How Much Depends on the Beauty of Our Spatial Environments?


“WHEN I AM WORKING ON A PROBLEM," said the legendary futurist Buckminster Fuller, “I never think about beauty.  But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

What is the significance of beauty? 

In scientific fields like mathematical physics, it is often hotly debated whether or not elegance is an essential symptom of a highly functional algebraic formulation. Are beautiful truths more comprehensive than ugly truths?  Fortunately, most of us are not turned on by algebra.  We are, however, very much aroused or depressed by the structures of the physical spaces that surround us.

The meaning crisis and the sustainability crisis are both deeply entangled with the seemingly trivial question of aesthetics.  Our species is either getting better or worse in its capacity to unfold regenerative wholeness as a function of the combined artificial and ecological layout of our environments. 

We have a general habitat crisis.   

Buckminster Fuller's definition of beauty (see Synergetics) was implicit to his personal task.  Bucky sought to leverage the interactive tensions of various geometries to build efficient architectures for solving multiple problems simultaneously. 

His intriguing principles of synergy and tensegrity would naturally, he thought, result in structures imbued with naturalistic beauty.  Nature, after all, was engaged almost entirely in solving structural problems in three-dimensional space. 

Beauty is simply the result of ephemeralization -- solving the most problems with the least materials. 

Whether or not Fuller was correct, Game A solutions typical erect structures that solve one problem efficiently by generating multiple new problems that accumulate over time.  Nature (and hopefully Game B) implements solution strategies that tend to also solve many peripheral and emergent problems.

Too few of us are actively engaged in the inquiry of building.  The design arrangement of material objects in space is so fundamental that most of us never think about it -- unless we have to replace a recalcitrant sofa or ponder where to plant the petunias.  Yet the condition of our bodies, minds & societies is significantly pre-established by the buildings and environments in which we operate.  Not to mention the massive global impact that the relentless and poorly-incentivized construction industry is having on this planet.

The Happold Foundation has an interesting conversation on Regenerative Design.  And here's a video about living solutions and regenerative architecture that explores how we might improve the building industry's constant effects on our world.

However, the most perennially popular perspective on architecture across the liminal webs is probably that of systems theorist & avant-garde architect Christopher
Alexander.  You can taste his approach to design systems online and there are some fascinating documentary discussions about his life's work.

For Alexander, beauty is a widely shared & fine-tuned human capacity that has evolved to detect and desire wholeness in complex interactive systems.  According to his magnum opus on The Nature of Order, the proliferation of ugly, demoralizing and dysfunctional spaces is rooted in three key issues:

Firstly -- as McGilchrist also asserts -- we suffer from the the exaggerated use of mechanistic and reductionist modes of thinking.  While perhaps locally efficient, these modes fail to grasp several significant and pragmatic dimensions of reality that need to be factored in.  In particular they are blind to affective fields of wholeness. 

Secondly, we have institutionalized an overreliance on simulations.  This means both computer models (which radically simplify architectural templates) and also the type of narrowly rational analysis that goes on inside the minds of executives and state-administrators who are far removed from any richly embodied data about building sites, local needs & patterns of mutual adaption between aspects of the landscape.  The simulationist approach to construction runs on (literally) ungrounded data.   

Thirdly, there are obvious constraints imposed by time and money.  The mutual adaptation of the parts of structures into emergent wholeness requires slow unfolding with care by people who know the local environment with great nuance. 

So part of Alexander's project has been to provide analytic design principles and computational strategies that might help architects, building companies & government bodies to accelerate the unfolding of highly mutually-adapted structures.  In maximizing the organic fit to the unique local layout, one sets up the preconditions for optimized multilateral functionality.



The Mind Circle has a fun collection of architecture porn to whet the imaginative appetite.

And here are the 64 Design Patterns of Christopher Alexander. 
Words by
emerge is convening a field of metamodern praxis