Raising the Roof: Sustainability Through Two Centuries

Spent a vacation weekend in Montreal (and honestly, truly did no any work for four days, including blogging, reading email, or even texting friends from work). A work de-emphasis didn't stop me from thinking about architecture and sustainability, however, and those thoughts were front and center as I toured the Basilica de Notre Dame and the Olympic Stadium.

Flying into Montreal, it's easy to pick out the 1976 Olympic venue: at 175 meters, the inclined tower is the tallest of its kind. Along with the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, it's one of the few buildings you ascend via an "inclinator" rather than a purely vertical elevator. The stadium sports a permanent cover, making it look something like a piece of Tupperware encasing something that has run afoul of your refrigerator. Original architectural plans for the Olympic venue included a retractable roof, pulled up like a magician snatching a tablecloth from under a full place setting. However, the roof wasn't finished in time for the 1976 Olympics and after several design failures that resulted in ripped, torn, and unusable stadium covers, the current lid was put in place with a vengeance. In only thirty years, the Olympic stadium suffered structural failures, lost its primary tenant (the Montreal Expos) and now sits as a stark (and tall) reminder of bad long-term design. Quebec residents still feel "sustainability" of a different sort, as tobacco taxes fund the remaining financial burden of the stadium.

Conversely, the spectacular Basilica of Notre Dame is now nearly 200 years old, has survived a fire and several reconstructions, and operates as a tourist and religious center on a daily basis. Partly, I believe the difference in long-term perspectives is due to the differences in the communities responsible for the buildings. The Basilica dates back to the founding of Montreal in the 1640s, and has had a strong community interested in its upkeep, structural integrity and long-term existence. Looking up at the ornate ceiling, completely supported by the exterior walls, I was reminded of Danny Hillis' discussion of the very long-term planning for the 14th-century era College Hall at New College at Oxford. Having a community commitment to anything, whether a building or a wiki, greatly improves the odds that thing survives in functioning form for more than a (technical) generation.

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