From atop the High Line, the old elevated freight track that is about to debut as New York’s most revolutionary public park, you get a clear, wide-angle view of the future. The sculpted concrete walkways lined with meadow grasses aren’t particularly high-tech or avant-garde, but there is something absolutely of-the-moment about the patchwork of old and new, man-made and organic. Here’s a hulking, disused piece of our industrial heritage, rescued from demolition and reinvented as a work of contemporary design—design in which nature is seamlessly integrated into the architecture. It all makes for a surprising yet coherent whole: the High Line offers as good an indication as any of the shape and texture of the 21st century: recycled, green, and chic.
So where else can you go to see iconic green design?Some of the biggest shifts are still hard to find. For instance, you might not have noticed that the world’s largest wind farm, generating up to 735 megawatts a day, is in a place called Wingate, Texas. Or that there are plans to build a record-breaking 280-megawatt solar-power facility outside of Gila Bend, Arizona. Not exactly travel destinations, obviously—although some wind farms, like Wild Horse, in Ellensberg, Washington, do have visitors’ centers. For this story, we’ve identified places around the country—from Pocantico Hills, New York, and Mission, Texas, to Marin County, California—that are emblematic of a new generation of savvy, environmentally tuned design destinations that, in small ways and large, are changing the traveler’s landscape. Some of these projects are probably what you’d expect. Indeed, many have earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, and a couple of them are institutions directly related to science and nature. But broad swaths of the culture that until recently seemed largely indifferent to the notion of sustainable design are jumping on the green bandwagon. The new baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., for example, just earned LEED certification. (And HOK Sport, the primary architectural firm for the park and America’s premier stadium designer, now employs a full-time sustainability coordinator.) Strategies that were considered a little oddball only a few years ago—like photovoltaic panels, green roofs, and wind turbines—are finding their way into the language of everyday architecture, everyday life, and everyday travel.
Yes, the stunning new 410,000-square-foot building designed by eminent architect Renzo Piano is home to a planetarium, an aquarium, and a four-story rain forest. Yes, there are penguins and an albino alligator. And yes, the building is wonderfully energy-efficient and the walls are full of recycled materials. But the pièce de résistance is the living roof. The unique system of wire mesh gabions that hold the soil in place on the hilly, 2 1/2-acre terrain was invented by Paul Kephart and his team at the Carmel Valley–based Rana Creek Living Architecture (Kephart has been in the green-roof trade for 20 years). They orchestrated the plantings to attract wildlife: the beach strawberries to draw native birds; self-heal, a large tubular flower, to entice humming-birds and bumblebees; and stonecrop to appeal to the threatened San Bruno elfin butterfly. Kephart recently visited the roof, and nature had arrived. “It’s a field of dreams,” he says. “We built it and they came.”
The ballpark for the Washington Nationals (the baseball team formerly known as the Montreal Expos) opened this past spring, and it’s the first LEED-certified professional sports facility. One of the things that earned Nationals Park this distinction is its pedestrian-friendly site, about a mile and a half south of the Capitol Building: it’s on the Anacostia riverfront, part of an effort to reclaim and redevelop a seedy industrial area, and it’s convenient to the Navy Yard Metro station. Most fans will likely pick up on the 6,300-square-foot green roof atop the hot-dog stand over by left field, and the observant ones will notice that their beer comes in cups made from biodegradable, corn-derived plastic. Less visible is the series of four cisterns beneath the park, designed to filter peanut shells and the chemicals used to maintain ball-field grass out of the runoff water before it reaches the long-abused river. Fans who bike to the park will appreciate the free valet bike-parking service.
The beautiful compound of stone buildings 30 miles north of New York City was built as a private dairy by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the 1930’s. “Mr. Rockefeller didn’t like the idea of pasteurized milk,” says Blue Hill vice president Irene Hamburger. Since 2004, this complex of carefully restored historic barns, and much of the surrounding 80-acre farm, has been open to the public. Many of the 200 crops are sold at the on-site farmers’ market three days a week; children can collect their own eggs; and adults can attend lectures by authors like Michael Pollan. “Our mission is to connect people back to food,” Hamburger says. The best connection of all can be found in the former cow barn, now the restaurant Blue Hill, which serves the farm’s naturally raised meat, poultry, and produce as prepared by chef Dan Barber. According to Laureen Barber, whose husband is Dan’s brother, David Barber—all three are Blue Hill co-owners—the barn looks much as it did back in the 1930’s, though they removed a low ceiling to expose dramatic steel trusses, and adjusted the level of the windows that face the pasture “because they were at cow height.” Dinner for two $190.
This spirited, 1,680-square-foot box, with green glass louvers and a wall that swings open like an airplane hangar, is conspicuous for any number of reasons. For one thing, it has a mini wind farm out front. It also has geothermal heating and cooling, a photovoltaic array, and a green roof. And like everything designed and built by the architecture students at Studio 804, part of the University of Kansas at Lawrence, it is also an aggressively modern design. The 5.4.7 Arts Center is named for the date a tornado nearly wiped this little western Kansas town off the map, and it is the first public building to rise from the ruins, a bellwether for the greening of Greensburg. Prior to the tornado the arts organization was merely a dream of its founder, Stacy Barnes, who works as an administrative assistant for the town (and oversees the gift shop at Greensburg’s other attraction, the world’s largest hand-dug well). Barnes believes that the arts advance the healing process and help people unwind from the hard work of rebuilding. To that end, she’s hung paintings, offered ceramics classes, and started an outdoor summer movie program. “We’re trying to broaden everyone’s horizons,” she says.
At the south end of the High Line, an abandoned 1930’s elevated freight rail track turned 21st-century park, a new Standard Hotel is going up on massive concrete piers, boldly straddling this most extraordinary public space. All along its 1 1/2-mile path (the first third is scheduled to open by the end of 2008), the High Line has become a magnet for innovative architecture; the Standard will soon be joined by a branch of the Whitney Museum designed by Renzo Piano, and experimental architect Neil Denari’s gravity-defying apartment tower is rising a few blocks north. Between the speckled concrete walkways and benches by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Field Operations, Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf is inserting a somewhat aestheticized version of the urban meadow that had previously grown undisturbed on the tracks, with clusters of flowering perennials, wetland grasses, and occasional wooded patches. “To walk on the High Line,” says Friends of the High Line cofounder Joshua David, “is to experience New York from a vantage point that can’t be touched anywhere else.”
For much of the 20th century, the spectacular string of promontories known as the Marin Headlands remained undeveloped because it was of great strategic value to the military. Today this glorious coastal landscape is dotted with decommissioned gun batteries and missile installations. Fort Baker, for example, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge at the south end of Sausalito, was a depot for the minefields that kept enemy submarines out of the bay during World War II. In July, this historic site was reborn as Cavallo Point, a luxurious lodge, spa, and center for environmentally themed conferences and lectures. The former officers’ quarters have been carefully restored, and newly constructed, modern rooms look out over the bay from the hillside. Where soldiers once assembled explosive devices, guests can sleep soundly on organic linens, indulge in an herbal hot-stone massage, or linger at the Tea Bar. More ambitious visitors will notice that the lodge is still of great strategic value: it’s the perfect base for hikes, bike rides, and kayak trips.
“Cars aren’t going to go away tomorrow, are they?” says James Mary O’Connor, architect of the first LEED-certified parking garage, in response to the question he’s probably been asked a million times: Isn’t the very idea—a green parking garage—oxymoronic and perverse?His firm, Moore Ruble Yudell, talked the Santa Monica City Council into incorporating a bit of virtue into the 900-car building. Indeed, cars are still very much with us, taking up space and inflating our carbon footprints, so they might as well park in a garage that derives at least part of its wattage from solar panels on the rooftop shade structure, filters oil and other automobile effluvia out of storm-water runoff, has recycled fly ash in the concrete, and provides free bike-storage lockers and outlets for electric cars. But, all that aside, the multicolored glass-and-neon garage is unusually pretty. And maybe that’s the point.
It’s hard to say whether this chic little skyscraper designed by Oppenheim, a Miami-based firm that pursues “hedonistic sensation,” will someday be the greenest building in the country. But it certainly drives home the point that environmentally conscious design and glamorous architecture are strangers no longer. The eye-catching soap-bubble–patterned façade is actually a concrete structural wall that not only supports the building but also provides thermal mass and solar shading to keep it naturally cool. Wind turbines are fetchingly arrayed inside the circular cutouts at the top of the building, and they look more like costume jewelry than an alternative source of electricity. While its 380-foot height won’t break any records, the Cor Tower promises to be a conspicuous—and conspicuously green—presence in the midst of Miami’s low-rise Design District.
Think of it as the world’s tallest recycling effort. Or maybe it’s just an exceptionally ambitious retrofit. In any case, the record-breaking Sears Tower, completed in 1973—it reigned as the world’s tallest until the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur topped it in 1998—is about to become more energy-efficient. The building’s current owner, which is no longer Sears, has retained architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill (Smith, formerly of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designed Burj Dubai), who will explore how the building’s lighting, mechanical systems, elevators, and glass skin can be updated to bring the building up to LEED standards. While there’s an endless parade of new green skyscrapers planned for cities around the country (including Chicago’s Smith + Gill–designed, turbine-equipped “Clean Technology Tower”), the amount of energy new towers will save is minuscule compared with what can be achieved by overhauling existing buildings.
Avid birders know that the Rio Grande Valley is the place to be if you want to glimpse a Swainson’s hawk or a green jay or any one of hundreds of species that favor this unique ecosystem of thornscrub and subtropical woodland. The World Birding Center maintains nine protected habitats along the Mexican border, from the Roma Bluffs to South Padre Island. Roughly in the middle, its headquarters sits on 750 acres in Mission, Texas, and was designed by the San Antonio architectural firm Lake/Flato to be equally hospitable to humans and birds. The buildings, situated in what had once been onion fields, are a graceful variation on the Quonset hut, a style chosen for its ties to the area’s agricultural heritage and because, as architect Bob Harris puts it, “the purity and simplicity of its form fits in a stark landscape.” The distinctive curved roof also handily channels rainwater into a collection system that supplies “guzzlers” for the birds and maintains the mud puddles that keep the dragonflies happy.