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

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.

Recent Architectural Movements and Aesthetics

Adolf Loos and Modern Architecture

The recent death of Pierre Koenig represents the passing of the last of the significant modernists who truly believed that the beauty and the elegance of architecture came from the simplest and cleanest response to the constraints of a problem—a rationalistic and scientific view of aesthetics. There is no doubt that their buildings held a certain austere beauty, especially Koenig’s. He had a chance to pursue his work through a consistent evolution into the 21st Century by incorporating new materials and responding to the increasingly complex demands of energy conscious and environmentally responsible design.

Adolf Loos was arguably the opening spokesman for modern movement. He heralded the shift away from ornamental architecture, which had dominated for several centuries. He writes, “Ornament is not merely produced by criminals, it commits a crime itself by damaging national economy and therefore its cultural development “8

From such a view came architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies Vander Rohe. Austere usage of materials became an elegant aesthetic, but behind the aesthetic was the fundamental expectation that the mass production of good architecture could make the life of the common man much better. It was a translation of the Bell, Burroughs, and Sullivan notion that art could elevate, only this time it was translated into a scientific determinism that truly thought that if we made safe, clean, open buildings, the stress on people’s lives would be reduced. They would be happier and many societal ills would become obsolete. This is arguably the last real aesthetic of architecture. It resulted in a style that, unfortunately, could be copied without understanding; but it also resulted in a new ideal of beauty, which had social overtones. This is the prototype after which an aesthetic of sustainability must be modeled.

Le Corbusier

Pierre Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) wrote of the way that modern architecture would enrich people’s lives in La Ville Radieuse. But Corbusier also translated his ideas into a formal language and states clearly what the language was about. He says,

Architecture is the masterly correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage.9

Furthermore, he “invented” the brise-soleil, which cut off the sun at certain times and seasons. He employed the scissors cross section, which allowed occupants of apartment buildings to have cross ventilation and views in opposing directions. He detached the vision portion of the window from the ventilation portion, which simplified production. He celebrated rainfall and drainage with scuppers and inverse fountains (where the concentrated rainfall is the water spray). All of these modernist environmental ideas became forms and elements. It was not always as pure as he originally stated. The cathedral at Ronchamps is reminiscent of a nun’s hat and is a swooping combination of forms cast in concrete and painted white. (Similarly, Aalto used simple, but more organic and curved, sensuous forms in his buildings, revealing a love affair with the gradations of light.)

Let it also be noted that Corbusier had a questionable intellectual understanding of both technology and aesthetics. He overstated the case for simple objects, given that they are often made of very complex pieces at the scale of buildings. He claimed to understand light and yet states, “Gothic architecture is not, fundamentally, based on spheres, cones and cylinders. Only the nave is an expression of a simple form, but of a complex geometry of the second order (interesting arches). It is for that reason that a cathedral is not very beautiful …”10

It is clear that most people think cathedrals are beautiful, even if somewhat dated. One could argue that they are sustainable by default. The interior temperatures remain relatively constant due to the mass of the material of the building. They consume little or no energy and require minimal maintenance, compared to similar modern buildings of the same scale. Yet that is what needs to be taken into account in the new aesthetic. Corbusier’s ideas and elements must be adopted and adapted, without his blanket antagonism to forms used in the past.

Peter Eisenman

Over time, post modernism and deconstructivism have made a serious cultural impact, and the modernist viewpoint has been largely left behind. At the popular level, the sterility of modernist architecture left most occupants and observers with an unhappy (and unaesthetic!) experience. This may have occurred precisely because too many architects were too lazy about responding to the real constraints, and opted instead for the easiest and least interesting solution by tacking on some stylistic modern imagery. Or they disregarded human comfort, emotion, and typical lifestyles, hoping to bring about some pure and elevated lifestyle by forcing building occupants into a less cluttered behavior. This is the danger of a simplified application of an aesthetic.

But we will leave that until some new modernist (a la Glenn Murcutt, Renzo Piano, Nicholas Grimshaw, or Jean Nouvel) shows the way. The real goal is to divert these new modernists into an aesthetic of sustainability.

Robert Venturi

In the late 20th Century, Robert Venturi elaborates on the ethnic domain theme raised earlier by Langer: buildings must make a cultural reference, and they must have symbols that allow the observer to relate to the purpose, context, or history of the building type.11 This attitude gave rise to postmodernism in architecture, which is composed almost entirely of rebellion against modernism. Postmodernism enriched architecture in that it allowed for cultural symbols, and fed into the zeitgeist of an abrogation of any deterministic or absolute standard by which behavior or form might be judged. Venturi himself recognizes the inherent danger of this influence and writes, “In frequent cases, orgies of complex and contradictory articulations produce dramatic expression that becomes expressionism in architecture. Ironically, the exclusion of applied ornament distorts the whole building into an ornament.”12 Yet again, when we define a sustainable imagery, we create a new signage and cultural context which can be referenced, but we may retain a postmodernist viewpoint in allowing multiple rationales for the aesthetic.

Christianity as a Source

I have shown how several views of aesthetics could be adapted to focus on sustainability. In a positive postmodern approach, these various narratives can coexist simultaneously, perhaps without serious conflict. In fact, they can coexist with a more absolute acceptance of an underlying beauty which is common to all aesthetic experiences, and which stems from the recognition or approach to some absolute truth. (This would certainly make postmodernists nervous, but if viewed as an alternate narrative, it should not be fatal.)

Christianity holds a unique position in this discussion. Despite White’s criticism of Christianity for failing to end greed and exploitation, any careful examination of history concludes that both were present without Christianity.13 Thus they are part of the human condition, not results of Christianity. Greed is not a Christian invention. So the proper question might be, “Have we applied the principle of stewardship to architecture?” In fact, Christianity supports such a new aesthetic. Consider Genesis 2:15: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”

The principle of stewardship appears in the earliest Judeo-Christian document, the first book of the Torah, or Genesis.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Some have misunderstood this verse (by removing it from it literary and historical context) to mean that God instructs humans to abuse the earth, sea, air, and all living things. Note the first four words of the verse; this was a blessing, not a command, per se. Yet what was the purpose of the blessing?

Let us also examine its literal context: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). The second passage deals with the nature and purpose of man’s dominion. We are not here to despoil the planet. Rather, we are here as gardeners. What does it mean to dress it and keep it? “Dressing it” (in terms of plant life and landscape) means to tend it, trim it, fertilize it, manage it and make it prosper or bring forth fruit. “To keep it” means to conserve it for future generations. Does this sound like Gro Brundtland’s definition of sustainability?

The theme goes on throughout Genesis:

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought [them] unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that [was] the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. (Genesis 2:19-20)

Adam named all of the animals. The point of the verses is that Adam was on an intimate and friendly basis with all of the animals, not just sheep, dogs, and cows. Adam, here, (as a representative of mankind) was given a very direct responsibility to the animals, and a very direct individual relationship with them: they were not objects, they were not just food, they were entities.

In the modern world, we have lost this relationship with nature. Most people have no idea where food comes from, how animals live, or the fact that many animals have emotions and interact individually with people. I recently heard of a young person who thought that chickens had four legs, because that’s how many drumsticks came in a shrink-wrap pack. She had never made the connection between the picture of the chicken and the food she ate. I laud the 4H clubs of America, who recognize and foster the relationship between humans and animals. Even those who eventually sell an animal for slaughter recognize that the animal has a nature, personality, and physical value. It is often difficult for humans to recognize this, as perhaps it should be. Even in a “fallen” world, in which we eat animals, we should do so with the proper respect for life. Indeed these verses seem to emphasize the value of all levels of life.

Let us examine this theme in later passages:

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth [upon] the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.” (Genesis 9:1-3)

Again, it is clear that this passage contains part command and part blessing/prophecy: Noah and his family are to be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth. It is in the very nature of the story that God took great pains to save all the animals. Indeed, God made Noah and his family tend, feed, and provide for all creatures. The command to replenish the earth is a positive instruction after a disaster. The prophecy that the animals will eventually be subject to humanity has come to pass. We forget that when this book was written, humanity was still comparatively weak against a whole range of animals. The concept that all animals would dread humans was not at all to be taken for granted. It is a prophecy, not a command to “make all animals fear you.” That would contradict the previous passages we just read. Taken in context, the intent is clear.

It is time for Christianity to take a lead in defining a new aesthetic, based on stewardship. The alternative is catastrophic both in the physical realm (e.g. global warming and pollution) and the spiritual realm. This principle of stewardship continues through the Old and New Testaments:

The time has come for judging the dead… and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11:18)

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)


There are many possible rationales for an aesthetic of sustainability, but for the Christian the concept of stewardship is clear. Unlike an entirely secular view of the problem, Christians have a fundamental motivation for stewardship: they believe that life is not just about getting whatever you can at the moment. Secularists have little motivation to change their personal behavior in order to save the environment. The core question is, “Why bother?” They have no responsibility to anything outside themselves. If, indeed, we are just a collection of chemicals without a soul, then why should we care about anything? Why do we care what happens to the planet? The only behavior that makes sense to the complete secularist is hedonism. Live for the moment, enjoy the moment to its fullest, and who cares about the environment?

The real issue becomes not whether we think that the physical world is all there is, but why we should personally care about it. Pollution and environmental degradation does not result from a conscious decision to destroy the environment, it comes from people who have no reason to modify their personal behavior away from complete selfishness.

As Christians, we have a reason to change our behavior because we are stewards of what we have been given. As Christians, we believe that we will be called to account for what we have done. Admittedly, our salvation does not depend on it—redemption and grace are free—but there is still accountability for stewardship and a fundamental instruction to protect and steward the world that God has given.

Let this particular approach to an aesthetic of sustainable architecture parallel other adaptations of historical aesthetics. We have more than enough basis for a new aesthetic that could make the way we build today more effective than the ways of the past.

Marc E. Schiler, IES, LC, is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.


1 Our Common Future, by the World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 (the “Brundtland Commission”) and the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (sometimes called the Earth Summit) 1992.

2 Jacques Derrida, A Discussion of Architecture, quoted in Aesthetics: a Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, by David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown, Prentice Hall 2005, 1997, pp 148, 149, ISBN 0-13-112144-8.

3 Plato, The Republic, from The Collected Dialogues of Plato, by Plato, Edith Hamilton (Editor), Huntington Cairns (Editor), Lane Cooper (Translator), Princeton University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-691-09718-6.

4 Ralph Knowles, Sun, Rhythm, Form. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1985, ISBN 026261040X

5 Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture, by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Ingrid D. Rowland (Editor), Thomas Noble Howe (Editor), Cambridge University Press, 1999, ISBN 0521553644

6 Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” as quoted in Poetry, Language and Thought, by Martin Heidegger, translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Collins, 1971, ISBN 0-06-093728-9, pp 17-21.


8 Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, quoted in Aesthetics: a Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, by David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown, Prentice Hall 2005, 1997, p. 128, ISBN 0-13-112144-8.

9 Le Corbusier (Pierre Jeanneret), Towards an Architecture, quoted in Aesthetics: a Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, by David Goldblatt and Lee B. ZBrown, Prentice Hall 2005, 1997, p. 132, ISBN 0-13-112144-8

10 Ibid. p. 132-133.

11 Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas, MIT Press (1972), ISBN 0262220156

12 Robert Venture, Architecture as Decorated Shelter, quoted in Aesthetics: a Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, by David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown, Prentice Hall 2005, 1997, p. 141.ISBN 0-13-112144-8

13 Lynn Townsend White, in The Historical Roots Of Our Ecological Crisis, 1967 American Association of Science.