Pulchraphilia

April 21, 2010 at 11:31 pm | In architecture, cities, ideas, social_critique, urbanism | Comments Off on Pulchraphilia

Yesterday the brilliant folks at the Cascadia Region Green Building Council sent out the link to the latest issue of Trim Tab, their quarterly online magazine. The current (Spring 2010) issue features an article by Jason F. McLennan, “The Role of Beauty in Green Design: ‘Pulchraphilia’; How Aesthetics and Good Design Improve Performance” (click through and scroll to p.17ff).

Building on biophilia, McLennan makes the case for beauty, essentially to say that we’re more inclined to take care of beautiful things – including a beautiful built environment – which then naturally dovetails with the interests of sustainability. (On the topic of biophilia, see also my article, Biophilic design: taking love to the street, first published in FOCUS Magazine, August 2007, available for download on Scribd.)

In other words, make “green” beautiful, and it has a better chance of catching on, being loved, getting attention, and giving back, which, taken together, means it just might last.

McLennan even coined a new word, pulchraphilia, to anchor his insight.

Yesterday, I reported on Creating Value Through Sustainability, leading with one panelist’s insight around data: “You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.” Contrast that with McLennan’s discussion of quantity (vs quality?):

The real truth is that many of the most important things in life are the very things that are more difficult to quantify and any system that fails to address them is guaranteed to fall short. Just because something can’t be objectively measured doesn’t mean it has zero value; it may in fact become the most important building block of all. When it comes to green building and environmental performance, beauty and good design play an enormous role in the success of any project. In fact, aesthetics contribute to the overall effort in such significant ways primarily because people are involved and we are emotional beings. (p.20)

At first, I read this and agreed. Then I reread it and wondered how I could agree, yet be inspired by “you measure what matters.” I think now that it isn’t just a question of numerical measurement (relying on, say, conventional data), but rather of agreeing on salience.  In other words, “you measure what matters” means in the first instance agreeing on what is actually salient (if you agree something is salient, you’re much more likely to be willing to talk about its value).

That’s really the key thing: if we can agree that beauty or pulchraphilia are salient to the success of an enterprise, a project, our species, the environment, etc., then we will find a way to take its “measure” – because we will have agreed that, being salient, it’s valuable and it matters.

So, “you measure what matters” is a two-way street, infinitely open to negotiation. You can bury salience in data, drown meaning in bafflegab. Or you can make the case for what matters. And beauty is definitely worth the case.

Apropos of meaning, McLennan writes:

The first thing to understand is that any design infused with a rich cultural process is naturally imbued with meaning, as opposed to designs that attempt to strip away any connection to place, culture, climate or the era in which it resides. Context, in other words, matters – and when we build with great care, great love or great passion the result transcends building and transforms experience. Mere building turns into architecture.  (p.24)

Again, “infused with a rich cultural process” means the design has located itself within salience: the context is the history of how it came to be salient, why it stands out, why we give it attention. (If I put on my art historian’s hat, salience simply means what stands out: the figure against the ground on a canvas, for example. It’s what draws my attention.) And again, salience is itself negotiable: we may not always consider salient what previous generations did. But there’s a history to it, which, if we bother to learn it, can help us figure out how to assess salience today.

(For more on salience in a business context, check out Roger Martin‘s book, The Opposable Mind, which I blogged about here.)

Finally, the following two sentences resonated a lot with me, because (like many people) I’m on a tear against how our built environment is dictated by the requirements of the car:

Most of our current communities have been designed around modules that have nothing to do with the dimension of human life. Instead, they are based on 20- and 30-foot mechanical forms of locomotion (automobiles) that separate us, divide us and expand scale beyond the point where any meaning can occur. (p.30)

Gordon Price has written extensively about car-dependent urban planning; I blogged about a presentation he recently gave in Victoria on Motordom, or auto-dependent urban form. The civil engineers and city planners really need to step up here and rethink the codes – a big dose of pulchraphilia is definitely needed.

Next up sometime soon I might do a little photo-essay about driveways: old driveways in an old neighborhood, juxtaposed to “suburban-style” double-wide driveways on new subdivisions in those same neighborhoods. They’re as big an eyesore in residential neighborhoods as are honking great underground parking garage entrances on city streets that should present a tightly-knit street-wall of building frontages… And why are they so big in the first place? Because city engineering codes require it. Change the damn codes.)

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