Making Choices at Glass House

Posted on: April 11th, 2008 by Barbara Campagna

I just returned from 2 days at Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT, one of our newest historic sites. The Glass House site is one of the world icons of midcentury modern heritage and its 47 acres and 14 buildings present an inspiring setting for the creative process.

InterfaceFlor,  a company that develops commercial floor covering, and is known for its commitment to building environmental considerations into its business decisions, sponsored a retreat for “thought leaders” in the sustainable design field entitled, “Making Choices: Designing our Relationship with Community and the Environment”. Given that the mission of the Philip Johnson Glass House is to become a center-point and catalyst for the preservation of modern architecture, landscape, and art, and a canvas for inspiration, experimentation and cultivation honoring the legacy of Philip Johnson (1906–2005) and David Whitney (1939–2005), programs such as this which provide artists with the chance to literally stop and breathe while thinking about design, are becoming the hallmark of the site. After weeks of unusual bleakness for an April in the Northeast, the day the retreat began, the sun brought out crocuses and daffodils on the site; eagles flew over the trees and geese wandered around the pool; the grounds dried up enough to allow 30 people to traipse around it and despite the tragedy of our national airlines falling apart, everyone who planned on it was able to make it to the Glass House.

A Local Dinner – The Responsibility of Pleasure
After an afternoon of guided tours for the attendees, we were shuttled to dinner at Blue Café at Stone Barns, an organic working farm, a sustainable restaurant, a way of life really – located at Pocantico Hills, affiliated with Kykuit, another one of our historic sites in the Hudson Valley. The Stone Barn center's historic buildings are a brilliant reinterpretation of the “barn” by architects Machado & Silvetti. An unexpected meeting of Blue Café’s chef and Interface’s Chairman Ray Anderson, was the highlight of the evening. Ray told us the story of his epiphany after reading Paul Hawken’s seminal The Ecology of Commerce 14 years ago which led him to transform his petroleum-intensive carpeting business into a company whose goal is “Mission Zero” - a promise to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by the year 2020. The Chef came out thrilled to learn that Ray Anderson was in the room, as Ray’s book had impacted the way he thinks and practices. He calls his creation of food, meals, the farm and restaurant “the responsibility of pleasure” - If you can find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands and the mouth – then your carbon footprint can be much, much less. Serendipity met synchronicity...

Big House and Small Products
The second day of the retreat was split between a “game” developed by PETLab at Parsons the New School for Design and a design workshop to test our sustainable creativity facilitated by members of IDEO – an innovation and design firm from Palo Alto and New York. Students and professors from Parsons split us into groups and tested our ability to remain firm in our sustainable beliefs when confronted with market pressures. The IDEO leaders split us into groups and gave each group a product purchased from Home Depot and asked us to redesign the product for a specific person to make it more sustainable. With the game, we had a lot of fun but primarily discovered that when given time limits to make choices between what was right (when choosing materials for a new house) and what was the most expedient – we’d choose the expedient in order to win the game over choosing what was right.

Most of us redeemed ourselves in the afternoon when asked to recreate our products. My team was given a twenty-something San Francisco hipster named Ben and a sleek, plastic fire extinguisher. We threw away the fire extinguisher, its plastic, its non-recyclable materials and its over-abundant packaging and developed a “fire blanket” which could be used to put out fires, gather solar energy and carry groceries; be set up as a tent, a yoga mat and a kite and finally serve as a tablecloth at the end of Ben’s busy day with his fire blanket. Was it silly? A little. Did it make us think? A lot. And that’s what our hope for Glass House is – that it continues to be a place for creation.

What is Your Truth?

John Bradford, Interface’s Vice President of Research & Development, provoked us early in the day with questions such as “What is your truth? What is your compass? And Can a Person’s truth change?” The choices we were asked to make during the day showed us that our truths have to change if we expect to save our world. We can’t set ourselves apart from nature, we must become a part of it. John said, “We’ve been using Mother Nature’s savings for our own wealth and convenience. And the piggy bank is now depleted.” Here we were, some of the most informed sustainable practitioners in the country, and we spent a lot of time realizing how unsustainable our lives and choices were. We lamented that we just don’t feel we have the right information to make the right choices. And if we don’t, then how can we expect others to?

After presenting our new product skits in the sun-drenched Sculpture Gallery, we all took off in our gas guzzling limousines (at least there were 10 of us in each vehicle) to our bigger gas-guzzling airplanes to take us back to our homes sprinkled across the continent. Some of us shared that we paid for carbon offsets to justify our travel to the retreat – but not one of us regretted coming to this place, despite what our actions really cost the environment. Michael Specter, in his recent New Yorker article entitled “Big Foot” (February 25, 2008) says “Possessing an extensive carbon footprint is rapidly becoming the modern equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter.” Well, until I get forced to wear that big fat “BF” on my coat, I am afraid I will keep flying to sites, drinking out of plastic bottles and forgetting to turn out the lights in my bedroom. And I know that those are the wrong choices.

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Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at