An emergent theme at SXSW Eco is connectivity, that we are all part of a web of life. “Shape of Green” author Lance Hosey touched on this during his keynote. He said deep satisfaction derives from certain shapes, colors and patterns. He gave plenty of examples from his field research and work as an architect: The fractal patterns of tree canopy and shades of green relieve stress and boost creativity. So does looking at puppies and babies (don’t laugh, maybe my wife is right about Cute Overload – it’s been shown to improve motor skills).
His point is, we are hard wired to appreciate beauty. In the simplest terms, this means architects and designers who are looking to be both sustainable and ‘high art’ need only follow principles like the Golden Rectangle and biophilia—not tack on cheesy ideas like photographs of trees or hanging driftwood art. Sustainable buildings don’t have to be earth sheltered bunkers or ugly boxes, either.
“The tradition in high architecture is to believe that greatness equals a great response. The response has led to set (buildings) aside from everything else. Buildings are not embedded in their place; they are removed from their place. Can we expect them to do something they’re not trained to do?”
An emerging generation of architects are inherently picking up the principles that fulfill a need for deep connectivity, often without realizing it. They are tapping into a design intelligence that flows from nature. He cites Normal Foster’s new London City Hall (pictured), the twisting pine cone of a building that by leaning in to the sun uses 25% less energy (the lean produces sun shading). The Gensler Shanghai Tower deals with wind loads as reeds along a riverbank do– by twisting to allow wind to flow around it (the architects twisted it 125 degrees and saved 25% of steel and $60 M). Marc West, an architecture professor at University of Manitoba, is experimenting with fabric formed concrete. Fabric allows concrete to be placed where needed and saves the rest of the space. His students are working with a readily available material, applying ingenuity to its beams.
“You don’t actually have to grow a green wall, but pick up the underlying principles. Great design is a marriage of art and science. (Ralph Waldo) Emerson said, ‘the line of beauty is the result of perfect economy.’ You can see the very maximization of resources in the design.”
Firms like Lake/Flato (recently covered in Metropolis) and KieranTimberlake are gaining recognition for their contextual design – their work is sustainable because its occupants are more comfortable (and ultimately saving resources). They are following in the footsteps of Austin’s Pliny Fisk who was in audience.
Hosey’s strongest points came in a discussion of how we measure beauty as the currency for moving functional, contextual design back to the center of architecture. The cult of genius and legacy of The Fountainhead still hold sway although that edifice is showing signs of its age.
“John Elkington first started a conversation in 1994 with the Triple Bottom line – that it’s not just about money,” Hosey said. “We’ve lacked the metrics to understand the standards of sustainability beyond water and energy to how it affects well being. Some at international scale are doing it. The Happy Planet Index looks at the ecological efficiency with which human well being is delivered. Richard Florida looks at all kinds of factors that lead to satisfaction. He calls it the Beauty Premium. If your city looks good you’re happier. What a city looks like tends to be more of a determinant than any other factor of residents’ happiness.
“Nothing is quite beautiful alone. We look at art in isolation. Design is about interaction of culture and nature. Nature is offering up its bounty. Our response is pretty sorry.”