This month, Princeton Architectural Press will release The Underdome Guide to Energy Reform ($24.95), a book written by architects that examines the political narratives behind contemporary energy schemes. The following excerpt sets the stage for the ongoing debate.
By Janette Kim and Erik Carver
Though U.S. news media show climate change and oil depletion as partisan matters of opinion, major institutions—from insurers to armed services—have sidestepped these conflicts to form plans of action. Architecture firms have codified sustainability principles into a straightforward set of best practices: embrace LEED standards and renewable products, or stay out of the way while engineers and bureaucrats handle it.
Technical tweaks—insulation, tree planting, upzoning, heat recovery, transit overhauls, and smart grids—can help maximize services while lowering bills. But they don’t merely save energy. They also support narratives on lifestyle, property rights, and the horizons of political possibility. As we survey these approaches, we must also map their blind spots in order to move forward. Infrastructural solutions demand largescale action, but who has the means and authority to execute them? If the American Dream has taken shape in times of crisis or rapid expansion, can it emerge in an era of slow growth and limited government?
By delineating economics and ecology, architects and planners trouble familiar figures of the city, even as those figures themselves change. Designers manage resources, systems, and organisms by reimagining the good life at all scales. In this way, they can replace a scarcity-driven model of sustainability with one that acknowledges the struggles inherent in governance. While sustainability defers to the invisible hand of the market and keeps its hands off Mother Nature, a more ambitious approach seeks new energy problems as well as solutions.
To fuel ambitious strategies, architecture must rethink performance. Modernists optimized a short list of variables: labor, material, and square footage. In an era aware of climate change, we need to manage multiple definitions of efficiency to address an expanded constituency. A broader set of metrics could measure not only carbon and dollars but also variables like housing availability, species counts, and resource equity.
Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s 1960 proposal for the two-milewide (3.2 km) Dome Over Manhattan imagined a massive architectural surface that would regulate the city’s ecosystems. They delivered this design along with a series of surprising calculations: the Dome would reduce heat loss by scaling the city to 1/85 of its surface area; the elimination of snowplowing alone would pay for heat; buildings inside the Dome could be built lighter and cheaper without need for weatherproofing; and interior air could be heated by remote plants.
This grand scheme, while easily dismissed as technocratic megalomania, significantly proposed repurposing efficiency to address new criteria. By creating an overarching surface, the Dome would dislodge architecture from its conventional identification as a boundary between public and private. In doing so, it would make visible a redistribution of real costs and benefits to a different public than that implied by the Manhattan street grid. The Dome redefined efficiency by constructing a communicative surface of enclosure and energy distribution.
In a way, all buildings are domes—atmospheric enclosures that define collectives. Domes regulate climatic energy (Biodome), as well as agonistic spectacle (Thunderdome); they house utopia as well as struggle. Buildings mediate climate, vision, and bodies in ways shaped by politics. Architecture’s effectiveness as a technology of power flows from its naturalization of economic, juridical, and technological principles.
The Underdome Guide to Energy Reform depicts energy reform as a landscape of competing agendas. It maps icons of energy management schemes arranged around four fields of analysis: power, territory, lifestyle, and risk. Each agenda is located in the United States or American spheres of influence.
The Underdome Guide offers no guidance. Instead, it frames debates to inform the decisions that affect our environment. Like Architectural Graphic Standards, it illustrates a variety of techniques, forms, and managerial protocols in contemporary design. Like a voter guide, it catalogs ideologies behind energy rhetoric to enable participants in the building process to make informed choices and identify allied approaches.
We invited architectural thinkers to moderate discussions among energy experts from a broad range of disciplines. Participants in these conversations included architectural historians Reinhold Martin, Jonathan Massey, Michael Osman, and Meredith TenHoor; designers Denise Hoffman Brandt, Laura Kurgan, Georgeen Theodore, and June Williamson; engineer Andy Thompson; economists Moshe Adler and J. Scott Holladay; entrepreneurs Cary Krosinsky and Sarah Beatty; New York City and State government officials Laurie Kerr and James Gallagher; historian Jonathan Levy; journalist Heather Rogers; planner Rae Zimmerman; and policy advocate Petra Todorovich Messick. We include in the book transcripts of the events alongside essays by each moderator that examine one of four Underdome fields.
As sites for architecture’s agency in energy reform, “Power” considers questions of control, governmental and otherwise; “Territory” maps planning, land use, and property regimes; “Lifestyle” looks at sociability and the individual; and finally, “Risk” asks how collectives are formed to manage uncertainty.