Goodbye, Vitruvius: It's Time for Architects to Choose Ethics Over Aesthetics

77 Wade angled

Christine Murray writes a provocative essay on doing what is right, right now.

While admiring a new wood tower proposed for Toronto recently, I noted that it "underwent an energy modelling exercise from which building systems were selected on the basis of energy efficiency and optimization." Architect Elrond Burrell, writing from New Zealand where he cannot get sued for publicly criticizing an architect in Toronto, responded to my tweet:

He also pointed to an article published in Dezeen on the same day by Christine Murray, who is "editor-in-chief and founding director of The Developer, a publication about making cities worth living in. Murray was formerly editor-in-chief of the Architects' Journal and The Architectural Review." Those are impressive credentials, and it is an impressive article, calling out architects for being more interested in design than in climate, and for the specious excuse that it has been built to last.

Most architects are blasé when it comes to climate change. I've often been told, "designing a building to last one-hundred years is the most sustainable thing you can do". Not only is this untrue, it's dangerous nonsense.

She starts with an overview of the climate crisis we are in, and then continues with a Vitruvian bang:

What is the point of firmness, commodity and delight in the face of crop failure, nothing to drink, or breathe? Forty per cent of insect species are in decline; if we lose them all, we have no pollination – nothing to eat – and the entire ecosystem collapses due to starvation. What matters is now, not whether your stone facade is still standing at the fall of mankind.

© Foster + Partners/ Bloomberg. Foster + Partners/ Bloomberg

© Foster + Partners/ Bloomberg

She has no time for Lord Foster and points out his new Bloomberg Headquarters in London (as we have) for displaying his love of "love of technological gadgets encased in new-build tonnages of glass, steel and stone."

Murray blames architects for being lazy, for not demanding the greenest products, for ignoring embodied carbon. She says, "It's time for architects to choose ethics over aesthetics. Take responsibility, own that you are part of the problem, and do something about it."

Some were not impressed with the article. Adam Meyer used to work for Bill McDonough and says you can have both, beauty and ethics. I suspect Lance Hosey, author of The Shape of Green, would argue it too. Lance argued that you cannot have sustainability without beauty, writing:

Long term value is impossible without sensory appeal, because if design doesn't inspire, it is destined to be discarded. "In the end," writes Sengalese poet Baba Dioum, " we conserve only what we love." We don't love something because it is nontoxic and biodegradable, we love it because it moves the head and heart... When we treasure something, we're less prone to kill it, so desire fuels preservation. Love it or lose it. In this sense, the old mantra could be replaced by a new one: If it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern, it's an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.

Elrond Tweet

Tweet by Elrond Burrell/Screen capture

But Lance wrote that in 2012 and things are a lot more dire today. Is it time to dump Vitruvius and his Firmness, Commodity and Delight for Elrond and his efficiency, low embodied energy, healthy and walkable? It doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Can we please have both?