Why is Beauty Essential for Sustainable Architecture and Design?

fractal pattern in dome architecture
Image: Seyed Ahmadreza Abedi

Suppose after years of marriage, one partner calls for divorce only because they want someone younger. In movies, we’re supposed to be disgusted with this person for abandoning their loved one, even though nothing is wrong. Yet this situation describes analogously our relationship with many consumer products.

We constantly want the newer (younger) model. On average, people abandon their cell phones for a newer one every year and a half. Computers tend to be replaced every three to five years. People, on average, replace a car every 8.4 years. These replacements often have nothing to do with whether the old one is broken.

When brand new, people croon over the glory of these objects, and they keep buying them because they “can’t live without them.” However, they can and do live without them; any given model is expendable once the new one hits the market. Architecture is not immune from this cycle. People consume and keep consuming.

Quality and Beauty Over Quantity

Discussions about sustainability often delve into areas like finance, politics, and technology. A neglected area is aesthetics. The word feels ambiguous, bordering on incomprehensible. For over 2000 years, philosophers have grappled with the nature of aesthetics and its prominent concepts—beauty, taste, the sublime, and others—without discovering absolute definitions.

Recent science has sharpened the teeth of these philosophical foundations, adding a layer of evidence to past intuitions and arguments. Complementing each other, they offer a formidable storehouse of ideas and evidence for the importance of aesthetics. From this, we glean aesthetics’ value to sustainable environmental solutions.

Beauty gives value to objects and contributes to people’s desire to preserve them and find them new functions. Image: Galen Crout

Decreasing waste proves to be a vital component of sustainability goals. To begin talking about waste, the fashion industry provides a valuable example. Fashion accounts for one of the largest waste-producing industries. Fast fashion added a tsunami of landfill with its unambiguously wasteful overproduction, contributing to another difficulty, the diminishing possibility of resale.

Quality clothing has declined as the emphasis morphed into a quest for quantity, so it cannot be resold as easily. A New York Times article from 2022 even declared the demise of the “Golden Age of Thrifting.” When industries focus on quantity or utility alone, then the result is often products that are disposable or quickly and easily abandoned.

The Most Sustainable Building

Refocusing on quality products facilitates sustainability’s goal of reuse and repurposing. As the architect Carl Elefante famously declared, “The most sustainable building is the one that is already built.” As a general principle, buildings and other objects often find new life if they were aesthetically well-designed in the beginning.

Philosopher Roger Scruton, in the new introduction to his classic The Aesthetics of Architecture, writes:

Aesthetic value is the long-term goal, utility the short-term. Nobody wishes to conserve a building if it does not look right, but if it does look right, someone will find a use for it.

While not a strict rule, the guiding principle seems largely true: a beautiful product or building will find a new owner or purpose, and an ugly building will likely sit empty and eventually torn down.

Examples of once glorious buildings now abandoned are readily available, but usually, the beauty of the building presents a reason for lamenting the decay.

Plus, there are generally political, financial, or geographical reasons for the disrepair that overtook these buildings. But the core motivation of this idea remains—beautiful buildings (and objects) are ripe for reuse.

Three Principles for Beautiful Sustainability

Solutions for melding beauty into sustainable design might seem nice while lacking practical application. In his book The Shape of Green, Architect Lance Hosey highlights the tension between those who want green design and those who want good design. To provide practical guidance, he introduces three principles:

  1. Conservation
  2. Attraction
  3. Connection

Conservation involves shaping for efficiency; attraction means shaping for pleasure; and connection entails shaping for place. With these principles, Hosey developed a strategy for sustainable design.

Notice that Hosey commits himself to the importance of aesthetics with the second principle of attraction. He writes:

If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable.

While the other two principles temper his advocacy for aesthetics, most discussions about sustainability neglect it altogether.

In light of the global concern about climate change, researchers, engineers, and others search for improved technology to create, distribute, or more efficiently contain energy sources.

Architects and builders try different materials for energy efficiency. None of these solutions consider the role of people’s emotions in changing their habits and preferences. Aesthetics taps into our emotional attachments.

When designing solutions for the sustainable future, beauty must come into consideration. Here, a flapping wind turbine design mimicking the movement of bird’s wings. Image: Tyer Wind

As Hosey declares, “The problem isn’t logical; it’s emotional.” Consider recent suggestions about the 15-minute city and the plethora of emotion-driven criticisms. Any superficial attempts to design green buildings will not be long-lasting, even if they work in the short term.

Solutions must appeal to people’s emotional responses to buildings as much as solve practical considerations. Examples like Cape Cod residents disputing a wind farm off the coast because it’s ugly further illustrate the need for aesthetics as part of the solution for sustainable design and alternative energies. Aesthetic objects connect with our emotional responses.

Think about buildings that stand in our memories as beautiful. While the majority of buildings are not examples of supreme beauty (like a cathedral, library, or museum), they needn’t lack aesthetic details and considerations. Exactly which considerations, however, are not formulaic.

Solutions must appeal to people’s emotional responses to buildings as much as solve practical considerations.

As artists, architects sometimes create a particular style that clarifies who designed the building wherever it is built. But, as Hosey suggests, these artistic styles inherent in those buildings form a link to franchises and chain stores where it is important to recognize something like the golden arches, even though it may not fit into the context of its location.

Beautiful green design should not be limited to a particular style. Aesthetics that will work for sustainability must consider the context to complement the local customs and fulfill the unique environmental concerns of that location.

This requirement mirrors the idea that an igloo makes sense in parts of Canada and Greenland. Still, it would not be suitable in Miami, even if technology somehow made it possible.

Image: Brannon Naito

Beauty assists sustainable design in several important ways. When buildings are beautiful, people will more likely find another use for them if the original purpose changes.

This lessens the amount of waste coming from these projects. Green design—whether in clothing, architecture, or other products—has adopted an aesthetic that often appears earthy and recycled.

Instead of being univocal, aesthetics flows into diverse commitments and adaptations of sustainable design. Aesthetics encourages creative exploration. But this needs to become part of the education and discipline of architects. If we desire our designs to be sustainable, then we need to re-emphasize beauty.

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Michael Spicher. Image: Archive of Michael Spicher

Michael R. Spicher, PhD, is a Boston-based public philosopher, who writes and speaks about aesthetics. He is a regular contributing writer to BeautyMatter, a resource for the beauty industry. He teaches at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Boston Architectural College.