Ethics and Aesthetics in Architecture

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Thursday, February 26th, 2015
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Governor General Peter Cosgrove described Frank Gehry’s latest masterpiece as the ‘most beautiful squashed brown paper bag’ at its opening recently.

The University of Technology’s Dr Chau Chak Wing building is being hailed as a new architectural icon. Constructed from more than 320,000 hand-placed bricks and glass slabs, the building turns the traditional notion of ‘sandstone university’ on its head.

While Gehry took his inspiration from Sydney’s colonial architecture, that’s where the similarity ends. The interior walls are curved and the classrooms are circular. The comfort of the people within the building came before the building form. Within the walls of this “crumpled paper bag,” Gehry has explored “the idea that you can humanise a building.”

There can be no doubt about the building’s sustainability credentials. With a 5 Star Green Star – Education Design v1 rating, the building features high-performance glazing, energy-efficient building services, water-efficient fixtures and a 20,000-litre rainwater tank.

All timber was sustainably sourced, 160 undercover bicycle racks and end-of-trip facilities encourage healthy and active living, and digital signage communicates the building’s sustainability features to occupants.

Gehry has been criticised over the years for making sculptural structures that use mammoth amounts of raw materials, and the Dr Chau Chak Wing building is no different. Using more materials than necessary is not a sustainable approach to architecture, yet the aesthetic effect enhances the entire UTS campus and may be a stepping stone toward more amenity and architectural beauty in the general area.

What’s more, beautiful buildings are more likely to endure – making the “crumpled paper bag” one that is part of the landscape for generations to come. As Senegalese poet Baba Dioum says, “in the end, we conserve only what we love.”

It’s true that those buildings we preserve aren’t the ones that achieve the highest energy efficiency ratings nor provide the highest quality indoor environment. The buildings we love capture our hearts and our imaginations. They make our spirits soar.

In The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, architect Lance Hosey argues that beauty is an indispensable element of sustainability. After all, an ugly building is more likely to be torn down.

Hosey points to experiments in interaction design, which reveal that people generally consider attractive products more functional than unsightly ones – which makes them more likely to use those that look better.

“Consider the ramifications – if an object is more likely to be used, it’s more likely to continue being used,” he says. “Who throws out a thing they find functional, beautiful, and valuable all at once? A more attractive design discourages us from abandoning it: if we want it, we won’t waste it.”

While sustainable architecture’s primary focus has been on environmental impact, not aesthetics, Frank Gehry’s new masterpiece demonstrates that architects don’t have to choose between ethics and aesthetics. Together, beauty and sustainability can deliver something extraordinary that will stand the test of time.

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