by Mary Casey, photo by Louie Schwarzberg
As conditioned as we are to be analytical in our professional lives, ‘Beauty and Inspiration’ might have seemed like an unusual choice as a theme for this year’s UnConference. But it was the perfect rallying cry for a room full of designers – of people who chose this profession because they wanted to make the world a richer, more delightful place.
We have spent much time and focus over the last fifteen years of the green building movement defending our desire for Firmness, Commodity and Delight with Budgets, Cost Comparisons and Rating Tools, and in that process we have kind of lost sight of the thing that brought us to this space to begin with – a reverence for the Beautiful. Drawn by instinct to these forms, in shape and sound, and light and texture, we reduced their meaning to a number and missed the real reasons for why they speak to us. We recognise good design when we see it, we just haven’t (until now) had a rational way to make the best argument in favour of it.
So I sat there, at the UnConference, smiling with the dawning realisation that Beauty has been the answer all along; we just didn’t understand the question.
Beauty v Vanity
One of the things that gets us off on the wrong foot from the get-go is the diversity of people’s perceptions of Beauty’s meaning, relevance and importance. Jason McLennan spoke about our society’s inability to find a healthy balance with Beauty – how placing absolute priority on it actually diminishes our ability to experience it (e.g.: Barbie dolls as body image benchmark), but placing no priority on it also leads to negative outcomes (e.g. strip mining). Beauty is not a superficial ‘add-on’; it is revealed when we have expressed something which is essential. Jason’s talk got me to thinking about the difference between Beauty and Vanity. Beauty is an invitation; it waits for you to meet it. Vanity is a demand, insisting upon your attention. Beauty is an offering; Vanity is self-indulgence. Every artist, with every work, makes a choice to offer one or the other to the world.
Two artists brought their deeply moving work to the UnConference: Louie Schwarzberg and David Trubridge. Louie Schwarzberg is a photographer who has devoted himself to the study and contemplation of Nature. Having focused much of his work on flowers, he spoke about Beauty as being ‘Nature’s tool for survival’. His high-resolution time-lapse videos of very very slow things (like flowers blooming) and very very fast things (like hummingbird wings) are both exquisite and awe-inspiring. David Trubridge spoke about Beauty as a tool for human survival. Early humans observed Nature’s processes in application to work out how best to solve problems like the design of a fishing boat – the pursuit of the perfect form was about survival. Now, when survival is so much more assured, Trubridge asks: Why do we build objects of such crass ugliness for the things we use daily, and confine Beauty to a shelf in a museum? It’s a fair question. Why does it seem easier to contribute more Ugly, Awkward, and Clunky than it is to offer Beauty?
Criticism v Counterpoint
David’s talk raised an important issue about the role of artist in society. The role of social critic is certainly a key part of it, and sometimes artists deliberately create objects of intense ugliness to make a point. But being a critic doesn’t mean your work has, by necessity, to be ugly. How can an artist fulfil her role as social critic without contributing to the ugliness in the world? She can offer counterpoint as criticism.
Maya Lin delivered the opening keynote of the UnConference, and her work elegantly and powerfully critiques current conditions and calls for specific change. She has created a website called: www.whatismissing.net. It is a catalogue of loss, documenting species which have gone extinct due to human pressures. By holding up the consequences of our unthinking actions, she asks a compelling question: What if we thought about our choices in this way instead? What if we thought about respecting places as systems supporting life, instead of raw material components which support our economy? What would be missing in that kind of world (poverty, injustice…)?
The Choice and the Opportunity
The selection of Beauty as a theme for the UnConference was perfect for a truly uplifting and inspiring three days of talks about the way the world is, ‘what is missing’ from it, and what we might contribute. While there is a lot in the world which can be frustrating and dehumanising, all of us, as authors of the built environment and makers of things, can be healers. We can offer hope. We can invite people to see the world in a different way – to reconnect to its essential beauty.
‘Art’ is the name we have given to the study of forms in pursuit of the beautiful – in light, shape and sound. In recent times, Art was distinguished from a tool in that art was not supposed to have any practical application. ‘Biomimicry’ is the name now given to the specific science of studying nature’s forms, processes and systems specifically for practical application. Early humans made no such distinctions between tools and art, so everything was fine-tuned and perfected based on the observation of Nature. We are now returning to this practice with a level of sophistication which was never before possible, and it is giving us a chance to see Nature with a renewed sense of awe for the ingenuity and elegance of its solutions.
Jay Harman is a businessman who sees incredible economic potential in observing the natural world. He spoke about his biomimetic designs for boat propellers as but one example. Based on a ‘frozen whirlpool’, they are capable of propelling boats without turbulence at efficiencies that are staggering. Shark skin is being studied to develop a coating for boat hulls which, if applied to the bottom of just 15 of the 55,000 cargo ships in the world, would reduce fuel consumption equivalent to all the cars on the road. Hippo sweat is helping us design non-toxic sunblock which effectively screens 100% of both UVA and UVB rays.
If we can wed the pursuit of revealing that which is essential (the human need for Beauty) to survival (Nature’s need for Beauty), we could create a world where ‘what was missing’ would be social injustice, ecological degradation, and economic oppression. And according to Harman, ‘Biomimicry is rushing to meet us’, and with the size of the smile on his face when he said it, one could almost imagine that Biomimicry’s arms were open wide to welcome us home to Nature’s embrace.
The reconnection of humans to Nature is once again a question of survival, and bringing Beauty back as part of our solution is not optional, it is essential. As Trubridge noted in his talk, ‘When things are beautiful, we care for them. If we accept ugliness in our homes, we will accept it somewhere else. In deforestation, in waste, in injustice.’
What is it about the world as it currently is that makes you angry or sad or alienated? What would you change? What would you change it to? How would you make it beautiful? What will be your offering?
Let’s get to work. Bring on the Beauty.