Beauty: Sustainable or Not?

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Green Mormon Architect has an interesting post on the idea that "only beauty is sustainable," which I cannot link to because he has made his blog private. (GMA: wtf? I doubt being "green" or an "architect" is much reason to take a blog private. Must have something to do with the "Mormon" part....) He writes, "If the community doesn't embrace a building, the building will not be saved or preserved when the time comes. Unaesthetic buildings will not last and are unsustainable even if they have a LEED rating." He then provides a photo of the Mark Miller Toyota building in Salt Lake City, and it is indeed pretty damn hideously ugly despite its LEED gold rating. He adds, "I will be the first in line to tear this building down when the time comes." He notes that the SLC Library has no LEED rating, but is a beautiful, functional, inviting building, and adds, "I will be the first in line to preserve this building when the time comes."

Sustainability in relation to buildings generally refers to the amount of resources they use in their building and maintenance. You know: are renewable materials used responsibly in the construction of the structure? Are the environmental considerations of the building site reasonably attended to? Are energy-saving features incorporated into the design? Of course it's possible to attend to questions like that and still produce an ugly building. GMA's example of Mark Miller Toyota illustrates that perfectly well for me. I also have a feeling I might not be such a fan of the LDS church's new stake center in Farmington, despite the fact that it "is insulated with polyurethane foam, uses highly efficient windows, carpet made from recycled materials, tankless water heaters and European-style toilets that offer the choice of little or lots of water with each flush"-it still probably looks like an uninspired, unimaginative LDS building. Plus I'm guessing that those "highly efficient windows" don't provide for much light or ventilation, making the building as dark and stinky as most LDS buildings from the past 30 years generally are.*

I'm not entirely sure that ugliness is unsustainable--there's plenty of very old ugliness in the world--but I like to think that we might someday achieve a world where that's true. And while I believe in and support the goal of sustaining beauty, I want to discuss the challenges it involves.

A primary challenge is determining what beauty is. Thursday night I saw a movie called Visual Acoustics, celebrating the architectural photography of Julius Shulman. The movie contained a brief discussion of the fact that some really fabulous homes Shulman photographed have been demolished, either because they went out of style and were therefore no longer considered beautiful, or because they weren't properly maintained and were therefore no longer considered beautiful. And this despite the fact that they were once hailed as masterpieces of architecture, by some of the major architects of the period.

The movie discussed the restoration of two important Modernist homes, both in Palm Springs and designed by Richard Neutra: The Miller House (yes, there's a whole book about it) and the Kaufmann House. Both had had additions that marred the design and aesthetic of Neutra's original plan--but people who bought them after their original owners sold them were more interested in functionality and in having a home that met their needs than they were in living in a piece of art. And that leads to a second challenge implicit in GMA's statement that he "will be the first in line to preserve a building when the time comes," because because the time to preserve a building exists in every present moment. Buildings are often torn down because they fall into disrepair, develop mold or structural problems, and look seedy and run-down.

There's also the fact that maintaining or sustaining beauty is often extremely expensive. The Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, famous as it is in architectural circles, isn't nearly as famous as the Kaufmann House in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, a.k.a. Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright. I have been lucky enough to visit some truly spectacular buildings: St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, St. Basil's in Moscow, the Acropolis, the Winter Palace, the Louvre, Chartres Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, etc. For many years I said the most remarkable building I'd ever been in was the Cappella Cornaro, which houses Bernini's Ecstasy of Santa Teresa--and it's not the chapel itself that's so amazing, but the whole experience.

But that was before I saw Fallingwater. It blew my mind. It was the most beautiful and astonishing structure I'd ever been in. It's not just that there's a big waterfall underneath the house; there's a freakin stream of water (albeit a little one) running through the inside of the house and the floor is built from boulders from the site, including some left in place, all of which really do give you this feeling of being connected to the earth (with the unfortunate side effect of serious mold problems). And the whole thing is gorgeous--though admittedly the ceilings are too low, as it usual in a Wright home. But regardless of any flaw, It's truly a work of art.

It was also really difficult to live in and prohibitively expensive to maintain, even for the wealthy heir to a fortune made in Pennsylvania's major department store.** Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. who had convinced his father to commission the house, donated it and all its contents (including original Picaassos given to the family when Picasso visited them) to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, partly because he just couldn't afford the upkeep on the place any more. I'm very glad he did--it was a gift to humanity, and humanity, through the stewardship of the Western PA Conservancy, should do all it can to sustain and preserve this gift.

Fallingwater was not only a work of art and a transformation of living space; it was also an experiment in engineering. It could not have been built before the advent of reinforced concrete. It has always had structural problems, and nasty fights were fought over the cantilevering, since no one had ever built a house like this and no one was quite sure how to support the massive cantilevers Wright incorporated into the design. Kaufmann quietly instructed the builders to provide more cantilevering and reinforcement than Wright called for. They didn't get it right--major restorations and repairs became necessary, beginning in the 1980s, to keep the building intact---but they did a better job with the business than Wright did; modern calculations have proven that the cantilevers as designed by Wright would not have held their weight.

Not all other experiments were quite so dramatic or ambitious, but the fact remains that the Case Study Houses were explicitly intended as experiments that might help--and actually did help---us redefine what we mean by the word "house."

But here's the thing: Oscar Wilde said in The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that "the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely," adding that "all art is quite useless."

If that statement seems extreme, think of it this way: Michelangelo's David is not a utilitarian creation: you don't use it as a coatrack. And preserving it is pretty easy: you just leave the one Michelangelo actually sculpted in the museum it was moved into (leaving a replica outside in the original setting) and keep crazy people with hammers away from it. But how do you preserve and sustain a creation composed of many different materials, exposed to the elements, and in constant use by people who drop stuff, spill stuff, and bump into stuff?

The fact that we use architecture as utilitarian structures changes our perception of it as art. We expect buildings to do work in ways that we don't expect statues and paintings to do work. And if we don't understand or appreciate the work they do, or if they stop working, we often don't care what they look like. As a species we're so invested in pragmatic concerns that we can't even preserve or sustain buildings made of rock that should have been pretty indestructible. Look at what happened to the Coliseum: for many centuries the people of Rome considered it a source of pre-cut stone. You needed a bunch of rock, you went to that big unused pile of them in the middle of the city and hauled some away. Or what happened to the Parthenon: the Ottomans used it as munitions dump and thus blew part of it up, and Lord Elgin felt at liberty to haul all the friezes on it home to decorate his estate in Scotland. And even people who claim to appreciate beauty often deface it, as when Lord Byron carved his named in the Temple of Poseidon.

So here's what I think: beauty is worth sustaining. But it takes work--lots of it. And we won't succeed at sustaining it unless we ask ourselves what it is, and exercise imagination to find ways that our very real, very important utilitarian demands can be met without destroying the beauty that already exists in both the natural world and the world we've created.

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*A couple of Sundays ago a friend and I went on a church crawl: we snuck into Mormon meeting houses and took pictures of the cool ones. At one point we passed a ladies' room, and I insisted we check it out just like we checked out so many of the other rooms. "Omigod," I said when we walked in. "I recognize that smell. It's the smell of baby poop, and...."

"And World War II industrial cleanser," my friend supplied. Thereafter we checked the ladies room in every additional meeting house we visited: all but one smelled exactly the same way.

**When I first moved to Erie, Kaufmann's was the best department store in town. I was very sad when the chain was sold to Macy's.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 30, 2010 5:38 PM.

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