Alejandro Zaera-Polo, the high-profile champion of urban density, was struck by the dramatic waste of energy consumed in suburban America when he moved from London to Princeton. Taking up his position as dean of Princeton University’s school of architecture, the Spaniard began exploring his neighbourhood, with its extensive forests and wildlife preserves. This led him to appreciate that land was plentiful in the US – and could be utilised more effectively.
One day, while he was having lunch with Mahadev Raman, a member of his faculty and an Arup fellow, Zaera-Polo had an epiphany. Raman’s description of the zero-carbon home he had created in rural New Jersey inspired an in-depth inquiry into how to create more sustainable suburbs.
“Shifting the mindset of suburban residents, architects, developers and government authorities will take at least a generation,” he says. “But we have an obligation to build more sustainably through smarter material choices and energy systems.”
He relishes the interdisciplinary problem-solving approach that has long been a Princeton tradition.
Zaera-Polo channels a combination of missionary zeal, pragmatism and intellectual firepower in his quest to reduce the 48 per cent contribution to carbon emissions made through the construction and maintenance of buildings.
Originally from Madrid, the architect grew up in a politicised family of intellectuals; he counts sipping champagne while watching General Franco’s funeral on their black-and-white television as one of his favourite childhood memories. Discovering democracy was a thrilling part of his high school education, he recalls.
After completing his undergraduate degree at ETSAM – Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid – Zaera-Polo went on to work for José Rafael Moneo Vallés, the former chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Moneo encouraged him to pursue graduate studies at Harvard.
“When I left Madrid in 1989, I had no regrets. It was still a very brutish, continental place with lots of remnants of the dictatorship.” He credits the influx of South American immigrants into the Spanish capital with providing much-needed cultural change.
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas then recruited Zaera-Polo to work at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam when he graduated from Harvard. “Rotterdam was a hotbed for globalisation in architecture during the early 1990s. It was thrilling to participate in this pendulum shift.” OMA’s precarious finances prompted Zaera-Polo to move to London to teach at the Architectural Association. “When I arrived in London in 1993, I found a city with dirty streets, terrible public transportation, and whole neighbourhoods for sale.” Soon after his arrival Zaera-Polo co-founded Foreign Office Architects.
After 19 years in London, during which the capital, he says, was transformed into a “very dynamic and cosmopolitan world capital,” the architect traded in the fast-paced lifestyle to take up his position in Princeton.
Proximity to New York City, an easy one-hour train journey from Princeton, helped ease the transition to the suburbs. “When I lived in London or Rotterdam, I didn’t often go to theatre or to a concert, but it’s nice to know that world-class culture is still an option.” Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, for example, offers a year-round calendar of theatre and music.
The abundant coffee shops and landscaped public squares provide excellent opportunities for Zaera-Polo and his colleagues to observe how people move through space. He characterises Princeton’s residents as being more inclined to walk or cycle than most US suburbanites. Zaera-Polo enjoys the five-minute cycle or 10-minute walk to work along broad, tree-lined paths, but laments that he will need a car for the first time in his life in order to reach friends and some of the area’s attractions.
The conservative psyche and relatively slow pace of change pervading Princeton can sometimes frustrate the architect. “But I’m learning to enjoy the different rhythm here,” he says. “Tuning into the pleasing sound of the crickets and the intense sight of the autumn leaves changing colours is having a big impact on me.”
Work continues to dominate Zaera-Polo’s nights, and weekends. Entertaining at home forms an important part of his lifestyle. After hosting his first reception in the 1930s colonial house he shares with his wife, Maider Llaguno, he realised the 1400-sq ft living area wasn’t configured to accommodate a crowd. When the weather allows, the couple enjoy hosting al-fresco gatherings in their garden.
The couple investigated moving house, but found little in the university’s portfolio or in the open marketplace that compared with where they are now. The university co-owns their property and helped the couple obtain a competitive mortgage. It was house-hunting in Princeton that gave the couple a wake-up call about the lack of investment in energy-efficiency made by most US homeowners. Zaera-Polo hopes to raise public awareness about the long-term benefits of installing radiant floors, double-glazed glass, tilt-and-turn window systems – and other natural ventilation systems commonplace overseas.
Zaera-Polo continues to run an international architecture practice from Princeton. He Skypes with trusted colleagues in his London, Barcelona and Zurich offices for two or more hours per day. Harnessing the youthful energy of his students and staff as well as the wisdom of his peers, Zaera-Polo hopes to fuse theory and practice to create more sustainable suburbs.
“There are things going on in the intellectual universe which are going to amount to something important,” he says. “Or maybe I just think that I’m at the right place, at the right time for participating in another pendulum shift.”
● Princeton has quality shops, restaurants, and entertainment
● Convenient transport connections to New York and Philadelphia
● Great schools
● Conservative culture
● Very limited housing stock
● Foreigners may struggle to secure a mortgage with a local bank
What you can buy for . . .
$400,000 A two-bedroom entry-level home with some outdoor space
$2m A 4,000 sq ft home in an excellent location