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The Social Factor in Sustainable Architecture


Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. Photo: Edgar Barany/Flickr

I was recently struck by photographs of energy-efficient houses that were described as ’sustainable’ — built mostly with natural or recycled materials and even finished with environmentally friendly paint — however, they looked like regular modernist buildings. Can modernist architecture be called sustainable, if only ecological techniques are used? Or, is there still something missing?

Sustainability is something more than just green. Yes, there are many definitions, and the term has been degraded over the years, however, have a look at this definition — the aim of sustainability is to improve quality of life while preserving biodiversity, the abundance of natural resources and social equity. If we assume that the aim of a sustainable design is to create pleasant environments that nourish human spirit, can this be achieved by modernist styling?

Can modernist buildings be described as harmonious, beautiful and nurturing the human soul? Do they create places where it is a pleasure to be in, where people like to sit on the bench and enjoy the surroundings? At least from my perspective — hardly, or not at all. The landscapes they create are mostly ‘cold’, ‘artificial’ and even ‘dead’. And yet there are literally hundreds of places which are visited for their beauty and pleasant atmosphere which have traditional styles of architecture, be it Venice, Paris or Prague.


Contemporary office building in Gdansk, Poland. Would it help to create
a more enjoyable environment if it was made of recycled materials?

If you were to choose a square to spend an evening with your friends or to meet for a date, would you choose the square surrounded by modernist buildings made of glass, steel and concrete or the one that remind you of the traditional architecture of Tuscany in Italy or Provence in France? I don’t have any scientific research to prove it, only a guess that most people would choose the latter. As such, since traditional architecture might be much better in creating enjoyable environments than the modernist approach, wouldn’t it be accurate to conclude that modernism in architecture is a failed approach?


Traditional buildings of similar height in Sandomierz, Poland.
Photo: magro_kr/Flickr

I’m not saying that the solution for good design is to replicate the historic styles of architecture (which in some cases may be fine). My point is that a sustainable design should include the social factor, meaning it should aim to create an environment which is ‘warm’, ‘alive’ and beautiful — where people feel happy and where they like to spend time. If we try to design a building to meet these qualities, we may end up with something that looks like the buildings of the past. Would it actually be something bad?


Newly built residential complex in Sopot, Poland.

Many architects say that the style of architecture should reflect the present culture. However, since we live in the era the of consumer culture, is it really something worth reflecting? Why not design buildings that are timeless — buildings that will be perceived as beautiful and nourishing ten years from now, one years from now and two hundred years from now? A good contemporary design doesn’t have look ‘modern’. If it reminisces of historic architecture, so be it. The social factor is more important than the idea of ‘modernity’.


Traditional architecture in Sopot (Parkowa Street).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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