Are we ready for a new set of aesthetic values? How do we make it desirable to change? And should we consider beautiful as a luxury that does not harmonize very well with our planet's climate challenges? In a Desire panel debate at the UIA World Congress of Architects CPH 2023, our panel discussed the green transition for a full auditorium.

Published July 6, 2023

First, in July 2023, Copenhagen hosted the UIA World Congress of Architects CPH 2023 with several thousand visitors from more than 135 countries. The overall theme for the congress was green and optimistic: Sustainable future – Leave no one behind.

But do the last words also embrace all species – not just humans?

An important question in our New European Bauhaus project, Desire, where our 24 partners among other goals work on connecting nature and people in urban areas when to build new or renovate existing ones. We let nature become a stakeholder – not over – not under humans.

At UIA our partners BLOCHUB and DAC had arranged a special Desire session: ’Sustainable Transformations of Architecture: How Do We Embrace the Beauty of Ugly?

Before our four panel guests started by discussing architectural aesthetics and definitions of ugly and beautiful we had the pleasure to hear Ciarán Cuffe, a member of the European Parliament deliver an overview of the New European Bauhaus, a creative and interdisciplinary initiative bridging the European Green Deal to our living spaces and experiences. Followed by Torben Klitgaard CEO of BLOXHUB (partner and Lead for our Desire Project to explain the vision for Desire - aiming to create aesthetically pleasing livable communities, climate-resilient European cities that can foster the flourishing of people and nature by 2030.

Then the panel took over with a discussion about how aesthetics and beauty can play a role when we talk about the limits of the planet. Are we willing to start asking the question: Is this beautiful? For whom? Maybe not just for humans? It was a long and interesting talk. Hereunder you can see a selected part of the questions and answers. Watch also the video from the session. Link

The planetary boundaries - a kind of indicator

To set the scene, Enlai Hoai, Senior Associate & Head of Innovation at Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects started the debate by giving his view on how planetary boundaries are giving architects new boundaries and the issue of how to know if you build within the planetary boundaries:

“I think almost everybody in this room has a kind of the same question on the inside because it takes a very long time to understand how our practice, specifically as people, create effects. You have to understand that the long-term effects in the planetary boundaries, they can take a long time to eventuate to the point where they can be measured in the environment.”

“So, the question is how to model your effects or how can you read and register the effects of the materials for example or the processes that you're in when you design a building. That demands an enormous amount of research but it also kind of demands a little bit of activism as well - because you can only live and guide yourself by your own knowledge and your own experiences and sometimes you have to take what we call the precautionary approach or the precautionary measures of if it looks like it's going to be bad then it probably is,” Enlai Hooi said.

Despite it being very complex to use planetary boundaries as a term to direct our actions, he thinks it’s necessary.

“Honestly speaking I think planetary boundaries are an extremely interesting approach to measuring planetary health. Because in the built environment we've had a very strong sort of directive drive to reduce carbon. We heard from Ciarán Cuffe that things like if you reduce jet fuel then you could reduce carbon. But if you do reduce jet fuel carbon in specific ways you make extraordinary pressures on land for example or land use, and genetic modification of crops might help that as well. So, there are these terrible things that you could get as externalities if you don't look at things holistically. And the interesting thing about planetary boundaries is that they are in some ways multi-directional so that they are measurements of things that aren't themselves goals.

“So, I hear planetary boundaries being like an indicator of how we should treat planet Earth in a way and there are many things in between that we cannot measure. I think it's a kind of a new metric anyway historically and we as architects I think have been educated in a way where we actually have to re-educate ourselves to understand first of all what they are and how we affect those boundaries,“ Enlai Hooi said.

The article continues below the slide show.

Pictures from the Desire panel Debate at UIA, July 3, 2023. Photos: Ditte Frisk Hansen, BLOXHUB

Aesthetics is a tool to feel

One of Desire’s partner organisations is NXT working at our demonstration site in Herlev, Denmark. Madeleine Kate McGowan is an artist and speculative designer and artistic leader in NXT. In the debate, she reflected on how our existential core question as human beings has radically changed:

“We should no longer be navel gazing creatures looking for some kind of answer to our human existence inside ourselves, like we have seen in books, films, imagery through hundreds of years now. You can say the core existential question is now different, that it's now about – to be conscious about all the different life forms that we are living together with, intertwined into and deeply dependent on.”

“So, this new core question changes everything I would say. Because if architecture is about creating an existential foothold, then if the existential question is now different, then architecture must also be different! It must stimulate habitability for many different life forms. If art is about reflecting the meaning of our existence, then art should also be reflected differently” said Madeleine Kate McGowan.

You often hear the word aesthetics mentioned, when talking about architecture. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste, and Madeleine Kate McGowan and her colleagues work with that notion.

“I work with performing arts, I'm a director of massive immersive installations and I'm responsible for introducing a new character (a Garden Caretaker) to the demonstration site that is a part of Desire. So, I can say how I understand aesthetics.”

“Historically I would point towards one of the first definitions of aesthetics – that aesthetics is tools to feel. And I think this is interesting to look at what it really means to feel. The moment we talk about feelings we don't talk about ugly and beautiful. Feelings are much more complex. And looking at beauty, we could do a historical definition of beauty, look at different ways of understanding beauty through different phases of history, but beauty slips away from us. There’s a mystery to it. And the mystery here is essential.”

“So going back to aesthetics as tools to make us feel. If we define aesthetics through Baumgarten (editor: Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten was a German philosopher (1714-1762). His reappraisal of aesthetics is often seen as a key moment in the development of aesthetic philosophy.) You can say aesthetics is - learning, perceiving, and thinking through our senses. So again, as an artist of course this is what I can contribute as a part of the Desire project. To sense, to feel.”

“And talking about beauty, I would ask the question - beautiful to whom? Creating architecture that is beautiful to whom? In the future, not just humans I guess. What is beauty to a bee? What is beauty to a bird? What is beauty to all these different creatures that we are living here with? I think this change in perception is so exciting. And this is also why we are in a time that's extremely paradoxical. It's so exciting to experiment with new shapes, but at the same time we're also facing this massive destruction,” Madeleine Kate McGowan said.

Beauty for who?

Anne Katrine Harders from DAC - Danish Architecture Centre (Desire partner) was the moderator and asked Madeleine: So, do you want us to use the term beauty, beautiful, less or always in the perspective of the one who views art?

“Well, I can say what I'm doing myself. I'm really interested in the notion of beauty right now. But I'm asking how can we as practitioners root ourselves in the idea of establishing habitability for many different creatures? For me, this is my starting point. Then what emerges from that is different expressions. And I think that they are beautiful because beauty is also what is the intention behind doing something? So, for example, if we leave an ugly, ugly-ass old building standing there. And if people walk by and they're like, that's ugly, that's an ugly building, why is it there? If they know that it's left standing because we're rooted together as a society in habitability for many different living creatures, then maybe they will think that is an act of beauty and thus will the building be different in their eyes,” said Madeleine Kate McGowan.

But would it be possible for people to find the beauty in the ugly now that we for several decades have embraced the clean minds that modernish brought to us? Louise Vogel Kielgast, anthropologist and Director at Gehl - Making Cities for People works with people and behaviour - thinks it will take time to adapt to new aesthetics.

“We need to sort of unlock what are the ways in which we can invite for other behaviours. It's so often that if you design a new building and you have all the best principles in mind, you sort of forget that in the end, it needs to serve an everyday use. So having that, the whole life cycle, but also the every day of different people, pieces, and their interaction. So the time perspective I think is important, but also that we have to find ways again of not seeing products as one thing, but something that needs to be practised. So how can we infuse that idea of things being practised again and again and again? We know that behaviours are so difficult to change because a lot of it is subconscious. And we talk about nudging, but it's also that it's so embedded in us,” Louise Vogel Kielgast said.

But how to push our picture of what a nice little home looks like? Asked Anne Katrine Harders.

“I think it needs to come, and not just from that building itself. We heard some of the values and principles of the New Urban Bauhaus, and I think it's talked a lot about engagement and agency, but agency to do what? So, what if that sense of agency became a way of being that we need? It's, again, it's not a finished product, but it's a thing that we need to engage with. And so maybe not finishing things, and we see a lot of examples of that, where people can start to influence. And we see buildings as a process, or new neighbourhoods and the development of neighbourhoods as a process rather than a thing that you can plan and build and then that's it. So maybe, again, this notion of time I think is hugely important,” says Louise Vogel Kielgast.

Pictures from the Desire panel Debate at UIA, July 3, 2023. Photos: Ditte Frisk Hansen, BLOXHUB

Europe don’t fully understand the scale of the green transition

Indy Johar, Architect & Co-Founder, Architecture 00 and Dark Matter Labs (partner in Desire) is focused on systemic change and so on. He was also asked if he thinks we can embrace the new architecture that looks different from what we are used to? Yes, he said, but he doesn’t think we're fully understanding the scale of it, because – he said - across the European Union we only have the opportunity to build about 140,000 to 176,000 homes if we are following the Paris Accord.

“That should give you an idea about what's about to come to us. We don't have the energy or the material landscapes to build what we're talking about, the scale that's required. For all the renewables in the world between 2019 and 2020, the global energy demand, increase in energy demand, was greater than all the installed renewables ever installed. The demand increases. Mining, which most architecture relies on directly or indirectly, drives 80% of our ecological destruction. 80%. And we're moving from a hydrocarbon economy to a mineral economy. That's what the real transition is. If you move from a hydrocarbon economy, you move to a mineral economy. And we will massively have to deal with that as we work this transition,” said Indy Johar and continued:

“We're not being real about the scale of what's required. And the scale of what we're about to witness. We are literally going to be dealing with the relationship between our food landscape and biomaterials. Everyone here talks about, we're going to do timber, it's going to be just fine. No! We don't have a soil landscape. If you're all vegan, we might just be able to do timber. And then the question becomes, we only have 140,000 homes. The luxury isn't like, do you have clean lines? The luxury is, do you have a house? Who lives in nice housing? What is nice housing? What is comfort? How do we deliver comfort? Are we going to build comfort by over-insulated buildings the way we imagine it right now? Vast material stores? Or are we going to have to reimagine how we build comfort? So yes, beauty will emerge, but the beauty, the functional beauty, the word aesthetics has the word ethics in it as well."

"Now we're going to see a new type of aesthetic emerge, as Madeline so eloquently pointed out, as we start to recognise our interdependence with the world and our entanglement. Not just as human beings, but every other species, and how we imagine that relationship. So a new aesthetic will emerge, and it will be rooted in new ethics, and more importantly, it needs to be rooted in a new theory of materiality, ecology, and how we think about that stuff at a deep code level.”

So then imagine the future of architecture we must reimagine how we derive comfort, Indy Johar said:

“What does this future look like? And it will be beautiful, but just be a different type of beauty. And that is for you to discover as architects and designers. To discover the new ethics and their form in aesthetics.”

The need for redefining luxury

But if we are facing radical change here, are we beyond the desirable? Are we in a position where we say, like, okay, beauty is a luxury that we might not access in the future? Now it's just about, like, sort of surviving in the most ethical way? Anne Katrine Harders would like to hear the panel’s opinion.

“In some ways, yeah. Many people think beauty is coupled with destruction. Like, can we still have the luxury of beauty in this age or at this point where we're actually struggling to survive? And I think that it's not just independence. There are certain aspects of beauty that we rely on for survival,” said Enlai Hooi, and Madeleine Kate McGowan followed up.

“There was a big demonstration or manifestation in the streets of Copenhagen some months back, led by the climate movement of Denmark. And there was this group of writers who got together, and they wrote this poem that they put on a big banner, and it's redefining luxury. Luxury is the touch of a child. Luxury is a bird's song. Luxury is the buzz of bugs. - I'm making this up because I don't know the poem by heart - But I think the poem was an invitation to redefine luxury. So, I think when we're talking about desire, desire is everywhere. Like, the bee desires the flower. So, desire, what is it? I think, when we say desire, it maybe is linked to a story made by Hollywood and capitalism of what it is we should desire. So, we have to redefine that physically.”

A holistic or honest perspective

But how do you see yourself as architects helping us embrace this new aesthetic, helping us embrace the beauty of an ugly warehouse from the 90s? asked Anne Katrine Harders.

A difficult question to answer, but the starting point is recognition and a more holistic mindset, said Enlai Hooi, Head of Innovation hos SHL - Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, when he gave his final words in the Desire debate.

“The beginning of this is, that I think we need to recognize the potential beauty in buildings, not just knock them down to build another one that matches the sort of tabula rasa expectation of what we think a building should look like. As architects, we have the responsibility to imagine through the existing, and that's part of a material responsibility.”

And then Enlai Hooi summed up how challenging it is to be sure of how to work within the term ‘planetary boundaries’ the panel talked about earlier:

“If we just focus on one metric, which is carbon, we can, like I said in the beginning, we can sort of destroy the world by trying to save, you know, one particular element of it. But there's this thing in behavioural science or behavioural economics, and in AI, now it's being talked about a lot, called the alignment problem. And that is where you have a goal, and you figure out one way of measuring it through an indicator. But that way of measuring doesn't necessarily lead you to the goal, it can lead you way off the goal.

You have to look honestly at what you're trying to achieve, and really get an understanding, almost feel or model an understanding of, what is actually working. And so, what's notoriously difficult is defining something that will be a true representation of what you want to achieve. That's very difficult for people to do. And I just want the audience to always be critical of the things that the metrics and the measurements that they're trying to achieve. Try and think about it from a more, let's say, holistic or honest perspective, or see if you're achieving something, are you lacking in another area? That's it.”

Read also an article with MEP Ciarán Cuffe: Recycling will lead to a new sense of beauty in the building environment

Click on the play icon below to watch the video from the UIA - July 3, 2023. Note: The link opens on YouTube.