Stewardship as Architectural Aesthetic

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Vitruvius on Firmness, Commodity and Delight

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio goes into great detail regarding proper architecture in his treatise De Architectura (On Architecture), but is not exclusively concerned with architectural aesthetics.5 Perhaps the most germane aspect is his reference to firmness (by which he means structure), commodity (by which he means shelter) and delight (by which he means the emotional or psychological aspects of buildings.) The three together are his measure of aesthetics. This is a recognition that function plays a unique aspect in Architecture, unlike the other arts. This is not always visible, but the educated observer might perceive it and find it “beautiful” or pleasing. Christian Norberg-Shultz, a Norwegian philosopher of architecture, further explored the same concepts in the 20th Century.

Heidegger Comes Full Circle

We might contrast this with a thoroughly 20th Century idea of aesthetics. Heidegger first defines aesthetics as something entirely within the jurisdiction of the artist. It is a circular definition and almost entirely self-referential. He writes, “The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist. Neither is without the other.”6 This reflects the current view of art, which one might designate as only loosely aesthetic: the art is whatever the artist says it is. Not surprisingly, it is difficult to get public and government support for such artwork, although a surprising number of aficionados have accepted that definition. Not surprisingly, many artists enjoy this definition. It is not terribly useful to connect sustainability with this approach, as each artwork and each artist can have its own separate aesthetic anyway; there is no ostensible connection to any other work.

Interestingly enough, Heidegger himself leads us through a long and entertaining journey of similes, examples, and comparisons to conclude (almost in reverse of his original position) that art helps us to see the most basic nature of things. When discussing Van Gogh’s multiple paintings of shoes, he concludes, “The art work let us know what shoes are in truth.” This is parallel to Plato’s notion that art imitates reality. Heidegger, himself, sees the similarity between his conclusion and the “medieval” expression of art and denies it. Yet it is present nonetheless.

But perhaps the proposition that art is truth setting itself to work intends to revive the fortunately obsolete view that art is an imitation and depiction of reality? The reproduction of what exists requires, to be sure, agreement of the actual being, adaptation to it; the Middle Ages called it adaequatio; Aristotle already spoke of homoiosis. Agreement with what is has long been taken to be the essence of truth. But then, is it our opinion that in this painting, Van Gogh depicts a pair of actually existing peasant shoes, and [that it] is a work of art because it does so successfully? Is it our opinion that the painting draws a likeness from something actual and transposes it into a product of artistic—production? By no means.

The work, therefore, is not the reproduction of some particular entity that happens to be present at any given time; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the thing’s general essence.

So, although Heidegger maintains that the artist defines the art, he also defines art as something that is “the reproduction of the thing’s general essence.” This leaves us with the idea that an architect who truly captures sustainability will have conveyed its essence to the occupant and the observer alike, something that we would consider the perfect goal and something surprisingly responsive to Plato’s original analysis and concern.

Ethnic Domain: Suzanne K. Langer

Suzanne K. Langer expresses two viewpoints regarding sculpture and architecture as follows: “A piece of sculpture is a center of three-dimensional space. It is a virtual kinetic volume, which dominates a surrounding space and this environment derives all proportions and relations from it …The work is the semblance of a self …” This is one of the views stated clearly in the 20th Century, and were probably dominant in previous centuries as well. Architectural aesthetics has to do with sculpture and with the three-dimensional space created by a building. It is “architecture as a commanding object” which correlates directly to the ego-driven thread of architects throughout the centuries. It is the impact of their form on the surroundings. This aesthetic has justified architecture that ignores the environment around it. Like much of modern art, it is only concerned with having an impact, not about what kind of impact to have. It does not lend itself easily to sustainability (unless placed under the domain of one of the other sustainable aesthetics), and has been the bane of environmentally responsive architecture; by definition, the greater the impact, the greater the power of the architect. This parallels 20th Century art, in general, which rewards art primarily for its impact.

Langer also refers to architecture that occupies an ethnic domain. It creates a place, yet it is not in a place. This ethnic domain is a culture that the architect makes visible. She explains it thus: “The architect creates its image: a physically present human environment that expresses the characteristic rhythmic functional patterns which constitute a culture.” This is another statement of what the architect creates, but it refers to solidifying into a place what the society desires, and expressing the functional patterns of a culture. This is a much more useful concept of aesthetics, as it is the visible expression of a culture. It is the distinction between being in a place and making a place within the definition of the current social definition while using the current spatial language. This is immediately amenable to a new concept of architectural aesthetics. If we define the cultural signals and conventions of acceptable place-making to refer to sustainability, a place is only an acceptable place when it is sustainable. If we define sustainability as a desired cultural function, then it is the job of aesthetic architecture to make such places.

Although there is currently some debate about the details and numerical rating of the system, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)7 proposed by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) has already had a significant impact on the profession. Enlightened clients demand a silver or platinum rating and expect a building to be more energy efficient and of lower impact on the environment. This system has not yet resulted in a new aesthetic of typical forms or formal relationships, but does reflect a societal impulse to define acceptable architecture in sustainable terms.