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Beauty is the key to sustainable design. A review of Lance Hosey's book "The Shape of Green".

26 of April '22

Review from A&B issue 01/22

Post-modern architecture has accustomed us to having to choose: either attention to form and architectural genius, or sustainability. Buildings that are expressions of ego, created by the stars of world architecture have sprung up like mushrooms in recent decades in metropolises gripped by the heat of the race for the palm of the world's best city.

New buildings, both public and private, aspiring to become icons and landmarks of the city became elements that organized the space around them. This was the case with, among others, Norman Foster's famous London Cucumber, Galaxy Soho in Beijing or other buildings designed by Zaha Hadid, the Guggenheim Museum inBilbao by Frank Gehry, the Kunsthaus in Graz designed by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, or Santiago Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.

In opposition to them were buildings focused on energy efficiency, with aesthetics for nothing, as form resulted from engineering optimization. Over time, with the increasing popularity of sustainable design, which began to include architecture and urban planning, formal issues receded into the background. Nowadays, more and more residential developments are being built in which aesthetics are derived from sustainable design, but the key is not beauty, but empathy with the needs of their future occupants, whether humans, animals, fungi or plants. An excellent example is the current projects of the Henning Larsen studio, among them a new development in Copenhagen, Fælledby, where the buildings will be made of wood and 40 percent of the space will be occupied by nature. This is one very beautiful project, however, the category of beauty seems inappropriate in describing this type of project. Have we rightly considered beauty as a demoralizing form of judgment?

Skręcony wieżowiec - Gensler, Shanghai Tower. Skręcenie budynku o 120 stopni zasadniczo zmniejszyło obciążenie wiatrem, a zatem ilość potrzebnej do budowy stali - aż o dwadzieścia pięć procent, co pozwoliło oszczędzić sześćdziesiąt milionów dolarów. Dlaczego usprawnienie tego zajęło architektom tak dużo czasu?

Twisted skyscraper - Gensler, Shanghai Tower. Twisting the building 120 degrees essentially reduced the wind load - and therefore the amount of steel needed for construction - by as much as twenty-five percent, saving sixty million dollars. Why did it take the architects so long to improve this?

© Gensler | courtesy of High Castle Publishers

reclaim the idea of beauty

In defense of beauty is Lance Hosey, who in "The Shape of Green," states that while "beauty has a bad reputation," at the same time beautiful things stay with us for a long time. "Projects calculated to last a long time have a common trait: the ability to produce an emotional connection with the viewer, almost a need." Practice shows that our very sentiment for them demonstrates one of the dimensions of beauty, namely the desire to renovate rather than replace with new. We see this best on everyday objects, but if one were to look at the approach to architecture, one would find that "ugliness" here too reduces the chances of saving a building from demolition. This was the case with Wroclaw's "Solpol," which, like many postmodern buildings, was identified by some (usually older generations) with ugliness and trashiness, while by others (usually younger) it was considered if not beautiful, then certainly charming and worthy of protection. A smile is the measure of success here.

Beauty not only attaches us to objects and places, it also has a salutary effect on us as people: on our health, on how we feel and on how we treat our surroundings. Appearance affects our senses. This is a principle that applies to places as well as products. As an illustration of this thesis, Hosey cites Costa Rica, the country with the highest level of happiness and a place with stunning scenery. Beauty calms us down; it also makes us better people. As statistics show, estates with lots of greenery have 80 percent less aggression than their concrete counterparts - trees reduce crime rates. What's more, friendly neighborhoods make us more attached to our surroundings and have a stronger sense of community. As one model for the exemplary combination of urban ecology with goodness and beauty, Hosey cites urban agriculture, which, for all its positive aspects, has a more positive impact on building a neighborhood community than a metropolitan promenade.

Lance Hosey „Kształt zieleni”, Wysoki Zamek, Kraków 2021

Lance Hosey "The Shape of Green," High Castle, Krakow 2021

© High Castle

learning from nature

Sustainable design should be based on ecology understood not only as respect for nature, but also as following the solutions we see in the construction of living organisms. "To develop the science and art of design closer to nature, it makes sense to look at nature itself and see what influences its shape," - Hosey encourages us. As an example, he cites giant carnegies - those majestic cacti known as "guardians of the desert," reaching heights of 15 meters and living up to two hundred years. Carnegies show us three principles that govern the aesthetics of ecology. The first is that form serves efficiency; the second is that form promotes pleasure; and the third is that form connects place. Aligning with these three principles guarantees not only environmentalism, but also long-term sustainability. Translating this logic to cities, we see more clearly the difference between cities or neighborhoods that grew organically and in respect for their surroundings, and those that were the abstract dreams of planners detached from their local context. This organic sprawl is what Hosey calls "thegeometry of ecology."

Good design is a balancing act between complexity and design. Excessive simplicity goes against the rules of nature and creates an artificiality effect that, in the case of cities, leads to inhuman spaces. As Hosey points out, "every self-organizing community - from the ecosystem to the internet - tends to evolve around complex but predictable features that appear chaotic, but are actually internally logical. While they are not repetitive, they are also not completely random." The structures have their key intersections, which build the resilience of the entire ecosystem. "These nodes reinforce the coherence and resilience of the entire plan. In a city, such places are the market, the local center or the square in front of an important building. Hosey draws the conclusion of biological scaling, stating that large cities as more complex organisms are also more efficient. At the same time, he sensitizes us to the local context, pointing out that everything is interconnected, so we should treat each place as if it were the center of a community, that is, with great care and sensitivity.

ten commandments for a better world

"The Shape of Green" takes us through different areas of life: eco-friendly phonies appear alongside modern cars and skyscrapers like the Shanghai Tower designed by the Gensler architectural firm so that the wind flows around the facade. Technical details mingle with poetic descriptions of sensory experiences. This apparent narrative chaos shows us that if we take a step back for a moment and see the world in all its complexity, we can appreciate the true beauty of nature. And from that, it's not much to understand that the salvation for our world is to return to a holistic approach and take as a design guideline the principle that "the whole must be more than the sum of the parts." Summing up the complex intellectual journey through the world of architecture, design and science that Lance Hosey treats us to is a design decalogue. Let us use it here as a summary and starting point for our own reflections.

  1. Bridge the gap between "good design" and "green design."

  2. Make beauty and sustainability the same thing.

  3. Erase the distinction between how things look and how they work.

  4. Tear down the walls between art and science.

  5. Adopt three principles:

    - conservation: design to save resources;

    - attraction: design so that products are easy to use and give deep satisfaction;

    - connection: design so that products have a relationship with place.

  6. Start with a sketch on a napkin, not a technical manual.

  7. Develop scientific methods of design.

  8. Strengthen the links between form and action, between image and durability.

  9. Make things work as well and last as long as they should.

  10. Make things better.

Narodziny agropolis - Terreform, New York City (Steady) State. Według tej wizji miasto działa w obiegu zamkniętym, wykorzystując wyłącznie lokalne pożywienie i zasoby, zaś praktycznie każda powierzchnia zamienia się w krajobraz produktywny. W tle wieżowce rolne.

The birth of agropolis - Terreform, New York City (Steady) State. According to this vision, the city operates in a closed loop, using only local food and resources, while virtually every surface is turned into a productive landscape. Agricultural skyscrapers in the background.

© Fougeron Architecture | courtesy of High Castle Publishing.

Joanna ERBEL

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