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Environmentally Smart Design, Powered by Hollywood

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley atop City Hall, on the country's first city-sponsored green roof.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley atop City Hall, on the country's first city-sponsored green roof. (Robert Humphreys)

"I love the show," he says. "It's beautiful. It says everything that you want a show like that to say."

Even the riveting Ken Burns series on Frank Lloyd Wright was held to 90-minute segments. But Harris says he figured viewers would have an easier time recording the program if it aired on a single evening.

After the first hour, the high points are segments on China and Chicago. No politician should miss the notorious night in Chicago in 2003 when Daley defied the Illinois governor and Federal Aviation Administration by ordering bulldozers to break up the runway of Meigs Field so he could reclaim the lakefront for the people.

Susan Szenasy, editor of Metropolis and an early advocate of green design, describes "sustainable" features as "the new poetry of buildings." The film's superior visuals -- cityscapes and action footage, as well as brilliantly orchestrated interviews -- convey excitement about largely hidden and technical features, as well as infrastructure, to purify water and air and reduce reliance on carbon fuels.

Pitt reduces the technology and engineering to a mantra for the movement: "Imagine buildings that make people feel better."

The documentary touches on the role of tax codes and political muscle in encouraging green design, which costs more than conventional construction but offers savings, not to mention survival. There is a strong suggestion that big change will not occur without the weight of government.

Much of the government will be away this week in Washington. But Harris said: "People actually will take a look at it. I just want real people to understand the issue, that big cities can be designed in ways that help all of us."

As a sustainable-housing convert, Pitt will travel to New Orleans on Aug. 30 to announce the winner of his competition to design sustainable housing there -- a contest that speaks directly to a question he poses in the film:

"Where are the new ideas?"

Design e²: The Economies of Being Environmentally Conscious (three hours) debuts tonight at 8 on WETA (Channel 26).

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