Sustainable Architecture…

Must it be beautiful? If we are to bring the energy of millions of people to the task of making sustainable architecture more commonplace, then yes, writes Bryan Welch.

Fairness and repeatability are purely practical considerations. They are the utilitarian components of our vision-creation process. They are relevant questions because they contribute directly to sustainability. If it’s not repeatable, it can’t contribute to sustainability. If it’s not fair, it won’t get the necessary support from people.

Beauty contributes indirectly.

If we need a vision for a sustainable future then we need a lot of people to contribute their own ideas and energy to forming and realizing that vision. If we are to attract the energy of millions of people to the task, then we must start with beauty in the frame.

I was in Germany and Poland during the spring of 1994, about five years after capitalist West Germany and communist East Germany were reunified. We drove back and forth from one side of Berlin to the other numerous times. Traffic flowed freely. But the contrasts between the two sides of the city remained obvious.

West Berlin was an affluent, creative European city whose skyscrapers, shops and museums were comparable to those of New York, Los Angeles or Paris. East Berlin was decrepit and plain — depressing in its institutional practicality. The streets around the core of East Berlin were like the halls of a public hospital in a state of decay.

Fairness and repeatability were at the core of the Eastern Bloc’s communist and socialist policies through the first two-thirds of the 20th Century. If a single concept characterized the values of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it would be fairness across all the strata of society. The great thinkers who first conceived of socialism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries — Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx put forth fairness and repeatability as imperative morals on which their new societies would be built. And to some extent or another those societies were built — in the USSR, China, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The arguments over why those societies didn’t last will persist for centuries to come. Certainly, the wealth and power of capitalist nations were rallied against the socialists. That didn’t make it any easier for them to succeed. And fairness proved difficult to achieve in societies where authoritarian socialist power structures reacted to criticism by brutally restraining their own citizens. But setting all those issues aside, socialist and communist societies have, historically, lacked beauty. And their lack of beauty, creativity and grace historically made it hard to propagate their ideals. In the first half of the 20th century lots of Americans were drawn to socialist ideas. By the second half of the century we could see what kind of societies were built on those ideas and most of us weren’t impressed.

Without explicit support for beauty, the socialists didn’t find the resources to create it. The ornate rooflines and handsome wooden dachas of traditional Russia were replaced by public housing blocks — concrete eyesores. The awe-inspiring architectural tradition of the Forbidden City was abandoned in favor of Soviet-style monoliths in China’s biggest cities as well. Meanwhile in capitalist countries people who prospered were demanding beauty — and paying for it. West Berlin’s classy old neighborhoods were renovated and populated by bankers and entrepreneurs. The same sorts of homes a few meters away in the Eastern Bloc gradually dissolved in the persistent European drizzle, their stoops crumbling and their stucco molding.

Without personal wealth to pay for it or an explicit public mission to support beauty, the appearance of Eastern Europe gradually deteriorated.

Did Socialism fail because it wasn’t as pretty as Capitalism? Well, that might have been part of the reason. Russian youths paid a month’s wages for American blue jeans. American pop culture insinuated itself into everywhere the socialist youth gathered. Western Capitalists experimented in Russia and China, but they transferred back to their Capitalist homelands as quickly as possible after their assignments were complete — or not.

Even when it was fair and repeatable, socialism was not beautiful.

I used to be skeptical about the value of a corporate headquarters. I thought the expensive architects, the fancy materials and the art collections were monuments to the corporate ego and a big waste of money.

Then I visited John Deere & Co.

That’s right, the tractor company.

Deere’s headquarters is nestled into the side of a bluff in a ravine on 1400 acres of wildlife preserve. In 1956 Deere president William Hewitt picked the famous Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen to build the new headquarters in the countryside outside Moline, Illinois.Saarinen was among the most influential architects and designers of his day. He designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; the IBM and CBS headquarters; John F. Kennedy and Dulles International Airports; and the famous “tulip chairs” that inspired the seating on the set of the first Star Trek television series.

Deere & Company’s three connected buildings are angular, modern creations in steel and glass. They might not suit their wooded hillside if Saarinen hadn’t chosen a special type of steel for their exteriors, a steel that is designed to form its own protective coating of iron oxide as it weathers. The result is an earth-colored building that blends in with its surroundings, while making a unique and striking artistic statement. The building embodies Deere & Company’s identity. It evokes soil and rusty plows, as well as a utilitarian and modern sensibility.

I met several Deere veterans who enjoyed telling the stories of their first visits to the headquarters, the walls lined with famous art, the executive lunchroom looking out over the reflecting the pool and its swans. They were unusually proud of their building, and proud of their company. I believe their pride infused Deere’s products, over the decades, and helped create the most loyal customer base of any farm-equipment manufacturer in the world. Deere customers are fanatical in their loyalty. I believe the pride and loyalty of Deere employees infects the company’s customers. And I have come to believe that the company’s headquarters – designed as a monument to architectural beauty that evokes the company’s earthy, practical mission – helps create pride and loyalty among Deere employees.

The aesthetics of today’s sustainable Utopias often leave a lot to be desired. In the 1970s when the U.S. government subsidized solar energy, thousands of American homes installed awkward, hideous solar collectors on their roofs. Most of the Utopian communes we built in those days were ramshackle settlements built by amateurs without a graceful or beautiful thing in sight. Sandals and tattered jeans were the uniform of the ecologically sensitive. Just lately fashion designers have begun paying attention to where their materials come from and who manufactures them. Only now is a beautiful product’s provenance becoming part of its marketing strategy. Only now are the notions of sustainability coming into contact with the aesthetics of beauty. But where they intersect we get the Tesla Roadster, New York’s Bank of America building and the Earthship — the kinds of things that inspire real change.

And when efficiency and productivity are added to the mix, world-changing innovation can happen.

This essay is excerpted from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want published by B&A Books in December, 2010. The book is available now on the Mother Earth News bookshelf.

Bryan Welch runs Ogden Publications, a diversified media, consulting and affinity marketing company. His company publishes 10 magazines for people interested in self-sufficiency, sustainability, rural lifestyles and farm collectibles. Welch also has his own free-range animal farm near Lawrence, Kansas.

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