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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Why lovable places matter to sustainability

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 14, 2012

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  New Orleans (c2011 by FK Benfield)

Yesterday I presented a gallery of places that inspire romance – places that kindle love, if you will.  But I submit that they are also lovable themselves.  Is that important?  Should those of us who care about sustainability also care whether a place is “lovable”?  Shouldn’t we only care about the resources it consumes and the pollution it generates?

I grappled with a related question almost three years ago, in an article titled, in part, “Does beauty matter?”  I answered my own question with a tentative yes, but I’ll confess to being made restless in my conviction by the whole “but it’s in the eye of the beholder” thing.  If we can’t reach consensus on a definition, then how do we know when we have it?

I’ll grant that lovability – or beauty – can be elusive to define, especially over time.  For people, being what we now consider overweight and unattractive was once considered a desirable indicator of wealth.  I’m told that lots of people hated Victorian architecture before they started loving it.

Rockefeller Center, NYC (by: Christopher Chan, creative commons license)But being elusive to define with certainty is not the same thing as being unimportant.  While there may not be unanimity, there are in fact places that are pretty darn close to being universally loved.  And they are the ones most likely to be defended and cared for over time, and thus the most sustainable in a very literal way.  We need more of them.

I think I’ve always felt this intuitively, but I wasn’t able to articulate it until I came across the work of an architect and thinker who now is also my friend.  Steve Mouzon, whose photography I featured yesterday, is unabashed in his declaration of why lovable buildings and places matter:

“Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability. If a building cannot be loved, then it is likely to be demolished and carted off to the landfill in only a generation or two. All of the embodied energy of its materials is lost (if they are not recycled.) And all of the future energy savings are lost, too. Buildings continue to be demolished for no other reason except that they cannot be loved.”

Steve prefers to link sustainability with “lovable” rather than “beautiful,” because he acknowledges that there is a cold sort of beauty that can be hard to love, and ultimately it is lovability that will lead to the care and retention of buildings.  I’m adding “places” to buildings, but I am confident that Steve would agree with my addition.  (His writings on the issue have focused on buildings because of concerns he has with the way they are evaluated in green rating systems.)

  Pike Place Market, Seattle (by: Michael Righi, creative commons license)

Steve also believes that, while lovability cannot be precisely defined, there are elements one can draw from classicism that can “stack the deck in our favor” when creating new buildings: time-honored proportions such as the golden mean.  I would add that places that are in close harmony with nature compose another set of cards with which to stack the deck (to extend the metaphor, which as a writer I’m not entirely sure is a good idea).

He begins to approach the influence of nature in one of his more intriguing ideas, that “harmony with the region” may be an indicator of what may be lovable:

“Simply put, we might love a little clapboard cottage in Beaufort and a stone farmhouse in Tuscany, but putting that clapboard cottage on a Tuscan hillside would look absolutely ridiculous.

“I suspect that much of the mystery of lovable buildings may be embedded somewhere in the harmony with the region. I don’t understand it now, but it’s one of my top priorities, because we really need to figure this out.”

Fallingwater (by: Kevin T. Quinn, creative commons license)In the region where I grew up, the North Carolina mountains, there is a lot of stone and natural wood in some of the architecture.  That is immensely harmonious with the region, in my opinion.  I would also invoke the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright here:  Wright is unpopular with urbanists because he favored a spread-out sort of aesthetic.  I get that, but when you see one of his Prairie School buildings with strong horizontal lines and roofs actually on the flat prairie, it makes sense to me.  Similarly, Fallingwater, perhaps his best known residence, fits incredibly well into its natural setting, cascading architecture above cascading waterfalls.  His architecture has a lot of fans – and a lot of staying power – for a reason.

Basically, I agree with Steve that we don’t fully understand what makes a place (or a building) lovable.  And I would add that mimicking a place that is lovable may not always be a safe answer.  But I also agree that the topic is very important.  In what possible definition of “sustainability” can a place fit if it is not literally sustained?  In order to sustain something, we need to care.  And we don’t have enough people who will care just because the consumption or pollution numbers argue that they should.  We are so much better positioned if they, and we, can also do so out of love.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channel.

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Steve MouzonFeb 14 2012 11:45 AM

Thanks for posting this, Kaid... this is an issue that needs much more thought, especially as it pertains to places. I have some thoughts on lovable places I've never posted, and would love to hear your ideas as well.

I've just posted (link below) on why love is a higher standard than beauty. Thanks for your post yesterday inspiring me to do today's post! And let's keep this conversation going... wanna start a BlogOff?

Spencer BoomhowerFeb 15 2012 04:24 PM

Kaid, I'm thrilled to have recently discovered this blog, which from the little I've seen so far is a blog after my own heart. I have much digging through the archives to do.

This particular post resonates with me because I have a background in art and a lifelong affection for quality places. And I value sustainability in general.

They're definitely all connected. For instance, for a walkable place to be truly walkable, people have to want to walk in it. That means there's got to be an emotional pull to the place, and that involves the implementation of beauty as a design tool. There's a vocabulary and knowledge base for that kind of design, and a long history of technique that can be employed. Like the golden mean, which you mentioned.

Unfortunately this kind of stuff strikes some decision-makers as frivolous and fluffy. It gets treated as decoration, and is applied as an afterthought.

But if we're talking about real beauty, it's a core characteristic that has to be built into the core of places and buildings. Beauty is more than sheetrock deep. :)

And beauty doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with prettiness. Take an old warehouse district, for instance - it can be beautiful if it hums with the vitality of the work that's happening within it, and if its form is an honest reflection of that internal life. But if you tried to dress it in the facade of, say, a Parisian boulevard, it would be kind of gross. In much the same way that strip mall architecture that tries to mimic the charm of small-town main streets tends to fail so miserably.

I think Steve's on the right track making a distinction between lovability and beauty; that might even be a more useful distinction than my distinction between beauty and prettiness, because for some people there's no distinguishing between those latter two qualities.

It's certainly worth figuring out these terms and their meaning, because this stuff needs to be part of the conversion with the local governments that have such an impact on placemaking.

It's a shame art education in public schools is going down the tubes, because the future of our sustainable places is going to depend on people conversant in these concepts. But the knowledge might still come from unexpected places. I've found I gained a lot of understanding of placemaking from jobs in which I've designed levels for videogames. Which makes sense; level design is basically the design of places, with the goal of making people want to move through them.

Louise BrodnitzFeb 17 2012 08:17 AM

Hello Kaid,
I searched your archives to find anything about preservation of lovable places but found nothing. What about following up the lovable/sustainable nexus with a look at old buildings with embodied energy and low-tech green qualities. From Steve Mouzon's article: "2. A discipline of high-performance historic buildings needs to be developed very quickly. The current perception is that the "drafty old piles" could never be so efficient as the gleaming new things, so why bother? But that perception can be dispelled if there is a compelling body of evidence to refute it. Preservationists should be at the forefront of this effort. Some would say, and the Original Green seems to agree, that traditional buildings before the Thermostat Age were always green..."

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