Stanford Libraries acquire the archives of leading environmentalist William McDonough

Stanford Libraries will create a "living archive" with the visionary who is considered to be the leading environmental architect of our time.

Courtesy William McDonough William McDonough

Environmental architect William McDonough

William McDonough is one of the superstars of the environmental movement. Time magazine heralded him as a "Hero for the Planet" in 1999. President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development in a 1996 White House ceremony. McDonough is the only individual to receive the award, the nation's top environmental honor.

Now the man who has been called the leading environmental architect of our time will be donating his extensive archive and professional papers to Stanford University Libraries.

Roberto Trujillo, head of the libraries' Special Collections, hailed McDonough's partnership with Stanford as a new kind of "living archive": "We see the possibility to capture not just the writings and artifacts but the activities and conversations of a designer and thought leader – and the many influential individuals he works with – as they happen. It's a real-time archive."

McDonough is perhaps best known for the iconic 10-acre green roof atop Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge truck factory in Dearborn, but his influence has been felt beyond architecture. He is co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, with German chemist Michael Braungart. He is founder of William McDonough + Partners and co-founder (again with Braungart) of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. In 2010, he launched the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute to promote the design and manufacture of safe and healthy products and materials.

His environmental motto is "Being less bad is not being good." He has criticized moves to "reduce the carbon footprint" when, for example, they merely recycle items that may be carcinogenic or otherwise environmentally harmful.

According to Time, "His utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that – in demonstrable and practical ways – is changing the design of the world."

The extensive McDonough historical collections cover more than 40 years of the designer's professional career. But McDonough is very much active and alive, and constantly generating new material for the archive. Hence, one of the challenges the libraries face will be managing the process of continually harvesting material for the archive from a living donor, and creating technological (and human) protocols so that the process will not be invasive.

The acquisition was announced at an event in San Francisco Wednesday night. Susan Sarandon was the emcee for the event, with Meryl Streep as a special guest.

The Stanford Libraries and McDonough have agreed to collaborate on a comprehensive approach to archiving the McDonough collections, which include paper and born-digital material. The libraries will use the digital components to create a set of open-source archival technologies that will allow creators, archivists and selected contributors to actively collaborate.

Stanford is an international leader in creating standards and best practices for realizing the digital library – one of the reasons McDonough was attracted to Stanford in the first place.

Speaking of the collaboration with the libraries, McDonough said he was "especially excited about their interest in new ways of archiving and look forward to working with their team. We are doing something new here. It's not just pulling the past into the present. We are pulling the present into the future."

Stanford University Librarian Michael Keller sees the acquisition as "an extraordinary opportunity not only to advance and redefine what an archive can be, but also a chance to engage with William McDonough to explore and document such questions as how the sustainable movement happened, and to examine links between pioneering thinkers such as McDonough and Buckminster Fuller."

Keller's mention of Fuller is apt. Stanford Libraries acquired the Buckminster Fuller archives in 1999, and it is one the libraries' most in-demand collections. It is also one of the most extensive personal archives anywhere. In a sense, the new McDonough acquisition is an extension of that visionary effort. It is a connection, also, that is personally meaningful for McDonough.

As a student at Dartmouth, McDonough heard one of Fuller's famously long lectures (more than three hours) – an encounter that left an indelible mark.

Speaking to Forbes Magazine in 2010 about his early influences, McDonough said, "In design, people like Buckminster Fuller amazed me at the levels at which he could think. He could think molecularly. And he could think at the almost galactic scale. And the idea that somebody could actually talk about molecules and talk about buildings and structures and talk about space just amazed me." Some consider McDonough an heir to Fuller's legacy.

According to McDonough, "That Buckminster Fuller's archives are at Stanford University Libraries is especially meaningful to me. He was an important influence on my early thinking."

Roberto Trujillo, Stanford Libraries: (650) 387-6816,

Andrew Herkovic, Stanford Libraries: (650) 725-1877,