Stewardship as Architectural Aesthetic

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At the current point in history, there is an appropriate concern for the environment, global warming, pollution, and the consumption of natural resources. Although the theories vary and multiple causes are cited, very few people would promote an absence of any environmental goals. Most people care enough about future generations to accept the notion of sustainability as presented by Gro Brundtland: “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”1 I will leave it to others to write further about why this came to pass, who is to blame, and how bad things are. In my role as a professor of environmental controls in Architecture, I have spent a lifetime teaching students the physical aspects of how to go about building sustainable architecture. But I have also seen the profession of Architecture largely ignore the energy crisis and continue to resist addressing issues of sustainability in the architectural movements and styles which are popular among academics, critics, or the general public. They are more interested in aesthetics, and to some extent that is appropriate, but it leaves us with only one option: to define aesthetics in a fashion which incorporates the goals and procedures of energy conservation and sustainability as a whole.

If this is the case, then some simple groundwork must be laid. First, it would be useful to examine historical theories of aesthetics. Then we must find an approach that addresses previous theories and gives us a legitimate opening for a new strategy. We must develop that strategy in a fashion that is acceptable to differing viewpoints, and is connected to reality in a manner that many can identify with. To that end, this paper will briefly review some existing theories of aesthetics as posited by philosophers and significant architects; it will critique them in terms of what is useful to sustainability, and in terms of what seems to fit with reality or human experience; it will propose a strategy for a new aesthetic; and it will demonstrate that such an aesthetic could be acceptable to a range of constituencies and understandings. Consistent with the nature of this conference, this paper will also show how a Christian worldview has led the author to such a conclusion, despite past attacks on Christianity in this field.

Jacques Derrida claims:

Deconstruction comes about … when you have deconstructed some architectural philosophy, some architectural assumptions – for instance, the hegemony of the aesthetic, of beauty, the hegemony of usefulness, of functionality, of living, of dwelling. But then you have to reinscribe theses motifs within the work.2

Thus, we begin the reinscription of the new hegemony, literally in the field of Architecture. Unlike Derrida, we find no usefulness in creating a hegemony which resists reinscription. The world cannot afford that at this time in history.

Basic Philosophical Concepts of Aesthetics

Plato and Imitation

Perhaps the earliest discussion of aesthetics comes from Plato, who first spoke of it in a negative fashion. In The Republic, Plato decries all art as imitation, which detaches us from reality by presenting a bad copy of it.3 Although his thesis that art is imitative could be correct, many have argued that his conclusion is wrong. In fact, it could be argued that humans learn from the act of imitation and from the resultant model or analogue. We see reality through the artist’s eyes and it becomes more understandable. But Plato offers us something useful to consider.

Sustainable architecture is very strongly related to reality; indeed, much more so than most Architecture—energy usage is measurable and resource consumption is quite real—as there is a direct relationship between a construction decision and the environmental impact. The relationships are complex and physical, not psychological. A consistent, sustainable architecture would teach about the real relationships between form and function, between material and consumption, between lifestyle choice and environmental impact. One would recognize a good building because one has become informed about the relationship of that building with a physical reality. One would learn about reality from consistent exposure to such buildings. Admittedly, this is closely parallel to a modernist view of architecture, but we will return to that in discussing modernism.

The rhythms of nature and natural forms are often optimized for a minimal use of energy and material resources. A tree is distributed in exactly the right form to absorb the maximum sunlight with a minimum of structure. This is the optimum response to certain natural laws or constraints. Most people recognize a certain beauty in a tree; there is an underlying system that is evident from tree to tree, and there is a harmony and a consistency. An aesthetic of architecture based on sustainability would also have such a texture or consistency. One could view such an aesthetic from a solely deterministic view: it arises from the relationship of different physical interactions. For example, fractals make “order” appear from chaos, and most people consider the result itself a thing of beauty.

The Christian might view this as something God created. Whether He did so by direct design, or by the design of the system of physical laws to which the tree responds, is actually immaterial. The idea of the tree is perfect and the natural execution of the idea, although varied, is optimized for sustainability. On the other hand, one might view the beauty as arising solely from the response to the (random) physical constraints on the tree. The beauty which emerges and imitates or responds to reality is acceptable to either viewpoint. In either understanding, sustainable architecture teaches about reality.

Furthermore, Plato criticizes artists and poets because they never invent anything or do anything such as construct a bed or fight a war (which is precisely why some people laud artists and poets). But architects certainly do something. In their art, they might do well to imitate the optimization and rhythms found in nature. This is not an entirely new idea; Ralph Knowles suggested it in Sun, Rhythm, Form.4