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Is Aesthetics Sustainable?

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This entire field of aesthetics and sustainability needs a bit of a tidy up and – once again – I’m grateful to Dr. Glen Hill for going a long way towards sorting it out in his essay “The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption”, in “Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture“.

The question “what should sustainable buildings look like?” is almost as trivial as “in what style shall we build?” for why should buildings that don’t screw up the planet have to look like anything? They’re obviously going to have visual properties for this is just the nature of matter, but the question implies they must have a visual aesthetic agenda as well. This isn’t necessarily true. An aesthetic agenda is an optional add-on that adds a different kind of value to some.

One reason I found Dr. Hill’s essay so refreshing is that it asks the question “Is Aesthetics Sustainable?” Have a read. I’ve scanned it in individual pages so you can read it without my bloggy mutterings. Or, if you want, you can download the entire book here and get a feel for how people are trying to process a way of building that, despite being good in many ways, is resistant to being thought of as architecture in an aesthetic sense. Something’s up. The question “Is aesthetics sustainable?” is the elephant in the room.


In the opening paragraphs, Dr. Hill gives some examples of how our buildings are making us consume more and more. In case you’re not familiar with the floor plan of Australian suburban houses, here’s some not-so-extreme examples.

You’ll see the pool tables, bars, cinemas, pools that used to be part of a community’s social, recreation and entertainment offerings. One thing that hasn’t been incorporated is parks – why? The plans show little evidence of enjoyment of any part of a garden other than the bit that’s become an “outdoor room”. Houses have become independent of their land, and the amount of that land associated with them has shrunk.


Gardens aren’t large anymore because houses stimulate the economy more than land. The amount of money that can be spent on a garden is relatively small compared to that which can be spent on a house. Over and over. Gardens don’t wear out and they are difficult to tire of. Instead, they grow with no input other than water and labour, and improve with age. Dammit. They’re inexpensive pleasures the modern economy has no need for. Here’s the rules.

  1. Things you can buy are better than things you can’t.
  2. Things that wear out are better than things that don’t.
  3. Things you get tired of are better than things you don’t.

Fine. But how did it come to this? Hill identifies the turning point as The Enlightenment. We’re all modern beings with no particular commitment to the physical or social place we were born. We’ve lost the security and certainty that belonging to an established order brought. The upside of this of course was that we became free to make our own place in the world.

The birth of consumerism

The consumption of aesthetics is how we’ve come to assert our place in the world and, as an example, Hill uses the late 15th century example of servants and their aspirational copying of their masters’ and mistresses’ modes of fashion.


Although art might have been the first item for the display of status real or imagined, clothing was probably one of the first items anyone could/have to have and that was on display to the public. It was a likely first candidate for the lower classes to use to mimic their superiors in the hope of appropriating some of their status. In short, clothing became what we know as the endless cycle of fashion turnover. Within hours of any royal wedding, a copy of the wedding dress is usually available. For sale.


With aspirational copy-catting rampant, style-setters had no choice but to keep changing the rules as soon as the style-followers began to catch up. The endless production and consumption of new styles began. Social pressure to reuse, reduce, and recycle diminished. This alone explains why sustainable architecture is having such a hard time gaining acceptance and why attempts to give sustainable architecture an aesthetic must fail.

All architectural aesthetics are consumable aesthetics, looks, fashions. There’s no such thing as an architectural aesthetic that does not convey notions of wealth, status and power. To me, Hill’s is an entirely reasonable reading of history. I’d long wondered about the similarities between the consumption of clothing styles and the consumption of architectural styles, and have noted before how the various classes of Georgian terrace house facade styles meant everybody could play this game in a controlled manner without wrecking the social order.


Architectural aesthetics had become a consumer/aspirational item long before the 20th century. Mock Tudor buildings were being built well into the 19th century in the new aspiration of old money. Stucco came into and out of fashion several times that century but, at the end of the century we had Art Nouveau. It was in the decorative arts that its impact was felt most. If you couldn’t afford to buy the house you could at least afford the Art Nouveau teapot, the tapestry, the stained glass, the wallpaper, the chair, the lamp, the trinkets …


The process became faster and more ruthless with Art Deco. Its emphasis on geometric shapes and patterns suggests it was a style designed for the quick and easy production of more stuff for more people to buy.

art deco teapots

Rather than ubiquitous styles pervading all types of goods across society we now have the phenomenon of designer goods allowing people to show their allegiance to star designers or other premium brands. This phenomenon exists independent of architecture. Hill sums it up by saying

The aesthetic economy of late modernity, freed from any necessary relation with program or context, now offers a vast range of aesthetic trajectories that can be exploited in the constant search for place and the regard of others.

The near ubiquitous diffusion of electronic personal devices has obvious advantages for entertainment and communications, but it is also a very efficient way of getting people to spend money on objects that they don’t even need a building, or even a room, in order to possess.

first sony walkman

Ownership of a SONY Walkman® once indicated belonging to a new and select group of people who suddenly found it necessary to listen to music whilst walking. Copycat devices soon appeared at lower cost. SONY upped the ante by adding further functions. Very quickly the market was flooded with a messy plurality [my favourite phrase of late; a.k.a. the old “eclecticism”] of devices doing much the same thing until the one you had either broke or the next model came out. A SONY Walkman® did cost a bit more but they did work better for longer. Erasing the slur of previous decades, SONY ensured they were always “Made in Japan”.

mobil ephone

That process too has become much more transparent with mobile phones. And the replacement cycle has quickened. There’s now nothing odd at all about ‘upgrading’ one’s phone every year. Manufacturers must be delighted when copycat products spur the refreshment of half-hearted product cycles. 


The death of tradition

Hill suggests that the ‘loss’ of the Western Classical tradition might also be at work.


More and more means less and less to us. The same patterns of aesthetic consumerism are also seen in places where the Western Classical tradition never really took root. Japan has always been a law unto itself aesthetically but came online just in time for the age of aesthetic consumerism on the national level, where countries wish to show the world they’ve arrived and equal to, if not better than, the rest (as is Deyan Sudjik’s thesis in Edifice Complex.)


Since we’re talking about tradition, it’s not just the certainty of the Western Classical tradition that’s absent. Entire histories of vernacular architecture are equally absent. Whereas the classical traditions were concerned with sustaining an existing social order and its power structures, traditions of vernacular architecture were concerned with using available resources to produce buildings as functional and comfortable as needs demanded and resources permitted. These buildings are not only irrelevant to aesthetic consumerism – they work against it. Why change something that’s already as good as it can be? No wonder Schumacher dismisses vernacular buildings as antithetical to architecture.  They are – or at least they are to architectural aesthetic consumerism.


Aesthetic consumer tribes

We also have the growth of consumer tribes. Hill offers Stanley Fish‘s concept of “interpretive communities” to explain this. We’re familiar with the concept of urban tribes but consumer tribes are less stable and with fewer values apart from them sharing a certain way of experiencing a particular experience. (Fish claims it’s not so much the people actively sharing the experience but the experience farming the people.) Talk of the pros and cons of different operating systems take on the fervour of pub football rivalry. Product and brand fansites, feeds chatboards let people display their brand loyalty and feel loved by their product. A product becomes something to believe in. This Enlightenment is turning out to be not so enlightened.

Just as an exercise in aesthetic consumer tribalism, go to an architecture website and make a negative comment about any project by the architectural aesthetic behemoth that is Zaha Hadid Architects. Any project will do. Your comment will generate a flurry of follow-on comments, often abusive, but all indicative of which consumer tribe their writer belongs to. Check the comments here for this next building.


Alternatively, try saying anything less than adulatory about Gaudí.


I’ll wager the number of people who know what goes on inside this next building is far less than the number of people who have an opinion on it.


At least with personal stereos and mobile phones there was some element of performance, durability and fitness for purpose involved. It’s hard to say the same for architecture. As far as human situation goes, I guess it’s still on-the-whole better than pre-Enlightenment but as far as the planet goes I’m not so sure.


Latin Lesson

I’d long ago learned to distrust Vitruvius’ dictums of firmness commodity and delight. Undergraduate classes usually ponder contemporary meanings of these – I know I did and for far too long to be either healthy or normal. I wish I’d taken Latin. This next sentence was a revelation.

Sir Henry Wotton’s now familiar seventeenth century translation of the Vitruvian term venustas (Latin, meaning beauty) as delight is symptomatic of the shift toward the modern sensorial notion of aesthetics.

For the pre-Moderns, to be beautiful was to be good in a moral sense, not attractive in a visual sense. For the Goths, a cathedral was beautiful because it was charged with the moral task of educating and enlightening the illiterate (or at least making them cower into submission). This was the pre-modern world. 


Here we have another reason why architectural aesthetics and architectural sustainability are at odds – it’s no wonder we’re in this mess we are now.  Let’s not be scared by the word ‘moral’ to denote a worth that is less than totally visual. Better energy performance, more prudent use of resources and less-contaminating production processes are all moral imperatives in the sense that it IS a good thing to not screw up the planet and it IS a good thing to not waste resources.

What we have to do is to undo five centuries of post-Enlightenment consumerist thinking telling us it IS a good thing to waste resources. To keep things simple, I’m using the word sustainability as a catch-all for all the moral imperatives a building can respond to, all the energy it can save, all the resources it doesn’t need to use, etc. Sustainability as a form of moral beauty appears to be in opposition to an aesthetics of visual beauty. All the evidence led us to suspect this anyway.


Early last century, Johnson & Hitchcock argued against radical functionalism and its moral claim to rightness. I still wonder about the intensity of those attacks and why they felt the need to destroy the social/moral basis of the new architecture. Perhaps Johnson correctly saw that the modern world was going for visual rather than good, and that all people really wanted was to have a new look put in front of them to consume. Given the later careers of both, this seems fair. In volume one of his big book, Patrik Schumacher restates their arguments and, I venture, with much the same agenda.

What we have now is a situation where buildings praised for their aesthetic innovation are not good in any moral sense. Conversely, buildings that try to do the right thing are criticised for not having an orthodox aesthetic agenda. It would seem that sustainable buildings are not what the world wants. Meanwhile, “the forces of aesthetic consumption” are telling us an endless proliferation of stylistic diversions is not only good for society, but necessary. The vast machinery of aesthetic production is more than happy to oblige.

The most effective way for an architect to ensure their work remains noticed is to maintain the production of difference; that is, to keep producing fresh work.

This must be a burden. Occasionally, architects get lazy and recycle old designs, reprise old themes but disappointed followers and rival aesthetic tribes are quick to notice. Any new motif by Frank Gehry, for example, simultaneously appears in three cities at once – a selection of recent offerings.

The neutering of goodness

Last century, Hannes Meyer and the proponents of radical functionalism obviously underestimated what they were up against. Good doesn’t always win. But even today the forces of aesthetic consumerism are still responsible for useful architectural devices (such as green roofs, for example ) being presented as visual devices stripped of moral content. I call this the Johnson-Hitchcock effect. I’ve used this next image before. It has been much posted, cross-posted and pinterested. Nobody cares if this roof actually has some sort of energy/environmental function. 


Even the virtues of vernacular architecture aren’t immune from being turned into aesthetic commodities.


Perception Design

I’ve mentioned before how I don’t mind if Architecture lays claim to all the visual aspects of buildings. It pretty much has anyway. Those that are good in a moral sense can be called something else. The word Architecture has devalued and is struggling to retain the little authority it is still credited with. Here’s something interesting.

perception design

This quote is by Kevin E. Kelley, “Architecture For Sale(s): An Unabashed Apologia,” in Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader, William S Saunders, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). as quoted in Franco La Cecla’s essay, “Why I did not become an architect” in Franco La Cecla, “Against Architecture”, PM Press, 2012.

And is this not precisely what our brightest and best are doing, yet calling it Architecture? Try to remember when Architecture was not this? What Rem Koolhaas has done is to take what Philippe Starck was doing in the 1980s and call it Architecture. For those of you too young to remember, Philippe Starck was a French designer who also designed buildings. He never claimed to be an architect. We can respect him for that.

He was doing the stylistic brand management thing long ago.  

He took shameless self-promotion to levels architects have yet to reach, try as they may.

He is of course no stranger to the design of apartment buildings as lifestyle choices.

I almost respect the guy – not for filling the world with useless crap, but for figuring out how it all worked. Apparently he underwent some sort of an eco-conversion – I’ll try to ascertain if this was genuine, or just a clever foray into untapped markets.

riko + starck


Some that say architecture is by its very nature an aesthetic endeavour and that a building that doesn’t deal with aesthetic matters is not only not beautiful, but is not architecture either. They’re right. It’s like saying that haute couture fashion has to consider thermal comfort, or utility, the use of readily-available materials or minimal labour. Fashion doesn’t work that way and, regrettably, neither does what we now know as Architecture.

Karl Lagerfield

The impracticality and decadence that we take for granted in the world of fashion is a useful and easy way to think about the kind of buildings that have come to represent the architecture we have now. Keep it in mind. You can find your own parallels.

  • Fashion is a highly visible and expensive consumer item. 
  • Fashion is never about thermal comfort or utility.
  • Fashion employs gimmicks of little value other than to shock.
  • Fashion features a decadent use of materials and quantities of labour and other resources in the hope they will be impossible to replicate downmarket.
  • Fashion has no need to remember what was useful and what wasn’t – previous seasons offerings are, by definition, passé.
  • Fashion has no need of history other than as a “reference” for something new.
  • Fashion is one of the few businesses it’s believed to be not totally about the money.
  • Fashion does not progress – it just renews itself endlessly for no particular purpose other than to provide something new for us to consume the look of.

The trouble with buildings is they last too long! In this brave new world of architecture as communications, their real function as media objects is mostly performed by the time they’re constructed. The creation of hype, the building of expectation and the actual construction of the thing have to proceed simultaneously and come together in one perfect moment of media and branding frenzy.

Here’s that dress again.




  • thanks v much for this interesting post.

    Architecture can be treated as largely consumerist. Or it can be understood as investment. Or something else – for example a way for CPC to maintain a continental economy or a new nation to demonstrate its existence.

    These viewpoints don’t recognise tradition very much.

    Political economy. Politicians are happiest when at the centre of large scale building projects.