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The Man Who Wants Buildings to Love Kids

FEBRUARY 15, 1999/>

When architectural firms began to compete for the Gap Inc. office complex in San Bruno, Calif., William McDonough saw it as a competition of ideas rather than for a contract. "Our idea," he says, "was that if a bird flew over the building, it would not know that anything had changed." If that sounds like pure eco-nut talk (I almost resist noting that McDonough is for the birds), try the question he puts to potential clients when he undertakes any of his architectural projects: "I ask, 'How do we love all children, all species, all time?'"

Upon hearing him say that, one is tempted to go for a pistol, but after a day of McDonough's instruction in much more than architecture, one sees that his utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that--in demonstrable and practical ways--is changing the design of the world. McDonough empathizes with birds because he's a rare one himself, a visionary--half green, half pink--who talks like a communist, thinks like a plutocrat and acts like an ecologist. Indeed, the three points of his abstractly designed universe (he is given to drawing incomprehensible diagrams on any available surface) reflect that people who used to be impelled to make things by the old impulses of social and economic interests now must add the environment. "But not as an ism," he cautions, not as an extreme. "What we're trying to do is balance ecology, equity and economy."



The Gap campus, which William McDonough+Partners completed in 1997, is an anomaly of a building that looks more beautiful in life than it does in photos, and seems to expand its beauty from the inside out. The inside is essentially the outside, so when one is there, one is also somewhere else. The "facts" of the structure read like an essay on "What I Did for the Environment Last Summer": the roofs are planted with native grasses and wildflowers atop 6 in. of soil that both fools the birds and serves as a thermal and acoustical insulator. San Bruno is a stone's throw from San Francisco's airport, yet planes flying low overhead create barely a buzz.

The complex's wood floors and veneer were harvested from sustainable forests. Not a single California live oak was cut down during construction, and a stand of the ancient trees rises in a dark elegance just beyond a piazza. Huge atriums carry daylight deep into the building, paints and adhesives are low toxicity, the place is 30% more energy efficient than state law requires, and so on.

But the special power of the structure is its palpable connection to the people who work there. On the day that McDonough and I visit, 600 employees go about their tasks, yet the building feels empty. The windows bring people to the sky. "When it's a nice day," says McDonough, "why feel as if you've missed it?" Stand in practically any spot, and one can see the greenery of the outside trees, the grassy lower roof or the grasses growing in one of the two interior courtyards. Light is everywhere. It fills the vast open hallways that seem to stretch on forever under ceilings 15 ft. high. McDonough says, "People have lofty thoughts in lofty places."

A walking college lecture--he is also dean of the University of Virginia school of architecture--McDonough is a compendium of similar maxims, phrases and rules: "Honor commerce as the engine of change"; "respect diversity"; "build for abundance"; "eco-efficiency should be replaced by eco-effectiveness"; "design is the first signal of human intention"; "all sustainability, like politics, is local"; "I want to do architecture that is timeless and mindful."

All this and much more come from a 48-year-old innocent anarchist; his language has the touch of the poet and of the bomb thrower; he looks like actor James Woods in a bow tie. He thinks abstractly, making it equally fascinating and difficult to talk to him, since he turns nearly every contribution one makes to the conversation into a refinement of his theories.

He believes the world needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, in a "next industrial revolution." That means everything from products to buildings to cities to "definitions of beauty" and constructs of the human mind. Beauty, he says, embodies function. A beautiful woman who harms you is not beautiful; a beautiful building that spews fumes and spreads cancer is not beautiful. "How do we love all children?" means "How can we look seven generations into the future if we leave behind the detritus of this designer society?" "For a strategy of change," he says, "we need a strategy of hope."

The truth is that McDonough isn't an architect at all, or is only occasionally an architect. In collaboration with his friend German chemist Michael Braungart, he has begun or completed designs for nontoxic shower gels, fabrics that do not contain mutagens or carcinogens, dolls made without PVCs, biodegradable yogurt cartons, and a recyclable Nike sneaker made with soles that, when they disintegrate, will serve as nutrients for the soil. Among the larger projects, besides the Gap building, are the Nike European Headquarters, an environmental-studies center at Oberlin College that will produce more energy than it consumes, the Monsanto Child Development Center in Missouri, and a new community in Indiana called Coffee Creek Center, which will work against suburban sprawl by establishing a compact and pleasant small town.

"In Oberlin, we asked, How can we design a building like a tree?--a fecund structure that purifies waters and makes oxygen and food," he says. "In Coffee Creek, we asked, What if a town were like a forest?" He envisions the Indiana project as the first step toward creating "a green world with connecting gray zones."

The caution here is one that applies to utopian visions generally: perfect is always imperfect, as it must be, and imperfect--a world of disappointments and surprises--is as good as it gets. It is hard to know whether McDonough recognizes this. He is in the first blush of success, where he wants everything to be right and believes it is possible. He asks, "Why should it ever be necessary to tear the Gap complex down?" and thinks that the question is rhetorical.

We walk through the building's halls and hear no noise anywhere. The colors surrounding us are muted tones; everything has the feel of khaki, even the fluorescent indirect lighting that McDonough deliberately made warm "to make people look better to one another." Walls display some of the art collection of Donald G. Fisher, Gap's founder and board chairman. And there are small, tidy visual jokes played against the pervasive serenity. One of Fisher's paintings spells out the word RIOT at the farthest end of the hallway. The F was left off the sign on the vault of a fire valve, which now reads, IRE VALVE.

In some offices silence is eerie or disturbing. Here it feels more like a city early on a Sunday summer morning; one is aware of activity in the wings but not distracted by it. An employee's life remains private, behind low walls, where one is almost compelled to make a mess; everything else in the building is so starkly clean.

The sense of privacy is oddly retained in the open spaces as well--like the mobile anonymity cities offer. The outdoor feeling is abetted by the ability of employees to control their own lighting by raising or lowering tall shades manually. And the air they breathe is fresh. The raised floors act like a network of ducts, and the ventilation system pulls in a cool breeze each night, almost eliminating the need for air conditioning. We pass workers whom I stop to ask if they hate working in such a dump. They are politely amused by the question but are authentically eager to say how much they love the building. Most of them do not go out for lunch, because the cafeteria is good and because in is out. "The old idea between employers and employees," says McDonough, "was that it was necessary to put you under stress to perform. A sort of Darwinian model: Shape up, or you have no value. We assume that people have value and that this is the atmosphere where it will shine."

"Could you have done your best work in this building?" I ask.

"Absolutely," he says. "It's like an architect's studio."

Toward the end of the day, we are seated at a table in a corner of an open space that looks over the lower grassy roof. We might as well have been sitting beside a prairie. He talks of how he graduated to his way of thinking, but the process is not very clear, to him or to me. He was headed for the conventional life of architecture, and then he wasn't. There was Dartmouth, Yale school of architecture, a first job, then dreams. Driven basically by a mystical sensibility, he prefers to explain himself by referring to his roots. Whatever drives him, he believes, originated in the Irish mists.

So he speaks of misty ancient Irish history and folklore. He tells me the kings sent their princes to live with the poets by the rivers, and the poets would teach the princes their songs. But the prince who finally got selected as king would be the one who ate "the salmon of all knowledge"--so called because the salmon was the animal that migrated west to east and knew how to get back to the exact place where it was born.

"I feel that it is time for us who have been out there to get back and re-examine our origins," he says. "I feel like a salmon coming home."

"Does the old Irish melancholy go along with that?" I ask him.

"Not for me," he says. "I'm basically optimistic. I'm trying to reimagine the future."

As we go on talking, a man and a woman appear and stop to talk shop loudly no more than 3 ft. from where we are sitting. Though it has to be clear that McDonough and I are in quiet conversation, they bray at each other for several minutes as if we do not exist. To me their behavior is simply a moment of normal human rudeness, though it is a little jarring in a building that is supposed to foster collegial bliss. I suggest to McDonough that civility is something that cannot be designed, and he starts to agree. Then he stops, grows pensive and says, as if making a note to himself, "Design for civility."

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