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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

Fortnightly Blog - Towards a New Sustainability Part 1

September 22nd, 2014

Swotting up on ecological textbooks, I have been struck by the absence of human emotion. My favourite quote from the pathfinding book ‘Silent Spring’ is not by it’s author Rachel Carson but from it’s more passionate preface; while Howard Liddell’s well thumbed handbook ‘Eco-minimalism’ can only manage a passing reference to the ugly. Lack of empathy has not always been the norm, early ecological pioneers such as Patrick Geddes, Aldo Leopold and that bastion of Victorian good taste, John Ruskin all paid homage to beauty. When then did the numerical take over the world of sustainability and at what point did it become a veil to obscure the ill designed.

Over the past few years this thought has concentrated my mind and it is clear that human emotion has to play a more important role when evaluating ecological design. Through a series of ecological essays this thought has been explored to reach a critical mass and suggest that a new sustainability has emerged. This journey started two decades ago at Strathclyde University through our teaching of Architecture and Ecology and in practice at Collective Architecture through our combined endeavor. The essays began three years ago through Faith Week and an invitation to address an assembled congregation of bishops, rabbis and architects, with little to go on.

Numbers  took over the aesthetic, courtesy of Pythagoras, 3000 years ago with his secret code of the universe. Observing nature grows to precise mathematical laws, he concluded that it was not by chance that plants and flowers unfold in beautiful patterns. The patterns were based on a particular geometric ratio, but it took the Renaissance to figure out the ratio of 1 to 1.618 (repeating), better known as the golden section. Feelings could now be measured and the godly ratio could be found everywhere, if the width of the mouth is precisely 1 to 1.618 the width of the nose we fall in love. In the same way do the SAP, the BREAM and the Carbon Footprint lead to beautiful ecological design.

Spiritual sustainability was the result of my fishes and bread broken for the bishops; the recognition that there was so much more to ecological design than science and nothing as important than the love of your environment and those you share it with. The first essay reflected on the work at Collective Architecture and it’s search through community participation and whether this could lead to an architecture. An architecture which through engagement brought ownership, pertinent idea and buildings which would be loved, enjoyed and last; longevity brings the best kind of sustainability. An idea so clear it could not be refuted, but ‘in theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice they are not’, many hands do not necessarily always make light work. The buildings which are more often the best designed come from the most ruthless of dictatorial architects, the hand of the one. Is it possible to manage both, to both empathise with others and maintain strong design responsibility.

The  passionate preface to ‘Silent Spring’, Raechal Carson’s record of the chemical industry’s abuse of the environment was written by Julian Huxley who could not help but name drop his famous brother Aldous and it is his observation that as pesticides devastate insects and worm food, country hedgerows and meadows will lose their lovely and familiar flowers and English poetry half it’s subject manner. Practical design predominates within Howard Liddell’s ‘Eco-minimilism’ while feelings are kept close to the chest, occasionally rising above the subjective parapet in forms such as camouflage architecture, to be dumped amongst the vile greenwash and eco bling. Can no one find time for the beauty of natural wood, the appropriate hue of local stone or clay and the joy of natural light. Adored by the great unwashed but of course difficult to measure, tricky to argue and awkward to research.

The second essay attempted just such a task, placing emotions ahead of science, I joined forces with three phd students from Strathclyde University to consider ‘How to Measure Happiness and Architecture’, as part of a one week research blitz. A back to basics, exploring what is happiness and can it be measured (even before architecture joins the touchy feely). Happily this can be achieved by measuring unhappiness, care of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The route to happiness begins by satiating those needs which bring unhappiness; physiological, safety, social, esteem and self actualization (the motive to realise one’s full potential). Architecture follows a similar path, in the same way the basic requirements of shelter, warmth, safety, and society can be housed in the simple shed, but at what point do these structures rise to become architecture, a thing of esteem and potential.

Very philosophical, very theoretical but in need of some practicality, the third essay tackled a more direct issue, does ecological design have an aesthetic. Traditionally sustainability has taken the garb of either the hairy toed hobbit hole or the sci-fi weather station. Concentrating on recycling and it’s appearance it became clear that there was some gain, through perception, for a recycled chic. Recycling can either take on the appearance of complete reuse (retain) or be completely hidden (lost) or much more interesting an aesthetic where that which is recycled is not obvious (broken). The broken can be seen in many a scale from cities to clothing but always brings the greatest pleasure.

We are not alone in recognising more the importance of emotion in sustainability. The early pioneers like Jane Jacob championed human joy and more recently the work of Jan Gehl has shown how humans can win back the city through gradual incremental improvements. We are also not alone in our protagonists, ‘Ecology Without Nature’ view the chief stumbling block to ecological design is the image of nature itself, and that ‘nature is not natural and can never be naturalised’. Nature of course is beautiful, it takes little faith to realise this, and forms a crucial part our life, as the flower attracts the bee, we desire to live amongst beauty often at the expense of base needs.

The fourth essay enjoyed a swipe at the cult of sustainability, by nature an alienation of others, home to the activist, the hand knitted middle class and a carbon reduction way of life. This kind of sustainability guards it’s borders with science but needs to look outwards, a New Sustainability with an emphasis on easily understood emotion will bring more meaningful progress. As greenwash and eco bling rampage through society we still require to crunch the numbers, as Howard Liddell warned to guard against the sceptics, but it's time to smell the roses.

Towards a New Sustainability Part 1 will be presented on Wednesday 24th September 1.00pm - 2.00pm at RCAHMS, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh. Please visit for further information.

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