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by Lance Hosey, 13 November 2012
The Sustainability of Beauty
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Design is shape with purpose.

In recent years, industry has begun to reconsider its purposes. Can products be better for people? Can buildings be better for the planet? Can companies be environmentally responsible and still turn a profit? Addressing these questions is causing dramatic changes in every area of work and life. Yet, as we seek answers to questions about purpose, questions about shape remain. Of the traditional criteria for judging design—cost, performance, and aesthetics— the agenda known as sustainable design is redefining the first two by expanding old standards of value. But what about aesthetics? Does sustainability change the face of design or only its content?

Many designers show little interest in this question, and some dismiss it altogether. "[The term] 'green' and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture," architect Peter Eisenman said in a 2009 interview. Designers care about image, and the green movement, like it or not, has a reputation for being all substance and no style. In 2010, design critic Alice Rawsthorn sized up the Leaf, Nissan's celebrated electric car: "It is as dull in style as most gasguzzling clunkers." Many believe sustainability deals exclusively with energy efficiency, carbon emissions, and material chemistry—issues that belong in a technical manual, not on a napkin sketch. Nuts and bolts are not exactly the stuff of every designer's dreams. As a result, many consider great design and green design to be separate pursuits, and in fact much of what is touted as "green" is not easy on the eyes. The ugly truth about sustainable design is that much of it is ugly.

Even the most ambitious sustainable design can be unattractive because attractiveness isn't considered essential to sustainability.

Conventional wisdom portrays green as not just occasionally but inevitably unattractive, as if beauty and sustainability were incompatible. "Sustainability and aesthetics in one building?" asked the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. "Is 'well-designed green architecture' an oxymoron?" mused the American Prospect in 2009. The previous year, famed journalist Germaine Greer declared, "The first person to design a gracious zero carbon home will have to be a genius at least as innovative and epoch-making as Brunelleschi," referring to the Italian Renaissance architect who engineered the magnificent dome of Florence's Duomo. Green lacks grace, say the critics. The eco-design movement began with an implied mantra: If it's not sustainable, it's not beautiful. Waste spoils taste. Even now, the battle cry continues. "Look at the architecture of the last 15 years," architect James Wines complained in 2009. "It's been more flamboyant and more wasteful than it's ever been before.To build any of these buildings by Frank Gehry [the architect famous for sculptural structures of crumpled metal], it takes . . . 60 to 80 percent more metal and steel and construction than it would to enclose that space in a normal way . . . Mind-boggling waste." Wines suggests that the work of Gehry, the most renowned architect of our time, isn't great design because it's negligent.

"Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern— it's an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet." A popular image shared on Tumblr. Author:unknown

Long-term value is impossible without sensory appeal, because if design doesn't inspire, it's destined to be discarded. "In the end," writes Senegalese poet Baba Dioum, "we conserve only what we love." We don't love something because it's nontoxic and biodegradable—we love it because it moves the head and the heart. If people don't want something, it will not last, no matter how thrifty it is. And when our designs end up as litter or landfill, how prudent have we been? "The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us," wrote Rachel Carson half a century ago, "the less taste we shall have for destruction." When we treasure something, we're less prone to kill it, so desire fuels preservation. Love it or lose it. In this sense, the old mantra could be replaced by a new one: If it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern— it's an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.


As the green agenda becomes more popular, more designers are realizing that, as Béhar has put it, "virtuous products don't have to equate with indifferent design." Over the past handful of years, plenty of striking examples of eco-design have appeared, and suddenly sustainability is sexy. Yet, what makes these designs look good usually has nothing to do with what makes them green. "Sustainability has, or should have, no relationship to style," insists architect Rafael Viñoly. Fundamental decisions about appearance often are decided by the personal taste of the designers, so when it comes to aesthetics, sustainable design is business as usual.

What if we created a different approach to aesthetics, one based on intelligence and not intuition? Can we be as smart about how things look as we are about how they work? Typical sustainable design strategies stem from painstaking research and time-tested evidence, and this approach can guide both technical choices and aesthetic choices. For every study demonstrating the benefits hidden inside particular materials and production methods, there are other studies showing how certain shapes, patterns, images, colors,  or textures can create environmental, social, and economic value. Why aren't they more familiar to designers?

Although green techniques often seem complicated, actually they could be divided into two simple categories: those you see and those you don't. INVISIBLE green—considerations such as embodied energy, material sources, chemical content, and so forth—has become a more familiar agenda, partly because these factors are easier to regulate and measure (and possibly because they don't threaten artistic freedom). Many designers restrict environmental performance to these factors alone; in the words of architect Cesar Pelli, "Sustainability doesn't necessarily photograph." But VISIBLE green—form, shape, and image—can have an even greater impact on both conservation and comfort. How a building is shaped can have an enormous effect on how it performs, and some sources estimate that up to 90 percent of a product's environmental impact is determined during the early design phases, prior to decisions about technical details. In other words, elementary decisions about shape—the "look and feel" of a design—are essential to sustainability.


This article is an excerpt from the book 'The Shape of Green' by Lance Hosey.