by Avigail Sachs. University of Virginia Press, July 2017. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9780813941271 (h/c), $39.50.
Reviewed November 2018
Avigail Sachs’ book is a well-researched and in-depth look at the rise and influence of environmental design in the United States. Not surprisingly, the book won a 2017 Mellon Author Award from the Society of Architectural Historians. Sachs does an excellent job of presenting this history, from the call to action by Lewis Mumford in 1932, through the various stages in the development of the discipline. Environmental design seeks to broaden the architect’s understanding of societal and biological forces and to have this knowledge impact design and built works. Sachs identifies three distinct periods.
The New Deal helped architects to understand their changing responsibilities and see how close collaboration with planners, landscape architects, and even economists could improve outcomes and fundamentally transform their practice. Sachs begins by describing the influence of Catherine Bauer, her vision of democratic and progressive housing, and her enduring influence through her teaching at the University of California at Berkeley.
While Bauer focused on societal needs, others in the movement preferred a scientific approach that was research based. To use Sachs’ words, “research for architecture” implies adaption of a scientific approach to broaden the base of architectural knowledge. This knowledge would be developed through discussions and codified by schools of architecture now charged with training for research. Behavioral design became a field of study, and operations research and systems analysis became guiding principles. This initial period included a diverse group of architects and researchers. The Olgyays made strides in climatic control through experimentation and use of technology. Christopher Alexander’s writings sought to employ mathematics to solve complex architectural problems. Serge Chermayeff’s Community and Privacy: Towards a New Architecture of Humanism remains a core title in many schools.
The second phase of the movement best aligns with our understanding of environmental design and includes researchers like John Zeisel. During the 1960s, the relationship between man and environment grew as a field of study, leading to design methods being taught in many schools.
With the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s, environmental design again evolved. Ian McHarg, a landscape architect, called for the city to be examined as an ecosystem. Design with Nature emphasizes programming and presents a practical approach to planning.
What is the legacy of this movement? Sachs concludes that current architectural discourse draws on many of the ideas espoused by environmental design, like collaboration and emphasis on environment.
Sachs leaves us with much to consider in her pioneering work, especially the role of schools of architecture. Their leaders are profiled and a clear understanding of their influence emerges. She details significant ideas and contributors and brings to light the complex and intertwined history of an important piece of the modern movement in architecture.