On a road trip to Friesland in the north of Holland, my friend Ans pulled off the highway to admire the much beloved belted bovines grazing in a field. In this part of the country, the barns are as beautiful as the houses and the cows are prized as much for their good looks as their milk. Lankenvelder cattle seem dressed for a black-tie affair, with a white cummerbund separating the dark expanse of fore and hindquarters. In earlier centuries, wealthy landowners liked the pattern so much they bred pigs, chickens and rabbits to replicate it. P.T. Barnum put the cows on exhibit in his circus. Affection for these handsome creatures runs strong and Ans made it clear that this was a sight deserving of aesthetic appreciation.
Further down the road we passed an outcropping of sleek, silver wind turbines that generate renewable electricity for this part of the country. Ans was equally passionate in her appraisal: “I really hate those things,” she declared. “They’re so ugly.”
Ans’ reaction to the turbines reminded me of an interaction years before between David Orr, a leader in the sustainability movement, and one of my colleagues, an art historian. Orr had given a lecture on sustainability and education, focused on the pedagogical power of the built environment. Most campus buildings, Orr argued, convey our confidence in an unending supply of natural resources, our romance with industrial efficiency, and our judgment that the natural world is not important to the world of work and study–all messages that run counter to sustainability.
As the visionary behind the Oberlin Center for Environmental Studies, one of the first zero discharge, green buildings on a college campus—now recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy as a milestone building of the 20th century—Orr has been enormously influential in reconceiving campus architecture. His lecture was inspiring and persuasive. But in the question-and-answer period, my art historian colleague raised her hand, stood up, and accused Dr. Orr of having built an ugly building.
It was an unsettling moment. Here was a building with photovoltaic panels and passive solar heating, recycled carpeting and waterless urinals, a living machine that purified water for reuse, and sophisticated monitors that provided real-time feedback for tracking energy consumption. None of this impressed my colleague or lessened her discontent with the steel and glass structure that conveyed the all-too-familiar frost of modern design. In her comments I heard echoes of my Dutch friend’s dismay with the cold and mechanical wind turbines of Holland.
I struggled with this exchange for many years, fully convinced by Orr’s expansion of pedagogy to the design of campuses and classrooms, but like Ans and my colleague, disappointed that green architecture largely accepts the tropes of industrial design. And then I stepped back and realized they were pointing, in different ways, to the same problem.
Orr articulated what Ans and my colleague knew intuitively—that the built environment is neither mute nor unbiased. It speaks volumes about dominant social values. They were united in objecting to design that contributes to our alienation from the world. Using the language of carbon footprint, zero waste, and grey water systems, Orr challenged architectural assumptions of endless resources and detachment from the natural world. Ans and my colleague advocated for buildings and structures that are charismatic in the original meaning of the word (kharis), fostering “grace, beauty, and kindness.” All were passionate that human-fabricated constructions should honor and encourage the flourishing of life.
But they also talked past each other in an important way, epitomizing one of modern philosophy’s most perilous legacies: the disunion of aesthetics and ethics. Beauty and goodness share a long bloodline but since Kant in the 18th century, they have come to be thought of as separate values, descriptive of unique sets of acts and artifacts. It is a bifurcation whose consequences were made clear in the judgments about wind turbines and sustainable buildings. Ans and my colleague paid attention to the aesthetic appearance of the design without consideration of its ecological good sense. In this, they accepted a cheapened form of beauty as mere surface and style. And yet, I know for sure that neither of them would overlook the ugliness of a pollution-belching building or a blood diamond or a carpet knotted by the fingers of young children.
Beauty is more than skin deep precisely because its task is to increase vitality. To become aware of the slow violence behind the production of so much of the glitter of modern life—and to be repelled by it—is to realize the kinship of aesthetics and ethics, beauty, and goodness. Cruelty, exploitation, environmental destruction—all forms of ugliness—are foe to beauty. “In the largest sense,” wrote David Orr in The Nature of Design, “what we must do to ensure human tenure on the earth is to cultivate a new standard that defines beauty as that which causes no ugliness somewhere else or at some later time.”
But it is also the case that sustainable design has been almost entirely consumed with solving technical challenges, focused primarily on energy efficiency, waste reduction, material techniques, and resource use. Rarely has beauty been a criterion. The habitual disregard of aesthetics that characterizes the modern worldview goes unchallenged—even by those engaged with rethinking many of the basic premises of modernity. Beauty continues to be treated as incidental or as an afterthought—or simply not considered at all. And yet, as architect Lance Hosey boldly declared in The Shape of Green,
“If design is to act like nature, it should take our breath away.”
To fulfill the vision that sets the practice of sustainability in motion—the vision of life coordinating with life in ways that ensure the flourishing of life—ethics and aesthetics must be reintegrated. They are not separate endeavors but part of the same effort to support life. Their antagonist is ugliness, understood in its root form as that which inspires fear, loathing, and dread—in form or action. It is anything that dissipates life, whether by expropriation or neglect. Sustainability is a process and goal that moves in exactly the opposite direction, away from the narrowing and deadening and toward enriching the extraordinary phenomenon that is life.
We need a way of thinking that supports this aim, one that overcomes the false separation of beauty and goodness and that makes it possible to speak meaningfully about shared values, one that holds sustainability to a standard that exceeds efficiency and preservation. We need a worldview that actively promotes beauty. Without it, sustainability cannot fill its lungs. The consequence could be a world in which no one feels at home.
As billions of dollars pour into public coffers to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, the conversation between Orr and my Dutch friend takes on heightened relevance. In the next five years, bridges, overpasses, airports, and seaports will be rebuilt. Wind and solar facilities will be erected. Risk mitigation projects will inscribe large swaths of land–forests, watersheds, and coastlines. Mega-networks of energy, water, and transportation will extend across state lines and bioregions. Will we build in ways that take our breath away? Or will we silence the need for a landscape that gives voice to beauty, allowing a thin economy of efficiency to override the desire to build places we want to live?
Future generations will experience the American landscape differently than our generation.
“The worst thing we can do to our children,” wrote the scientist Rene Dubos, “is to convince them that ugliness is normal.”
Teaser photo credit: LAKENVELDER COWS. By johanvanbetsbrugge, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115524725