Sustainable Designs Should Also Be Beautiful

In The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, Lance Hosey, an architect who once worked for William McDonough + Partners and now has his own non-profit organization, argues that beauty is a fundamental component of sustainability. After all, an ugly building is more likely to be torn down and replaced, and something that does not last is by definition unsustainable. There’s also a related problem: because sustainable architecture has focused on environmental impact and not aesthetics, we are left with numerous unattractive “sustainable” buildings. Hosey writes, “Originally, the concept of sustainability promised to broaden the purpose of contemporary design, specifically by adding ethics to aesthetics, but instead it has virtually replaced aesthetics with ethics by providing clear and compelling standards for one and not the other.”

The Shape of Green aims to address these problems by creating new guidelines for sustainable design that encompass both environmental ethics and aesthetics. He identifies three guiding principles for design: conservation, attraction, and connection. Conservation means the efficient use of materials: buildings that do not use materials superfluously generally require fewer resources to produce. Additionally, the arrangement of these materials (the form of the building) influences energy efficiency.

Attraction means beauty, or the way a design appeals to us. Hosey discusses beauty in terms of patterns and geometries that people are hardwired to enjoy. He repeatedly comes back to the concept of biophilia, our inherent attraction to the aesthetics of nature. Designs can appeal to these predispositions by emulating the sensory experience of nature. For example, a perforated building façade can evoke the visual experience of a tree canopy.

Connection means a building’s attachment to place. Hosey argues for a bottom-up approach to design, asserting that all architecture should be designed for its environmental context. He writes, “designers can expand on the many indigenous and vernacular traditions in which buildings and land unite to become a part of place, embodying the unique geographic essence of locale.” In other words, a building design should work with, not impose on, the unique qualities of its site. In addition to being less environmentally damaging, sustainable architecture can also be beautiful. This beauty should come from its natural setting.

By connecting aesthetics to place, sustainable architecture can be more unique and therefore more culturally enriching than traditional architecture. He slams Frank Gehry’s buildings for not only being wasteful in terms of material use, but also insensitive to their contexts. Though perhaps beautiful, Gehry’s buildings could be anywhere. We see this insensitive attitude in any number of suburban subdivisions; imposed on their sites, they have few distinctive qualities, little sense of place, and are environmentally destructive. By ignoring context, buildings become devastating to both ecology and culture.

Hosey switches between scales, moving from sustainable buildings to the form of sustainable cities. He argues that cities should be responsive to their natural settings, and he even touches on the idea that cities should perhaps be viewed more as landscapes than as collections of buildings. He explores planned “green” communities like Masdar City, but ultimately concludes that spontaneous communities such as favelas have more to offer us. Completely unplanned, favelas arise entirely from their people and their locations, not the top-down imposition of plans. Of course, the idea of cities being tied to place is not exactly new to landscape architecture, and Hosey seems more interested in how communities relate to their surroundings aesthetically than ecologically. While he mentions urban ecology, he doesn’t describe it beyond urban forestry and agriculture. A more thorough exploration of how site ecology can lead to urban form would have been nice. As a result, this book may be more interesting for architects than landscape architects.

For The Shape of Green, Hosey draws from an incredibly diverse range of resources, yet he sometimes over-simplifies complex subjects and relates debatable points as fact. While this approach certainly keeps the book from becoming boring, it can sometimes undermine it. Also, in some sections, The Shape of Green can have an overly casual tone (the book’s colorless images don’t help the matter). Still, Hosey focuses on the important issues, and his argument for the blending of aesthetics and environmental ethics is compelling. The relationship between sustainability, ecology, and aesthetics is certainly worth further investigation.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Benjamin Wellington, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Louisiana State University, and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: Island Press

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