‘The millennium’s most important building,’ enthused Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic, writing in 1999 of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated Seagram Building. The dark office tower, distinctive even after so many near-copies worldwide, has remained admired and influential ever since its completion in 1958.
It is time no longer to praise the Seagram but to bury it: to recognise explicitly that its fabled elegance was a visual expression of its immense carbon footprint. Mies’s pursuit of aesthetic clarity was an architectural celebration of construction materials and servicing that required exorbitant fossil fuel energy inputs.
Today’s awareness of orientation, shading and insulation was completely alien to Mies, who handed such concerns to others, stating ‘it’s up to the engineers to find some way to stop the heat from coming in or going out’. His engineers did manage to achieve comfortable interiors, but only at the cost of enormous amounts of energy-hungry mechanical servicing: the Seagram Building’s hard-pressed environmental control systems give the building an Energy Star score of only 3 out of 100, making it one of New York’s most energetically wasteful office blocks. High energy efficiency starts at 75 on the Energy Star scale.
The devil is in the details
The Seagram building was designed in the oil-rich 1950s, with energy prices dropping fast and hopes of future fusion power that would, as the chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission put it in 1954, make electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. Almost no-one realised how dangerous carbon emissions from oil and gas could become.
In these circumstances, the celebrated elegance and precision of Mies’s detailing (as he himself put it: ‘God is in the details’) was a translation into beautiful form of the new freedoms that came with the world’s cheapest-ever energy. A curtain wall of tinted, single-glazed windows celebrates the fact that forced-air servicing had liberated the building’s envelope from its traditional obligation to keep out the winter cold or the summer sun. Mies could instead make his glazing an artistic meditation on transparency, clarity and elegance.
Brass mullions and spandrels provide a purified expression of the idea of the curtain wall, ‘energising’ the building by the warmth of their colour, as another former New York Times critic, Carter B Horsley, put it. With 1950s fossil fuels, it did not seem to matter that they also radiate the warmth of the building out into the winter cold of New York, or collect the sun’s heat in summer, making them among the main causes of the building’s exorbitant energy consumption for heating and cooling.
Mies’s original idea to keep the steel frame exposed – eventually rejected for fire safety reasons – would have enhanced this effect even further. As built, the building is responsible for 15,431 tonnes of CO2 per year of operational carbon emissions – the equivalent annual emissions of more than 2,800 average Britons.
Mies was not alone in designing with little thought for energy inputs. High operational energy levels were programmatic for Modernism. Seagram represents the first generation of office blocks built to depend on air conditioning. Since the mid-20th century, commercial and public buildings in the USA and elsewhere have typically been designed for a half-year-long ‘cooling season’, almost doubling the operational cost that had previously been limited to winter heating. With falling energy costs, most buildings were designed with little or no attempt to reduce these expenses through effective insulation.
We must exorcise the ghost of Mies
In the 1950s, burning vast amounts of coal and oil seemed worthwhile to many, given its capacity to improve the living and working conditions of an ever-increasing proportion of the human population. But now that we know the potentially catastrophic consequences for the planet, we must exorcise the ghost of Mies.
For Mies and his Modernist colleagues, history was an impediment to be overcome by the aesthetics of industrialisation, a view embodied in his statement: ‘It is not possible to go forward while looking back.’ But, in fact, architecture is uniquely helped by the massive back-catalogue of zero-carbon architecture going back millennia.
This includes not only the low-cost and fully recyclable stone or timber buildings of ordinary people, but also the representative structures of the aristocracy, such as the wooden 17th-century Katsura Imperial Palace in Kyoto, whose noble simplicity was famously praised by Bruno Taut and declared a model for modern architecture.
Most Modernists, however, went for less sustainable forms of simplicity. The Modern Movement was an explosion of creative responses to cheap fossil fuel energy, embodied in concrete, steel and glass. These three key materials of Modernism make up the bulk of the Seagram Building. They have embodied energy rates several times higher than those of materials used in the pre-modern era, such as stone and timber.
Concrete, accounting for 79 per cent of the Seagram Building’s mass, is held together by energy-intense cement (4MJ/kg). Both steel (20MJ/kg), and glass (ca. 7MJ/kg) need extremely high temperatures for production; glass was floated to perfection on a bath of molten tin. The embodied energy just of the construction materials of the Seagram Building is estimated at 173 million kWh – almost four times the amount of energy that workers put into building the Great Pyramid at Giza (46 million kWh, approximately 78 million days of manual labour).
As shown in the previous articles in this series, the excessively high embodied energy of cement, metal, glass, fired brick or glazed ceramics results from heating. This was the reason why, throughout most of architectural history, these materials were used sparingly – they were signs of ultimate architectural opulence or overwhelming technical need. The bulk of architecture was made up of naturally occurring materials such as timber and stone, which in pre-modern times were procured by cheap labour, rather than expensive heat.
By the 1950s this relation had reversed. The abundance of fossil fuels had completely removed the prestige once attached to heat, and almost any building was now constructed from heat-intensive brick, concrete and steel. On the other hand, the modern era’s high labour costs, compared with the era of serfs and bondservants, had made craft the most conspicuous luxury that architecture could display.
The Seagram Building reflects the change. At $46 million, it was the world’s most expensive building at the time. But the raw material costs of its 1,400 tonnes of brass or 11,000 tonnes of steel, which 200 years earlier would have been unaffordable even for the wealthiest aristocrat, were only a modest part of the outlay. The building’s clients, a family of Canadian whisky producers, showed off their wealth through labour-intensive finishing: the finely-crafted travertine or the brass mullions, seamlessly welded with skill. Embodied energy was no longer a significant part of their cost calculations.
Is there any hope for a modern architecture 2.0? A way of design that reproduces Mies’s principles of simplicity and functionality not as aesthetic devices, but as the basis of energy economy?
Some current architecture is making significant progress with this goal, despite substantial obstacles. Six Orsman Road in Haggerston, London N1, completed in 2020 to a design by Waugh Thistleton, is an office block on the Regent’s Canal. Its exterior is crisply modern, its interior elegantly minimalist, but with the Scandinavian warmth of extensive details of exposed wood.
At 3,200m2 and six storeys tall, it is significantly smaller than the Seagram Building with its 74,300m2 and 38 storeys but, in some respects, it too is indebted to the principles of the Modern Movement. It is built from serially produced parts and features industrial aesthetics with an unadorned white façade structured by horizontal rows of windows. Each storey is open plan, allowing for flexible use.
Its structure and materials, however, are significantly different from the Seagram Building’s. As much of the building as possible is bolted together from cross-laminated timber and finished with clay plaster, its details designed both to minimise embodied energy and to make the building potentially recyclable. Six Orsman Road also makes use of natural ventilation and solar gain, minimising energy inputs for heating and cooling. It is designed to achieve unregulated annual energy performance of 37.26 kWh/m2/yr, less than a 10th of Seagram’s 396 kWh/m2/yr.
Despite so much discussion of sustainability, fossil fuel-made steel, glass and concrete remain the most widely used building materials by far in contemporary construction. That 6 Orsman Road attempts to take a different direction is the result of heroic effort on the part of its designers. Waugh Thistleton made a convincing case to the client that its timber/steel hybrid was both cheaper and faster to build than conventional contemporary construction methods. The considerable research required to devise such an efficient and affordable solution, following the principles of the Design for Manufacture and Assembly engineering methodology, was funded by the architects themselves out of their conviction that low-carbon construction is crucial.
As a result, Waugh Thistleton and its collaborators managed to radically reduce the use of energy-hungry materials in the superstructure at 6 Orsman Road; steel is employed only where nothing else will do the job – in beams, columns and connections. Timber does the rest of the work, with the result that only 287 tonnes of steel was used on the scheme, compared with the 11,000 tonnes in the Seagram Building.
Thus 6 Orsman Road has just 89kg of steel per square metre, compared with Seagram’s 148kg. Cross-laminated timber, with its attractive combination of structural strength and carbon sequestration, is used wherever possible – 830m³ of it in the entire structure.However, 6 Orsman Road is likely to remain an exception until regulations change, as the bulk of market-driven developments remain set on the course of default high-carbon options carried over in legacy from Mies’s generation. This situation is unlikely to change, even with the advent of higher energy bills, as high-carbon options still remain cheaper and easier to specify than its alternatives, and architects and clients are not held liable for the environmental consequences of the emissions they cause.
Even the most committed architects and clients face an uphill battle on the path to low-carbon architecture, as the groundworks of low-carbon construction remain intractable. Even in such a forward-looking project as 6 Orsman Road, the current state of technology and regulation has forced the team to higher-energy and higher-carbon groundworks than they would have preferred, using 1,030m³ of concrete, reinforced with about 93 tonnes of steel reinforcement bars, and the superstructure still contains a lot of steel.
One of the biggest challenges the architects encountered in the project was that posed by the regulations formulated around the assumption of steel and concrete buildings, which make it considerably harder to design with low-carbon alternatives.
In a world threatened by runaway population increase and deforestation, the availability of timber is necessarily limited. On the long road from Modernist wastefulness to zero carbon, almost all current architecture is still – especially in embodied carbon terms – dangerously close to that of the Seagram Building. Yamina Saheb, in her report for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that architecture is lagging behind all other sectors in decarbonising.
While better insulation and modern technology since 1990 have significantly reduced the emissions of individual buildings, this gain has been entirely offset by the emission increases occasioned by wasteful low-density planning and increased overall construction. If, as Mies stated in 1924, architecture is ‘the will of the epoch translated into space’, our current era has just as much translation work to do as Mies’s period of industrialisation, provided that it is our will to stave off the threat of climate breakdown.
Mies saw architecture as a matter of ‘mastering’ our environment. Now we recognise the need to instead master ourselves to avoid devastating environmental collapse.
This has to happen through both regulation and incentives. While the technology for affordable zero-carbon steel and concrete remains a distant dream, architects should be looking at structural stone and timber, at least as a temporary solution.
But it seems likely that not only improved efficiency in our buildings, but also a less exacting definition of ‘comfort’ will be a necessary step in achieving zero carbon.
Client expectations with regard to space and thermal comfort have to be lowered at least to a pre-Seagram level, when the change of the seasons was still felt inside buildings. Spain’s recent legislation forbidding icy air conditioning in hot summers seems like an excellent direction to move in.
And the aesthetic of shiny surfaces has to give way to one of patina, reparability and retrofit. Mies’s 1924 statement that, with industrialised construction, ‘the social, economic, technical and also artistic problems will be readily solved’ might still hold true, as long as the new construction industry is built on the principles of low embodied carbon and renewable energy.
Architecture can contribute to saving human life on earth not only through direct decreases, building by building, in carbon emissions, but also through creating a beautiful, exciting vision of a zero-carbon future. Fear and guilt are demotivating; stunning images of profoundly sustainable architecture will help people to run towards a zero-carbon future, rather than merely running from an unsustainable present.
Barnabas Calder is senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, and head of the Architectural and Urban History Research Group. He is the author of Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency.
Florian Urban is head of History of Architecture and Urban Studies at the Glasgow School of Art
Key sources for this article: City of New York, 2012 Benchmarking Report for Non-City-Owned Properties; Goggins, Jamie, Treasa Keane, Alan Kelly ‘The assessment of embodied energy in typical reinforced concrete building structures in Ireland’, Energy and Buildings (May 2010); Jennifer Hahn ‘IPCC Climate Change Mitigation Report” Dezeen 6 April 2022; Horsley, Carter B. The Seagram Building, The City Review; Mies van der Rohe ‘Industrialized Building’ (1924), ‘Architecture and the Times’ (1924); Moe, Kiel, Unless. The Seagram Building Construction Ecology (2020); Taut, Bruno, Ich liebe die japanische Kultur – kleine Schriften über Japan (1934); Wier, Stuart Kirkland, ‘Insight from Geometry and Physics into the Construction of Egyptian Old Kingdom Pyramids’ (1996); World Bank Data on carbon emissions.