Gazing around me at all the modernist buildings that depress me with their functional plainness, and all the copies of ancient masterpieces that I like better but have to admit are out of time and place in the 21st century, I have often wondered what sort of architecture could be contemporary without being grim. What has occurred to me is a sort of return to nature. I was fascinated by some of the architectural details at Disney World -- columns like trees, squirrel-tail capitals, carved animal heads -- and that set me wondering about how such an aesthetic could be rendered fully grown-up.
Renzo Piano, it seems, has been wondering the same thing. The New York Times loves his new building for the California Academy of sciences, and I have to say it does look interesting.
On the other hand it combines natural vegetation with some very spare modernist elements. What is not glass or greenery is mostly plan steel or stone. There is still this affection modern architects have for vast, bare, rectangular surfaces, plain tubular columns, industrial lighting fixtures, and the like.
I also wonder about the museum's highly touted "green" design. The dirt and plants on the roof are supposed to be great insulation, but they're no better than fiberglass. The museum has solar panels, but they will only produce 5 to 10 percent of its electricity consumption. (Of course, it is in San Francisco.) They have a recharging station for electric cars, but wouldn't it have been better to put the museum near a metro or streetcar stop? The interior insulation is made from recycled blue jeans, which is kind of cool, but if you've ever read about recycling you know that the energy costs of collecting and transporting heavy materials often outweighs any savings from recycling them.
Still, they're trying, and that can only be a good thing.