The sun was streaming in at curious angles on William McDonough, who is, in my humble estimation, the Frank Lloyd Wright of our time.
McDonough was speaking at Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park on Wednesday at a conference entitled "Green Town: The Future of Community." If you're going to see one seminal piece of architecture in your lifetime, this is the one. Looking like a Mayan fortress from the street, inside the space embraces you. You can sit on one of four levels and bask in the intimacy of the space as light shoots from various directions. Globes united with squares cradle the lighting fixtures, which are abstracted lions feet hanging from the ceiling. Completed almost 100 years ago, the building still feels fresh, inviting and modern.
The symbolism of McDonough speaking in a Wright space seemed to be moving for the architect, planner and visionary. McDonough is taking Wright's "organic" legacy by turning buildings into living machines. His green roof for the Ford Rouge River plant supports grass, controls stormwater and saved the automaker $35 million. Ecology and economy are part of the same sustainable formula in McDonough's universe, which is fast expanding from single buildings to entire cities in China.
When you hear McDonough's talk -- this time was my second experience -- you realize he's not just talking about green design. He's talking about human values: Saving everything that's dear to us, making it beautiful, loving children. How does he propose to do that? Certainly not by shooting endless powerpoints bemoaning the evils of global warming. His humanistic approach makes Al Gore's powerpoint seem like a beginner's effort. McDonough gives you the whole picture:
* There are 19, yes 19, cities in China with more than 2 million in population. Over the next 15 years, some 400 million will migrate from the countryside into cities. That's more than the entire population of the U.S. Global warming is the least of their/our worries. They'll need water, food, arable land and other resources. Where are they going to get them without destroying the biosphere?
* Our environment is everyone's environment. Air and pollution circles the globe and ends up in the ocean. How do we change things? Start to design better buildings that create their own power, recycle their own waste and filter their own water. McDonough has done that and he sees no reason why every building can't follow suit.
* "Design is the first signal of human intention." This is the baseline for change, McDonough says. We should be designing buildings and cities like trees: They take in carbon dioxide, absorb heat/water, protect soil and recycle their waste. "It took us 5,000 wheels to figure out how to put wheels on luggage, you'd think we could design something that works like a tree."
* Solar IS the answer. Where do you think fossil fuels came from? We get 5,000 more times solar energy every day than we need. And our solar cells are only 22% efficient -- tops. We can do better. When asked if he likes nuclear energy, McDonough replies, "sure, I like nuclear because it takes 8 minutes to get to us from 90 million miles away and it's free and doesn't pollute." One of the most innovate companies in the world is going solar: Google. At their Silicon Valley "Googleplex," they are putting solar panels everywhere -- even on carports. The more solar you build, the more engineering is needed. That lowers the cost of mass production.
* All environment is local. Yes, it starts where you live. Make a rain garden. Plant trees and native species. Shrink your lawn. Demand that politicians support a "circular" economy that treats waste as a resource and creates jobs. Tell that that new public construction should be sustainable. In Chicago, for example, 500,000 new trees were planted at the request of Mayor Daley. His Department of Environment is working with all other city agencies to develop 4 million square feet of green roofs -- the tops of buildings that absorb heat and water while growing plants! Did you know Millenium Park is one of the largest green roofs in the world? All new city buildings will be LEED certified. They have 2 megawatts of solar capacity. That's not much, but they're expanding. As the owner of the largest municipal fleet in the country, they fine drivers who idle their vehicles for more than 5 minutes. They have a jobs program that employs ex-offenders to make rain barrels. The city now has a green technology center, household waste recycling facility and an expanding bike trail system. And there's much more to come. Back in your home, start with your lights. If everyone in Chicago simply replaced 4 incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, enough power would be saved to power 1.5 million homes.
McDonough's bottom line: "We don't have to choose between economic responsbility and environmental sustainability."
As I sauntered out of the Unity Temple, once again unified in my thinking about global responsiblity, I climbed back on the Lake Street el for my long ride home. The sun was beating down as summer was taking a deep sigh before autumn's grand stroll. The leaves will reveal their inner pigments soon. Will our attitudes start to change as well?