Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sustainable and Beautiful = Long Term Success

I appreciate the questions raised in the paper "Undoing the Relation: Image, Sustainability and Architecture" where the authors Anne-Marie Willis and Tony Fry suggest that instead of focusing on the aesthetics of a building design in the planning stage, instead we ask the questions:
  • "What is this building to sustain?"
  • "Is what it is to sustain itself sustainable?"
  • "How can it be designed so as to sustain that which is sustainable?"
These are valueable questions, partially because it's focusing on what needs to be done rather than what would look impressive, and also because these questions encourage looking at the whole ongoing process of the building, as an entity with a job over the course of time.

Photo: Erik Christensen

Beauty and aesthetics are not to be ignored, however, because these factors heavily factor in to the designs ability foster reproduction.  When people see a visual image of a building that gives them an emotional pull, they then find themselves plotting how to make what they saw happen again, but for themselves this time.  As an example, I would point to any green roof with plants doing well.  For whatever reason, this image lights up the hearts of just about anyone.  It could be due to biophilia, genetic memory, instincts or any number of factors, but a lot of people just love a green roof.  To extend the scale of the image, I've noticed that people also love the idea of green roofs and walls in an urban context.  When I've shown pictures of imaginary cities to people with a sea of skyscrapers full of living roofs, they always exclaim over how "cool" that is.  It's like people just know there's something "right" about it.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a person say they wish they could live in a "place like that" when they've seen an image of a house or a city with green roofs.  Now, I don't mean to suggest that green roofs are appropriate for every project by any means.  What I'm saying is that sometimes a beautiful image carries a lot of weight in the hearts and minds of people, and, when that happens, it's more likely to show up again and again.  Someone might spend years plotting how to live their life so that they can eventually live under such a beautiful roof.

Photo: Chicago City Hall Green Roof, by TonyTheTiger
The authors are right, though, that in this time of climate crisis, add-on sustainability isn't going to cut it.  We have to rethink the way we live our lives and what processes need to die away.  A green roof doesn't solve that much, nor a worm bin nor a rain water barrel, if one is flying across the country several times a year and making 45 minute drives to work every day.  Adding solar panels to a house that is sucking up crazy amounts of energy only prolongs the inevitable collapse of resources.

The authors make another good suggestion:

"Sustainments are modest and accumulative, situation specific, starting wherever you are and can, in this sense sustainments ar emany of thse things currently designated as features of sustainable architecture - but they are more than this, because they are focused on time and process not just on space and object."  So, the pertinent thought process becomes how to make the building something that sustains over time rather than something that consumes over time, which is more important than what it looks like.

If architects and design teams could see, figuratively speaking, DNA strands instead of blueprints, and a face instead of a facade, we'd get closer to solving our problems.  Treating buildings with the same kind of consideration as a living creature or an ecosystem leads to making sustainable decisions that tie the building into the natural world, with its rhythms and processes, rather than working against the climate and conditions.  Good choices along these lines will work out better long term if they are visually attractive, however, because that adds the emotional component needed for people to apply and reapply these methods.

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