When discussing climate change, we – Architects and Urbanists – most of the time talk about materials that should be less carbon intensive, and we talk about processes that need to be more environmentally friendly and inclusive. That these conversations happen and that more and more often actions are the result is a good thing, and it shows that our professions slowly but steadily pick up speed. We have a lot of catch up to do since we are involved in some of the biggest carbon emission activities: building. I believe there is more to it than replacing a ceramics brick with an adobe one or discouraging using cars in favour of bikes. We also need to rethink our aesthetic preconceptions.
Me and most of my colleagues have been educated in an architectural world that embraced the principles of modernism – efficiency, seriality, concrete and glass and later on made room for a postmodern aesthetic that appeared more playful but in essence did not change its modern underlay. We design ‘orderly’ houses, ‘orderly’ cities and ‘orderly’ gardens – all following these modernist paradigms. As a matter of fact the serial, Cartesian, ‘orderly’ approach has been around much longer – primarily for military reasons in ancient China, in the Roman Empire and in Spanish conquered Latin America cities were based on grids and all over medieval Europe local standards for all kinds of products were established and symmetry and celebration of technical achievement in the form of Gothic churches and other public buildings were showing what mankind is capable of: setting the world at its own hand an establishing a human logic. This military-technical complex defined what we perceive as aesthetically pleasing and what we consider orderly or messy.
Looking at largely untouched nature, we can observe that it has developed its own logic – the logic of evolution over millions of years. This also leads to a completely different aesthetic and if nature was to decide, our world definitely would look very different. In our perception the aesthetic of nature has to be cleaned up, ordered according to our principles or removed and replaced by our aesthetic concepts. In that way we have changed almost the whole planet and some countries – the Netherlands is one of them – would not even exist in their present shape without us ‘cleaning up and ordering’ things.
The problem of our learned and trained aesthetic preferences is, that they heavily contribute to the destruction of natural habitat and to climate change. They have evolved over generations. Generations that did not have the technical means we have nowadays and therefore had to simplify things and avoid complexity. A brick wall consisting of simple, heavy cuboids is what we managed to come up with to build houses. Our farming – to be ‘efficient’ – resorted to monoculture. The way we move – largely car traffic – has to organized in massive road networks, systems of traffic lights and road signs and a spatial separation from other traffic. Our economic models could only play out profitable if things are mass-produced by machines in factories – industrial production. Our entire economic and urban planning and development model are based on this. Our entire living environment shows us this aesthetic day by day, printing it further and further into our brain.
To safe our planet from overheating, we now have little choice but saying goodbye to this all-encompassing aesthetic. We have to unlearn it and instead discover a new one. The good thing this time is – we do not have to invent it. It is already there. Nature. We have to develop a better understanding of how the aesthetic of real nature works. A hugely exciting endeavour is awaiting all spatial designers. How can we think like nature does? How can we design like nature does? How can we become natural designers? We have the huge opportunity to escape the simplification that was necessary in the past and instead can embrace a lot more complex systems and the materials they ask for. Exciting times!
cover image: botanical society of Hamburg