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The Shape of Green

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There’s no lack of ethical or economic arguments for sustainability. Taken in by its promising title, I had high hopes Lance Hosey’s The Shape of Green would finally provide us with an aesthetics of sustainability as part of a larger philosophy of sustainability.

“The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design” Lance Hosey, Island Press, 2012″

Hosey begins promisingly, claiming beauty and sustainability aren’t as incompatible as they’re commonly believed to be but very soon goes off the rails. If beauty and sustainability aren’t so incompatible, then why identify some buildings as environmentally virtuous but ugly and then suggest that “dressing them up” isn’t the way forward? Why praise Renzo Piano and Norman Foster for synthesising two qualities that aren’t incompatible? I hope Hosey’s not admiring F&P’s Greater London Authority headquarters.

  • Overhanging a building is an expensive way of shading glazing from the torrid London sun.
  • GLA’s eggy shape may theoretically have volumetric efficiencies but, once enclosed, that volume is then squandered on a void around an ornamental staircase. Stupid.

Hosey’s a shapeist. He claims that some sources claim that early, elementary design decisions about shape can influence the environmental impact of a building – up to 90% apparently, but 90% of what we’re not told. 

He’s also a commercial man at heart and offers a commercial justitification for a sustainability that’s phrased in terms of conventional [visual] aesthetics. Here are some of his arguments.

We’re more likely to treasure a thing for longer if we find attractive.

Hosey wants beautiful things to be seen as virtuous rather than the other way around. This statement is the perfect product of a time when the only ideas that get traction are those that articulate in new ways what people believe anyway. Before the Table of Contents is this brave quote.


Oscar Wilde was an incorrigible aesthete and known for soundbites such as “Any person who doesn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.” Wilde’s statement about judging by appearances may well have been disingenuous but Hosey’s using only its latter part definitely is.


Wilde seems to believe in an absolute beauty and this would have been an common view a century ago. However, if one accepts the modern position that beauty is both pluralist and subjective, then Beauty is no more or less superficial than the thoughts in which it is based. And this brings us back to the book.

Much of nature is about geometry. The shape of a blood cell is optimised for fluid dynamics. The tilt of the Earth’s axis gives us the seasons that shape nearly every living creature.
Things have shapes. It’s what things do. Artificial things also have shapes and geometries.

We prefer to use things that look better, even if they aren’t inherently easier to use.
This is the form vs. function argument restated, with a swipe at utility. (“Trust me, I’m a designer.”)

We don’t love something because it’s non-toxic and biodegradeable – we love it because it moves the head and the heart.
Hosey is attempting to keep beauty and virtue firmly separate. He doesn’t want us to love anything for reasons that aren’t visual. He’s pro-innovation, pro-consumption.

Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.”
Hosey has trouble linking aesthetic attraction to environmental imperatives. He resorts to the peacock’s feathers and the 300 varieties of nightingale birdsong.

Beauty has the biological function of sustaining existence
is the conclusion only a short jump away. Three hundred varieties of nightingale mating call seems a bit desperate. Do the peacock’s feathers really have to be that large or colourful? Humans have evolved in much the same way but with far less imperative. Ostentatious displays of abundance may faciliate getting laid but any evolutionary advantage remains unproven.

Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most: the basic shape of things. [Oh dear!] Hosey then attempts to show how Beauty is inherent to the definition and principles of sustainability There’s talk of how the smartness of the Smart Car is in its shape and not its technologies. The conclusion is that design trumps technology. Only a man who wants to have his cake and savour it would write If you could take care of all your daily nutritional needs by ingesting one tasteless capsule, would you be satisfied? Hosey is detaching the aesthetics of eating from the imperatives of nutrition and sustenance.

Q: “If you could personally solve world hunger through one inexpensive capsule that would take care of a person’s daily nutritional needs, would you be satisfied?” 

It doesn’t matter for the conclusion is that Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, it must have a sensory dimension. 

All in all, this book is rich – and we’re not even a third of the way in. These arguments claims are amply illustrated with examples from the field of product design. I was getting impatient for some buildings. Skipping a bit, here’s some Hosey singles out as relevant to his argument where he seems to want to take this.

“The 120° twist cuts wind loads and reduces the amount of steel by 25%, saving $60 mil.” Excellent – so that’s the shape of all future supertall buildings sorted then!? I doubt it. In the world of architecture, that the shape of this building represents 25% less steel is more important than actually having 25% less steel. If the shape of this building had any compelling advantages then we can expect to see it replicated many times in the future just like what happened to rectangular prisms (a.k.a. boxes).
Tjibaou Cultural Center

I won’t go too much into too much detal here, but must mention how the representational aspects of this building have little to do with its ventilation strategy that utilizes a combination of Stack Effect and Venturi effect. Either way, behind those timber slats has to be a double skin of something if any breeze is ever going to be coaxed upward. The section shows that this is so.

Those solar chimneys face north-west, which means you must go well out of your way to instagram that famous money shot from across the water. Internally, the circular spaces make reasonable exhibition spaces but externally, none of this representation is for the benefit of actual users – or even for their functional benefit as there’s no need to clad air shafts with timber slats. What we’re meant to perceive as beauty has little to do with this building’s environmental response or user experience.

Centre Culturel Jean-Marie Tjibaou.jpg

Chapter 4 is titled Many Senses and introduces the concept of a connection between aesthetics and ecology and the human body. This might have been a good place to talk about how the other four senses are often neglected by designers but Hosey claims design can appeal to the whole body for we feel with our entire being – a point he illustrates with Zumthor’s Baths at Swiss architectural hotspot Vals. I agree that this building has important lessons for all designers – of buildings that require us to be naked in warm smelly water in misty and acoustically live rooms.

Hosey doesn’t mention that Vals baths’ fully sensory environment of texture, reverberation, light, mist and heat can be appreciated for 80 Swiss Francs (approx. US$77.80) per session but the connection between aesthetics, ecology, the human body and commerce is soon insinuated. Who knew that 7-Up tastes lemony or limey depends on whether the label has more yellow or green, or that a sprig of parsley on the label can make canned meat taste fresher? Who would want to know that and why if it weren’t with a view to exploitation?

I’ve no doubt everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures influence the unconscious mind but that doesn’t mean I want to trust that knowledge with a designer in the paid employ of someone. To captivate consumers longer, designers will need a better understanding of what stimulates emotional longevity. This sinister sentence is evil encapsulated.

thermal delight.jpeg
I hadn’t known about this 1979 book and, to be honest, I wish I still didn’t. The aestheticization of thermal comfort will do more than air conditioning ever did to stop passive design ever becoming a driver for a more sane architecture.

The same thinking crops up again in the next chapter Ecology and Imagery. Biophilia is a good thing but Hosey gets excited about fractal patterned wallpaper being just as good as the acacia trees our ancestors so admired. The implications for design are enormous. 



Airspace Tokyo facade by Thom Faulders. Who needs trees?

“An enormous mesh umbrella lets dappled sunlight pass through in variegated patterns, like a forest canopy.” 

Who needs trees? II

“Fractal-like patterns can be used to make very large buildings seem less imposing.”

Who needs trees? III

There are shapes and patterns that lure [!] the human senses because they participate in larger forces unfolding over time, and eternal choreography not immediately detected but evident everywhere. With science and sensitivity, smart design can beautifully tap into [!!] the abiding wonders and mysteries of the universe. My points of exclamation indicate either careless language or, more worryingly, deliberately ambiguous language carelessly crafted. It seems that buildings are really just very big products and designers should be aware of these new tricks to fool people into responding more positively to buildings than they otherwise might or perhaps ought.

I was going to deal with each chapter sequentially but lost the will. Skimming the rest, Hosey expands his consumerist philosophy of aesthetics to encompass entire buildings in Chapter 7: The Architecture of Difference, puffs it up to urban scale in Chapter 8: The Natural Selection of Cities and, as books like this have a tendency of doing, inflates it to the max to encompass to entire planets in Chapter 9: Visions of Earth.

I skipped to Epilogue: A Beauty Manifesto where there’s not much to dislike but, on the other hand, nothing much of practical use either. Nobody’s going to pin this manifesto on their wall.

Ten principles for advancing an aesthetics of ecology. Every designer everywhere can:

  1. Bridge the divide between “good design” and “green design”.
  2. Turn beauty and sustainability into the same thing.
  3. Erase the distinction between how things look and how things work.
  4. Break down the walls between the arts and the sciences.
  5. Adopt the three principles.
    • Conserve: Shape things to respect resources.
    • Attract: Shape things to be easy to use and deeply satisfying.
    • Connect: Shape things to embrace place.
  6. Start with the napkin sketch, not the technical manual.
  7. Develop a scientific method for design.
  8. Strengthen the ties between form and performance, between image and endurance.
  9. Make things to work as well and to last as long as they should.
  10. Make things better.

In the end, all the cooing over known attributes of known quantities only serves to direct more reverence towards things that represent the link between aesthetics, ecology and design more than they actually link them. Hosay has faith in us believing in the worth of his examples. Whether we regard them high or low, the book manages to be less than their sum. 



  • Peace be upon you, Mr. Graham.

    I take that you misunderstood Oscar Wilde’s quote?

    You (mis)interpret it as:
    “Any person who doesn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.”

    Whereas the quote I found in Wikipedia is this:
    ‘One would have to have a heart of stone (a.k.a. stone heart) to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears (…) of laughter.’

    Your interpretation should be:
    “Any person who dissolves into tears of laughter at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.”

    Just something I noticed. Peace be upon you.
    – Abdul Qayyum.

  • Mr. McKay,
    Good call on another example of green wash that may in fact be intentionally leading the groupthink away from ‘true’- truth, beauty, and sustainability. For deeper and darker contemporary analysis of the co-opting of the broader green movement, may I suggest for you and your readers the blog “Infrakshun” by MK Styllinski (surely a pseudonym). Politics, culture, environment, good vs. evil with us as the pawns as explained in the “Dark Green” series found at Admittedly, I haven’t read all articles yet, but have been around the energy, environment, and design fields just long enough to realize that, as with all popular movements, subversion of the original benevolent intent by the ‘dark side’ should always be expected, sometimes in the most subtle and seemingly illogical ways.

    Thank you and KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK! I finally feel like I mis-fit in…

    • says:

      Dear JY,
      Thanks for that Infrakshun recommendation. I’m sure I’ll spend a lot of time there but, like you did, will start with the energy, environment and design fields. The devil we know, etc.

  • Graham — Your two recent posts on the subject of aesthetic experience on Misfits and Common Edge were refreshing. If you have a chance, I’d like to hear your thoughts on my 2/14/17 Common Edge post about another way to think about “beauty.”

    • Robert – thanks! I don’t know how I managed to miss your post on CommonEdge – I’m sorry. I’ve printed it out in anticipation of having some special time tomorrow evening to read and contemplate and will definitely be in touch soon after. Graham

    • says:

      Dear Robert,

      We have a lot in common. I’m always more comfortable with talk of architectural beauty and get a bit uneasy when it turns to Nature and sunsets but, as you say, it’s the ability of something to evoke a response in us that’s the defining thing and we agree upon that. In some languages – Japanese, for example – the verb “to be” is different for animate and inanimate things so I’m happy to limit my thoughts to artificial beauty and to ignore natural beauty unless the two intersect – an important case for architecture. I’ve checked out some of the work of your practice and this important case is one you’re actively involved with, with buildings sensitively sited and designed to have not only visual associations with a place but to also suggest intangible ones that cement that bond.

      I liked what you wrote about effective problem solving. In architecture as in mathematics, there is the beauty of an elegant solution. This of course depends upon what problem has been attempted and solved and some of our historical examples of architectural beauty have not set the bar very high in terms of quantity or type of problems solved.

      The experience of beauty is a pleasant sensation but I don’t know if it is a reward or should be considered one for that would make it an addictive phenomenon and, as with all addictions, the threshold for the same level of pleasure keeps increasing. This is what we seem to have gone through with novelty and the iconic building. The demand for ever-increasing levels of novelty led to self-destruction. Perhaps we might have a healthier perspective on beauty if we were less in awe of it? An elegant mathematical solution isn’t a reward, it just is. (It has that in common with sunsets.)

      But being less in awe of beauty shouldn’t mean rejecting it as a worthwhile concept or not pondering what its meaning is for architecture today. You noted at the very beginning of your article that talk of architectural aesthetics and architectural beauty has all but disappeared and this is something that worries me too. I may have a newfound cognitive bias in suddenly wanting to see how everything bad in the world of architecture can be tracked back to a neoliberal agenda but, with that disclaimer, let me proceed.

      If talk of beauty has disappeared from architectural discourse, then it must be because it doesn’t further the neoliberal agenda. This prompts my next question that is “What it is about (talk of) beauty that is so antithetical to neoliberalism?” My only answer is that the experience of beauty is a purely subjective and personal thing, and respect for the feelings of individuals, and creating a world where they are free to feel them is not high up on the neoliberal list of important things. I don’t think this is a recent thing, although things definitely have come to a head of late.

      The demise of the aspiration to beauty has been around since the heyday of capitalism and for that we have historians to blame. One good way to kill off talk of architectural beauty is to objectify it and make it impossible to achieve. People debate the relative merits of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier (or their contemporary equivalents) without thinking to try to do it better. Another way to kill off talk of beauty is to make it into something abstract and intellectual divorced from perception and buildings. Does the phrase “a new formal language for architecture” actually mean anything?

      As for me, I’ve found a certain kind of peace in the elegant solving of problems, the beauty of the effort that, unseen and unappreciated, is still present. Me, I like a plan that satisfies human needs but with a geometry that facilitates construction and saves cost.

      I’ve ordered a copy of your book. I hope to be between Boston and New York in August and hope we can meet.