ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Education and Science»
  • Architecture

Art and Sustainability - Does art of architecture carry any value within sustainability?

Updated on November 8, 2009

Architecture has always been the result of the delicate balance between art and science (weighed always in favor of the former) as manifested in the built environment. However, the dictionary meaning of architecture does not lay any such emphasis. Its simply says “the art and science of designing and erecting buildings.”

When one aspect of the equation overwhelms the other, for example as in the most severe extension of the Baroque or Rococo conversely, the result is obscured in the favor of pure art--sculpture, painting-- as the practical component completely disappears. In both cases the end still is termed architecture.

Before we address the main issues related to the discussion paper, it is a must that we also look into the meaning of ‘beauty’, ‘art’.

Sustainability Cartoons - HighMoon
Sustainability Cartoons - HighMoon
Sustainability Cartoons - HighMoon
Sustainability Cartoons - HighMoon

Another word that needs to be understood in this context is the word ‘sustainability’.

The Brundtland Report of 1987 gives one of the best descriptions to date - it states that development can only be declared sustainable if it

"Meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In the course of the past decade, a broad consensus has emerged whereby sustainable development is about attaining a balance between three different considerations:

• Economic development,

• Ecological concerns and

• Social needs.

Obviously, we are talking here not about key indicators and threshold values that can be objectively defined, but about weighing alternatives and making value judgments - something each society must do for itself. In practice, there are more tangible principles that can serve as guidelines: Don't squander resources, save energy, avoid waste, and shoulder responsibility across continents and generations. Or to put it more simply, as a British physicist once suggested: “Leave the world a better place”.

Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth'

MUST SEE - An inconvenient Truth - Al Gore

Thus, for the human community to sustain itself indefinitely, nature must be preserved and perpetuated. Sustainability recognizes this since it is based on the concept that human civilization is an integral part of the natural world. The fundamental concept of sustainability, when applied to all aspects of the human existence improves the condition on existence and insures a healthy world for future generations. Sustainable planning seeks to build on the accomplishments of programs that propagate environmental protection, conservation, restoration and compliance by taking a holistic approach to planning for facilities. Both traditional and new techniques and technologies affect the concept of sustainability.

The article discusses the following issues:

What does sustainable mean in the context of historic preservation? Is a building worth keeping because it is sustainable?

Does a building have to possess ‘beauty’ to be passed on to future generations?

Does Art of architecture carry any value within sustainability?

Can Sustainable architecture afford not to value the Art of Architecture?

In order to address these issues we must first know why buildings are generally preserved:

• They reflect a gone by era, provide us insight into the lives of our ancestors. Hence the human tendency to try to preserve something of national, cultural or historic importance.
• Or that it is a great work of art, signifying progress in terms of its contribution to the world of architecture.

The question: Are sustainable buildings worth preserving?

Now, sustainable, or environmentally friendly architecture is not simply an environmental benefit. In this shrinking world of globalization it is place-sensitive, location-specific architecture. It is a response to local climatic conditions by using local materials. It results in an architectural quality that is more natural and with fewer artificial inputs. Thus not only is less more, less is also beautiful.

It's a popular fallacy to suppose that Corbusier designed a house as "machine for living." When one looks at those buildings we realize that most of them are hardly practical machines. They're impractical works of sculpture.

Similarly one can question the admired works of modern architecture. Are they practical or utilitarian? The architectural school at IIT, at Mies's Crown Hall, the studios glass walls are useless as display surfaces. It also is a disaster in terms of glares and heat gain. The students tape paper over the glass in order to make the place functional.

The point I am trying to make here is that in the architectural boom of the 40’s and the 50’s when most buildings were built on the functionalism and minimalism ideology, one may be shocked to find that most weren’t really functional.

Glenn Murcutt Architecture Master Class - Sensitivity to Site

In his book Glenn Murcutt, Murcutt says, “aesthetics is posited in clarifying and expressing the practicalities and processes of architecture and enabling their order to be observed. Great poetic arises from utilitarian”. He says, “I cannot separate the rational from the poetic. The Greek islands taught me to look beyond the apparently rational. If the basics are right, many other resolutions will flow. Our profession has lost whole chunks of empirical knowledge, all the rules of the thumb, for instance, that made it impossible to design an awkward staircase, or a fireplace that smoked, or a roof drainage system that flooded”. He then goes on to say that once, the application of these rules of thumb made and known; even a mediocre architect can be a reasonably good designer.”

Therefore what then is the difference between a normal, efficient functioning building! What is it that differentiates an ordinary efficient building from an extraordinary one?

The answer to this question is partly lies in what Louis Kahn said, in a different context about art and buildings I quote:

“On one side of the line is truth--engineering, facts, mathematics, anything like that. On the other are human aspirations, dreams and feelings. Art is the meeting on the line of truth.

Jørn Utzon (b.1918)Perspective sketches of Opera House with glazing highlit c.1960 pencil and crayon on paper; 33.0 x 47.0cm PXP492 ff209 Presented by Bill Wheatland, for Jørn Utzon, 1972 Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Jørn Utzon (b.1918)Perspective sketches of Opera House with glazing highlit c.1960 pencil and crayon on paper; 33.0 x 47.0cm PXP492 ff209 Presented by Bill Wheatland, for Jørn Utzon, 1972 Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

Another example; Utzon’s competition entry for the Sydney Opera house was technically incorrect, as he had not strictly adhered to all the rules. The story goes that Saarinen after arriving late for the judging asked to see the designs that the other judges had put in the discarded pile. The schematic sketches of soaring free-form white shells amongst the rejected sketches caught his eye. He immediately began convincing the other judges that this had to be the winner, even if it broke some of the competition rules. In Opera House Act one, (Sydney, 1997) p. 103, David Messent writes “Saarinen explained his conception. "Really what is great architecture? It's not only how well it's a quality beyond that. It's how much does it inspire man."

This outlook was embodied in his design for the Opera House. Utzon was attempting to address the basic functional aspects of the building but with a poetic response to the environment of SydneyHarbor. He differentiated himself from the strict modernist nostrum that form had to follow function. At the same time there was a rational underpinning to every element of the design, making Sydney Opera house into one of the great structures of the 20th Century.”

Thus, when the architecture profession aims at achieving the concept of sustainability in every little structure designed, it is but natural to aim to preserve only the best. Part of this argument is augmented by thinking that the newer generations are given a chance to express themselves and at the same time testing the principle of the survival of the fittest.

However one must consider ordinary buildings that may tend to adorn an extraordinary role by virtue of their function or the time in which they were built. A good example of this is the Watson hotel located in Mumbai. A modest design, but the building is the first steel structure in India built by the British. Thus it becomes necessary to preserve such structures. But on the other hand one cannot get obsessive about them; Old must go and make way for the new.

Another aspect of buildings that cannot be ignored is the aspect that buildings give people a sense of belonging and nostalgia. In the book, Image of a city, “Kevin Lynch states that we perceive any city through a series of images. These images create familiarity and bonding that people have towards the place. The dislocation or destruction of a building that they have seen for many years is very disturbing for the people. Thus preservation of the spirit of the place becomes necessary to give the people of the locality a sense of belonging and security.

This spirit of place has developed slowly. It is always changing and growing. It can be built upon, but if obliterated, it takes a long time - sometimes several generations - to re-establish itself. It helps therefore to look at development sites not as opportunities to do whatever we want, but places that can be improved by conversion.

Bearing a few exceptions, I believe that a sustainable building isn’t worth keeping unless, it possesses that extra something that goes beyond rational thinking and touches human senses and sets it apart from other sustainable structures. However one can never forget that if all buildings were designed at least to be sustainable, then we as architects are providing it a better chance to survive in this jungle of structures. James Wines in ‘Green Architecture” sums up the argument beautifully. He says that

“Even the most advanced advocates of ecological design are still struggling with ways to integrate environmental technology, resource conservation and aesthetic content. Without all three components in place there is little chance or a truly enduring architecture. A major factor contributing to the longevity of buildings that survived from the past is their fusion of nature and art. They had to be both earth friendly and beautiful to be worthy of preservation in the first place.”

The irony, however of the whole situation is that architects over last few decades have been seduced by technology to the extent that they have started to believe that their imaginations can be realized with least consideration to climate or place or resources by just gaining control with the environment controls. Art and visual appeal has super ceded spatial comfort. The architects create lovely two- dimensional plans and rendered elevation, thanks to computer-aided design; the design places little or no consideration to climate, place or people. Designs can now be picked and placed on any site around the world, as they are very rarely site specific. Thus under these given circumstances the argument that sustainable buildings be preserved seems very much a likely thing to do, considering there are very few of them that are actually built, thus making them a rarity.

Art and aesthetics are the primary concerns while designing for most architects irrespective of whether the result is good or bad. Art has always significantly contributed by its presence or absence in buildings. Both conditions considered as art in architecture. From the highly ornamental art nouveau that Gaudi advocated, to the plain glass walls of the international style, the symbolism in the postmodern architecture to deconstruction era of conceiving building in frames, bits and pieces. Art has always re-established /re-interpreted its meaning through its journey in the various styles in architecture. Each style in architecture has had the privilege of patronizing a different type of art form.

If one considers sustainability as a “style” in architecture, which many do, by defining their style of design as either “green architecture or energy conscious buildings”, then one could say that the so called “elements that manifest on the façade of the sustainable buildings” can be considered as art creations themselves.

However that would be not so appropriate. To reduce a concept that arises out of sensible thinking and necessity as seen in the traditional and vernacular architecture of a place, to be dished out as a novelty .One would expect this concept be a commonplace with every building designed and not be a value tag added to special buildings designed to advocate this concept.

Unconsciously beautiful wooden boat
Unconsciously beautiful wooden boat

Contrary to the common assumption I strongly feel that there's no inherent conflict or opposition between "art" and "function,"(concept of sustainability ‘apparently’ arising out of the latter) as if one were attained at the expense of the other. A wooden boat –vernacular work that’s been built by a local craftsman--is beautiful, and why so?  It is NATURAL. It is not something that has been self-consciously "designed" to be "artistic." Early twentieth century functionalists have argued as to why buildings aren’t designed naturally like a beautiful simple natural wooden boat. In practice, the designers may sometimes unnaturally work their designs in order to claim their work to be unique rather than a product of a communal culture, the designers develop and unnatural or contrived way of putting their stamp on the design and this is where the conflict develops. This is where a designer must be careful and this is where he generally fails.

Does art in architecture carry any value within sustainability?

Art in any form of architecture will always carry value. Buildings can never be devoid of art because buildings themselves can be conceived as art objects, where the drama unfolds and its user can participate in the experience and yet be an observer. As long as man experiences various senses and responds to stimuli, there shall always be art. Art in buildings exists in many forms – right from sculptures to spaces to the buildings external façade. It is the expression of the architect and it can be unique to every piece of architecture and architect, yet it reflects the underlining factor that binds all buildings of a particular era or distinguishes when rules are broken to create a new pattern. A building can therefore never be devoid of art.

It is the art in the buildings that expresses something that is important to us- the society. It there becomes the spirit of the building and in this way the building becomes greater than just a collection of objects. Thus as Sussanah Hagan says in ‘Taking Shape’

‘The question then is not whether the art of architecture carries any value within the parameters of environmentalism, but whether environmental architecture can afford not to value the art of architecture.’

Sustainability as a concept has never undermined the importance of art in buildings. In fact it has a lot to offer towards art in buildings. After all it is a concept that arises out of the human need to be as close and one with nature. And anything that advocates such a principle can never be wanting in terms of art or sensory stimulation. I feel this concept gives ample scope and forms an important design variable that can be molded to achieve outstanding effects and therefore timeless structures.

An interesting article caught my attention:


From the above article I concluded that for things to last and remain forever, they have to be simple in concept, intelligent solutions to respective problems adaptable, utilitarian prudent and yet a piece of art that grows on and with civilizations, having a perfect balance with its function and aesthetic appeal.

Thus for a public art like architecture, then, the problem is not to produce something which everyone will like. In a pluralist society, that is impossible. The task is rather to produce something, which everyone can learn to like. This does not however, mean that it is enough for the architects to say, or think,” I have done it; Let them learn to like it.” The architect has the responsibilities of a teacher, without the teacher’s authority. Buildings and cities must be conceived, not in terms of compulsions, social or aesthetic, but in terms of opportunities. When architecture fails, as it so often does, whatever its “style”, it is usually because the opportunities it offers are too restricted: its order crude or flawed, its variety limited. But where opportunities are created there will be response. The greater opportunity, the more the response will grow with time.

I believe that Sustainable architecture provides one such opportunity where ‘art’ and ‘functionalism’ can coexist to create good enduring architecture that has the ability for people to come together, as a natural part of their daily routines, and express their purpose. It organizes spaces and places in ways that then become naturally interesting to people. The spaces then connect people, amalgamate people, integrate with others and make these people part of a community. Architecture then does more than occupy and contain spaces; it connects people, creating the pleasure of being in a community, fosters growth and strengthens the community, and then defines our culture.


TOM, HEALTH., What if anything, is an architect?, Architecture Media Australia Melbourne1991
Ed READ, ALAN., Architecturally Speaking ,practices of art, architecture and the Everyday ,Routlage 2000.
Messent ,David .,Opera House Act One, Sydney, 1997 p. 103

Are 'Green' buildings beautiful?

See results

Poll now!

Is a building worth keeping/preserving because it is sustainable?

See results

Is it easy to be 'green'?

See results


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • munirahmadmughal profile image

      munirahmadmughal 7 years ago from Lahore, Pakistan.


      Very informative and educative hub.

      The Brundtland Report of 1987 gives one of the best descriptions to date - it states that development can only be declared sustainable if it

      "Meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

      I would haumble add that the glamour of the Past should also remain visible in it along with the present needs and the scope for future according to its own needs.

      The value in any things by the comfort it provides to the society.

      One easy way is to publish and make public the art of architecture before start or execution of the work to get public opinion.

      it adds to confidence, it add cooperation, it adds a grace that there exists senseof participation in the society. healthy Criticism should not be minded. Rather considered a tep towards improvement and safeguard against any fallacy or slip that may come in the way lateron.

      How grand and sustainable are the art and work of the Creator of all above, below, on all sides. Glory be to Him. And His blessings be on all humanity.

    • BundleBoy profile image

      BundleBoy 8 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Thanks Alexis for the comments, I am very encouraged. I hope to write more such hubs. Well that's a nice point you drive here about beauty being in the eyes of the beholder...which is why we get variety/diversity in architecture.

    • C.S.Alexis profile image

      C.S.Alexis 8 years ago from NW Indiana

      Man this is really a great hub. Your points are most interesting and the idea of relating the need to the desire for beauty is one that must be addressed if we intend to survive, things can grow on you and beauty is in the eye!