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Architect James Timberlake charts a course for making ethical decisions about unsustainable modernist architecture.
Last week at the climate talks in Paris, world leaders committed a full day to discussing public policies and financial solutions to reduce carbon emissions within the building sector. It’s widely documented that buildings are the culprit for at least 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile in the building sector, there’s an ongoing discussion about what to do with inefficient buildings from past eras. Debate around historic value versus economics inevitably leads to the big question: Are these buildings worth retrofitting, or do we tear them down and start over?
During the golden era of building post-WWII, an estimated 30 million commercial structures were built, many of them high-rises, containing workplaces and housing in all the major cities. The most notable of them—designed by significant architects such as I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Edward Larabee Barnes, and Philip Johnson, and firms such as Harrison & Abramovitz, SOM, and HOK—were innovative for their time and are engrained in our collective urban mind. What are the ethics of intervening in these mid-century structures to bring them up to energy code compliance? […]