Address to the Woods Hole Symposium (2003)

July 2003

William McDonough


I remember being here a few years ago when George Woodwell and I first started talking about the Woods Hole Research Center. “Wouldn’t it be marvelous,” we said, “if this little Victorian summerhouse extended into the forest behind it and, like a leafed branch, started to act photosynthetically?” We imagined this little flower of creativity with roots in the last century aspiring for the 21st, a famously historic building with an anonymous structure in the background sequestering carbon, making “food” from sunlight.

We know, of course, that we have not reproduced a natural system, only learned a bit from nature’s intelligence, so there is great humility in this. It’s unfortunate that the word humility and the word architecture appear not to have been in the same paragraph for quite awhile—probably since The Fountainhead. But humility really is an important aspect of what’s going on here. This building is not an answer as much as an essay of clues. I don’t think anybody’s saying we have an answer. I think we have a series of questions that we’re trying to grapple with and we have a series of clues and a series of intentions.

Intentions are key. I think design is the first signal of human intention. When we have designs on the world, we do well to ask ourselves what our intentions are.  As a designer, my intentions are optimistic. Design is inherently optimistic. When I get up in the morning there’s something I have to go get done; optimism is fundamental. So when I think about the future I am fundamentally optimistic. And I think being optimistic, by design, is especially fundamental in times of terror and times of tragedy.

So my work as a designer has given me an unconventional perspective on sustainability. When I was presented the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development at the White House, the press came running up with questions like “Oh, Mr. Sustainable, what does it all mean?” and I said, “Well, actually, I’m not that interested in sustainability.” And the reporter said, “What? What do you mean?” and I asked him, “Are you married?” and he said, “Yeah” and I said, “What’s your relationship to your wife? If you say sustainable, I’ll say I’m sorry.”  Sustainability is not really that interesting. Maintenance is not that interesting. I’m interested in fecundity and celebrations of nature’s abundance and designs that enrich life.

Lots of advocates of sustainability are also advocates of efficiency—doing more with less, reducing, minimizing—and that’s not very inspiring either. If one intends to make efficiency a goal, one has to ask, “Efficient at what?” What if you’re a Nazi?  An efficient Nazi is worse than an inefficient Nazi. Is efficiency good? Not if you’re a Nazi.

So I think the question of our time is not, “Are we doing something right or efficiently?”  I think the first question has to be, “Are we doing the right thing?” And when we are doing the right thing—when we are acting in harmony with the laws of nature—efficiency can serve a larger vision and we can move hopefully and effectively into the future. Indeed, nature itself is not efficient; nature is fecund, intelligent, and effective. This building is probably slightly more photosynthetically efficient than a leaf. And yet it only begins to approach the complex intelligence of that tree outside the window. How many objects of human artifice do you know that can make oxygen, sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, distill water, provide habitat for hundreds of species, accrue solar energy’s fuel, build complex sugars and fuels, make soils, change colors with the seasons, create microclimates and self-replicate?  How many buildings you know made oxygen lately?

So humility is in order here, but so is a fierce commitment to growth. The idea that we should be worrying about sustainability or maintenance is not what George is here to talk about. We’re here to talk about growth. Good growth. When’s the last time you heard an environmentalist talk about good growth?  Imagine that. The question really is “What do we want to grow?” Do we want to grow asphalt and destroy the planet or do we want to grow health and intelligence and a beneficial human footprint?

As Francis Crick pointed out in 1962 in his astonishing “Of Molecules and Men”, growth is a necessary precondition for life.

What then, are the minimum requirements for living organisms? First, we certainly need growth, if only as a necessary prelude to replication. This implies that there is available a source of free energy (in the thermodynamic sense)—in the last analysis this is provided by sunlight. The organism must be an “open system” into which chemicals flow and from which chemicals flow out again, so that it can obtain both the atoms and the energy needed for synthesis. The organism must be able to metabolize, using raw materials for its own synthetic ends, so that it can build up the molecules it needs in order to maintain itself and reproduce in a hostile world.

This is what Crick called the nature of vitalism, the unique character of living things, the idea that growth that supports life is good.

When our designs support life, then growth is good. When our intention is to grow our children’s health or grow ecological recovery or grow socially beneficial prosperity, then we can go way beyond simply tinkering with a design paradigm that is antagonistic to life and begin to redesign our world so that it is in harmony with all of life. To get there we might ask ourselves, “What are the fundamental intentions of our species?” I think that’s the question that the Woods Hole Research Center asks: Are the terrors and the tragedies that we see in the world of our own making?  Are they intentional? At this point in our history it’s no longer acceptable to say that global warming, for example, is not our intention. If we say that it’s not part of our plan we have to admit it’s certainly part of our de facto plan. It’s the thing that’s going to happen because we apparently have no other plan. And so as a culture we’ve become strategically tragic. And when any enterprise discovers that it has a strategy of tragedy it’s time for a strategy of change.

The two questions my colleagues and I are now asking ourselves in our work are: “How do we love all the children of all species for all time?” Not just our children. Not just our species. Not just now. All the children, of all species, for all time. And the second: “When do we become native to this place?”  What does it mean to be native to a place?  How many of you consider yourselves indigenous people?  What does it mean to be an indigenous person? At the Hanford Nuclear Plant, where the U.S. makes plutonium for our bombs and missiles, they had a symposium of senior scientists to consider ways to mark the ground where plutonium is stored so that even an extraterrestrial 5,000 years from now wouldn’t dare to dig it up. This exercise was just repeated at Yucca Mountain.  There they used 12,000 years.

Well the Yakima, who were at Hanford for another meeting, bumped into the scientists, found out what they were talking about and started laughing. “You know,” they said, “you really don’t need to worry about this. We’ll tell them where it is.”  The Yakima weren’t leaving.

What does it mean when you’re not leaving?

If you are not leaving do you become a steward of the natural world? There is an ongoing cultural debate over Biblical references to the human power over nature. Some see a mandate for stewardship, others a call for dominion. Many environmentalists have embraced stewardship as the human role in the natural world. But dominion is implicit in stewardship. How could you be a steward of something if you couldn’t dominate it?

So perhaps becoming native to our place means something else. Perhaps the question is: How do we find our kinship with the natural world?  When do we see ourselves as part of nature?  When those become our guiding questions, worrying about making our current industrial system more efficient or a little less bad begins to seem like an uninspiring prospect. Is being less bad being good?  Or is it simply being bad, just less so?  Isn’t it ironic that in the English language a double negative is a positive. In Russian a double negative is a reinforced negative. If you’re not not coming in Moscow, you are not coming. Isn’t it also interesting that in no language is a double positive a negative? When a Stanford professor pointed this out to his class a kid in the back of the room said, “Yeah, right”.  Being a professor is not easy, as any of us could attest.

But I think perhaps it’s time to leave behind trying to be less bad and start trying to be 100 percent good. Rather than stewarding the planet into oblivion why not awake to our kinship with all life and leave behind a footprint we can delight in? Why not make the human influence on the planet restorative, vital and good? Why not follow the laws of nature so that we can generate fecundity and good growth? As an architect I have to follow the law of gravity. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. Understanding the laws of nature is fundamental to design. This is the work of the Woods Hole Research Center.

In the modern design paradigm, a house, as Le Corbusier put it, “is a machine for living in.” Is the Woods Hole Research Center a machine for learning in?  Is a church a machine for praying in?  It’s been pointed out by authors in this room – Diane Dumanoski’s here – that very few products of human manufacture, despite how much air we’re moving around our buildings, were ever designed for indoor use. If we look at the hundreds of known persistent human chemicals in the environment, we’d see that designing machines for living in has become one of the largest nonscientific chemical experiments ever perpetrated.  Ever hear of Scotchguard?  Remember that?  Scotchguard was pulled off the market as a persistent toxin.

The shortcomings of the machine for living in moved the modern paradigm toward the notion of living machines. Perhaps, was suggested, we might be able to manage nature and reduce our impact with living machines, as was done here at Falmouth and Woods Hole. But then the question has to be, “Are we going to use nature as a tool?” If we can sequester cadmium and mercury in Egyptian bulrushes, what we’ve done uses nature as a tool.

And so perhaps the question that’s implicit in the intention of this building would be not, “Can we design a machine for living in?” or “Could we design a living machine?” but perhaps, “Could we design a building that’s alive?”  Imagine a building like a tree.  Imagine a building or a project, a complex or a campus that accrues solar energy, builds soil, purifies water, sequesters carbon, provides habitat, changes color with the seasons, and hopefully, self-replicates. That’s going to be tough. If there’s anybody on the planet that can figure that out its George Woodwell.

Can we replicate designs such as this throughout the world? What does it mean to build in a crowded world? In Curitiba, Brazil, they decided to grow a city that loved all the children. When they build libraries in Curitiba they don’t build mausoleums for books in the middle of the city remote from residential neighborhoods, they put the libraries within 12 minutes walking distance of every child. Under a plan developed by former mayor, Jamie Lerner, libraries were built by giving the budget to local neighborhoods, so that instead of sending the money to San Paulo to some big contractor, local people would build their libraries in their home places. The city would then put a little, pastel-colored lighthouse out front with a glass room 10 meters up. When children see that there is somebody in the lighthouse – and some of them are occupied by volunteers 24 hours a day – they know the library is open and safe. And if children come to these libraries barefoot from the favellas and they don’t have any money for books they might need to buy, they can pick up cigarette butts or garbage on their way, put them in the right bins and get paid for their work in books. Every single child has all the books she needs for school and they’re all being given access to the World Wide Web.  That’s how they’re building libraries in Curitiba.

But Jamie Learner suffered a rather severe criticism from his own citizens because he had placed the libraries on the edge of the city. The children from the favellas outside the city limits were coming in and using the libraries and the citizens complained that their parents weren’t paying taxes. Those children shouldn’t be using the library, they said.  And Jamie’s response was, “When you start to love the children, you have to love all of the children because if the city can’t love those children too, then those children will grow to hate the city.  And if they hate the city, they will destroy the city”.

And as we see from the work of Woods Hole Research Center, we have to love every single child that’s born on this planet. Many environmentalists say that there’s a population problem, that some child being born in India is a population problem. Saying so diminishes that child’s existence and our own. We have to love every single child that’s born in the world because if we don’t love all the children in the world, those children will grow to hate the world and if they hate the world, they will destroy it.

Thank you.


Address to Woods Hole Symposium © 2003 William McDonough