How Design is Shaped by Purpose

Shape of Green© Shape of Green

This guest post is an excerpt from The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, written by Lance Hosey and published by Island Press. Find out more at

In recent years, industry has begun to reconsider its purposes. Can products be better for people? Can buildings be better for the planet? Can companies be environmentally responsible and still turn a profit? Addressing these questions is causing dramatic changes in every area of work and life. Yet, as we seek answers to questions about purpose, questions about shape remain. Of the traditional criteria for judging design—cost, performance, and aesthetics— the agenda known as sustainable design is redefining the first two by expanding old standards of value. But what about aesthetics? Does sustainability change the face of design or only its content?

Many designers show little interest in this question, and some dismiss it altogether. “[The term] ‘green’ and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture,” architect Peter Eisenman said in a 2009 interview. Designers care about image, and the green movement, like it or not, has a reputation for being all substance and no style. In 2010, design critic Alice Rawsthorn sized up the Leaf, Nissan’s celebrated electric car: “It is as dull in style as most gasguzzling clunkers.” Many believe sustainability deals exclusively with energy efficiency, carbon emissions, and material chemistry—issues that belong in a technical manual, not on a napkin sketch. Nuts and bolts are not exactly the stuff of every designer’s dreams. As a result, many consider great design and green design to be separate pursuits, and in fact much of what is touted as “green” is not easy on the eyes. The ugly truth about sustainable design is that much of it is ugly.

Conventional wisdom portrays green as not just occasionally but inevitably unattractive, as if beauty and sustainability were incompatible. “Sustainability and aesthetics in one building?” asked the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “Is ‘well-designed green architecture’ an oxymoron?” mused the American Prospect in 2009. The previous year, famed journalist Germaine Greer declared, “The first person to design a gracious zero carbon home will have to be a genius at least as innovative and epoch-making as Brunelleschi,” referring to the Italian Renaissance architect who engineered the magnificent dome of Florence’s Duomo. Green lacks grace, say the critics.

The eco-design movement began with an implied mantra: If it’s not sustainable, it’s not beautiful. Waste spoils taste. Even now, the battle cry continues. “Look at the architecture of the last 15 years,” architect James Wines complained in 2009. “It’s been more flamboyant and more wasteful than it’s ever been before. To build any of these buildings by Frank Gehry [the architect famous for sculptural structures of crumpled metal], it takes . . . 60 to 80 percent more metal and steel and construction than it would to enclose that space in a normal way . . . Mind-boggling waste.” Wines suggests that the work of Gehry, the most renowned architect of our time, isn’t great design because it’s negligent.

Yet the opposing view insists that focusing exclusively on environmental stewardship is just as irresponsible. “Some of the worst buildings I have seen are done by sustainable architects,” Eisenman said in the aforementioned interview. “‘Sustainable architecture,’” wrote critic Aaron Betsky in 2010, “justifies itself by claiming to be pursuing a higher truth—in this case that of saving the planet. The goal justifies many design crimes, from the relatively minor ones of the production of phenomenally ugly buildings . . . to the creation of spaces and forms that are not particularly good for either the inhabitants or their surroundings.”

Originally, the concept of sustainability promised to broaden the purpose of contemporary design, specifically by adding ethics to aesthetics, but instead it has virtually replaced aesthetics with ethics by providing clear and compelling standards for one and not the other. The most widely accepted measures for environmental performance exclude basic considerations about image, shape, and form. Even the most ambitious sustainable design can be unattractive because attractiveness isn’t considered essential to sustainability.

But this will change. Over the past handful of years, plenty of striking examples of eco-design have appeared, and suddenly sustainability is sexy. Yet, what makes these designs look good usually has nothing to do with what makes them green. “Sustainability has, or should have, no relationship to style,” insists architect Rafael Viñoly. Fundamental decisions about appearance often are decided by the personal taste of the designers, so when it comes to aesthetics, sustainable design is business as usual.

What if we created a different approach to aesthetics, one based on intelligence and not intuition? Can we be as smart about how things look as we are about how they work? Typical sustainable design strategies stem from painstaking research and time-tested evidence, and this approach can guide both technical choices and aesthetic choices. For every study demonstrating the benefits hidden inside particular materials and production methods, there are other studies showing how certain shapes, patterns, images, colors, or textures can create environmental, social, and economic value. Why aren’t they more familiar to designers?

Although green techniques often seem complicated, actually they could be divided into two simple categories: those you see and those you don’t. INVISIBLE green—considerations such as embodied energy, material sources, chemical content, and so forth—has become a more familiar agenda, partly because these factors are easier to regulate and measure (and possibly because they don’t threaten artistic freedom). Many designers restrict environmental performance to these factors alone; in the words of architect Cesar Pelli, “Sustainability doesn’t necessarily photograph.” But VISIBLE green—form, shape, and image—can have an even greater impact on both conservation and comfort. How a building is shaped can have an enormous effect on how it performs, and some sources estimate that up to 90 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined during the early design phases, prior to decisions about technical details. In other words, elementary decisions about shape—the “look and feel” of a design—are essential to sustainability.

Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most—the basic shape of things.

READ MORE: The Shape of Green: An Argument for Beauty (Book Review)

TreeHugger readers can get a copy of The Shape of Green at a 30 percent discount. Simply head over to Island Press and use the coupon code 2Hug.

How Design is Shaped by Purpose
Can products be better for people? Can buildings be better for the planet? Gradually, business is waking up to the fact that design can be beautiful and responsible.

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