & Perraudin, 1999
– Supershed and Pods (Newbern, Ala.), Rural Studio, 1999
– Fletcher-Page House (Kangaroo Valley, Australia), Glenn Murcutt, 1998
– Marin Country Day School, Learning Resources Center (Corte Madera, Calif.), EHDD, 1998
– Canal City Hakata (Fukuoka, Japan), Jon Jerde, 1996
– Eastgate Centre (Harare, Zimbabwe), Mick Pearce, 1996
– Intelligent Workplace, Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh), Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, 1996
– SMUD Customer Service Center (Sacramento, Calif.), Mogavero Notestine Associates, 1996
– Herman Miller Greenhouse (Holland, Mich.), William McDonough + Partners, 1995
– Simpson-Lee House (New South Wales, Australia), Glenn Murcutt, 1994
– British Pavilion (Seville, Spain), Grimshaw Architects, 1992
– NRDC (New York), Croxton Collaborative Architects, 1990
– Kempsey Local History Museum (Kempsey, Australia), Glenn Murcutt, 1988
– Biosphere 2 (Tucson, Ariz.), Phil Hawes, 1987
– Lovins House/Rocky Mountain Institute (Snowmass, Colo.), Aspen Design Group, 1984
– Mount Airy Public Library (Mount Airy, N.C.), Ed Mazria, 1984
– Ball-Eastaway House (New South Wales, Australia), Glenn Murcutt, 1983
– New Canaan Nature Center (New Canaan, Conn.), Buchanan/Watson Architects, 1982
– Marie Short House (Kempsey, Australia), Glenn Murcutt, 1980
– Daylit Walmart stores (various locations), various architects, ongoing
Top Green Building Since 2000

2 Votes
– San Francisco Federal Building (San Francisco), Morphosis, 2007

1 Vote
– Masdar Headquarters (Abu Dhabi, UAE), Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, 2013 (scheduled)
– NASA Sustainability Base (Mountain View, Calif.), William McDonough + Partners, 2011 (scheduled)
– Dockside Green (Victoria, B.C.), Busby Perkins+Will, 2010
– Bank of America Tower (New York), Cook + Fox Architects, 2009
– Kroon Hall, Yale University (New Haven, Conn.), Hopkins Architects, 2009
– Omega Center for Sustainable Living (Rhinebeck, N.Y.), BNIM, 2009
– The Mountain (Copenhagen), Bjarke Ingels Group, 2008
– Solaris (Singapore), Hamzah & Yeang, 2008
– Sidwell Friends School (Washington, D.C.), KieranTimberlake, 2006
– Druk White Lotus School (Ladakh, India), Arup, 2005
– Federal Environment Agency (Dessau, Germany), Sauerbruch Hutton, 2005
– Solar Umbrella House (Venice, Calif.), Pugh + Scarpa Architects, 2005
– Artists for Humanity Epicenter (Boston), Arrowstreet, 2004
– David l. Lawrence Convention Center (Pittsburgh), Rafael Viñoly Architects, 2003
– Genzyme Center (Cambridge, Mass.), Behnisch Architekten, 2003
– Colorado Court (Los Angeles), Pugh + Scarpa Architects, 2002
– Eden Project (St. Blazey, UK), Grimshaw Architects, 2000

Editor’s Note: We had hoped to report which survey respondents voted for which buildings. However, a number of respondents asked that their votes not be published—an understandable request. Therefore, rather than provide incomplete information, we have chosen to keep all votes anonymous.

Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, William McDonough + Partners, 2001 (13 votes)

California Academy of Sciences, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 2008 (11 votes)

Genzyme Center, Behnisch Architekten, 2003 (9 votes)

Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZed), ZEDfactory, 2002 (7 votes)

Chesapeake Bay Foundation, SmithGroup, 2001 (7 votes)

Bank of America Tower (aka One Bryant Park), Cook + Fox Architects, 2009 (6 votes)

Sidwell Friends School, KieranTimberlake, 2006 (5 votes)

Advanced Green Builder Demonstration, Pliny Fisk, 1998 (5 votes)

Dockside Green, Busby Perkins+Will, 2010 (4 votes)

Omega Center for Sustainable Living, BNIM, 2009 (4 votes)

New York Times Building, Renzo Piano Building Workshop/FXFowle Architects, 2008 (4 votes)

Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, Kubala Washatko Architects, 2007 (4 votes)

Druk White Lotus School, Arup, 2005 (4 votes)

ccccccccccccccNorman Foster - Swiss Re Building, London

Swiss Re Tower, Foster + Partners, 2003 (4 votes)

Colorado Court, Pugh + Scarpa Architects, 2002 (4 votes)

Institute for Forestry and Nature Research, Behnisch Architekten, 1998 (4 votes)

Commerzbank Headquarters, Foster + Partners, 1997 (4 votes)

Menara Mesiniaga Tower, Hamzah & Yeang, 1992 (4 votes)


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