An Un-flushable Urinal

The aesthetic potential of sustainability

Top: Simoni Martini, The Annunciation, 1333. Bottom: Fra Angelico, Annunciation, ca. 1432–34.

It is self-evident that a truly radical invention is one that nobody knows how to use.
— John Szarkowski 1

Characteristic to enlightened making in the West is the curious time lag that invariably occurs between the introduction of a radical new aesthetic ideal and its full realization in cultural production. Consider the first generation of Italian Renaissance painters. Armed with a new and powerful technique — linear perspective — and a new and powerful cultural desire — to revive the glory of Classical civilization — most Early Renaissance painters in Italy continued composing shallow, laterally organized Gothic tableaux, only in more believable space.

It’s interesting that the use of linear perspective, the radical new technique, eventually evolved toward a new potential, rather than backward to a former greatness. It took a while to figure out what the tool was good for — the Greeks, after all, hadn’t had it — and it really wasn’t until the Italian High Renaissance that the depiction of deep space was widely used to carry actual content. The infinitely unfolding distance within Leonardo’s Annunciation, for example, organically serves as a visual and metaphoric threshold. Since this axis is also the viewer’s sight line, its depth and centrality conspire to give profound and resonant meaning to the story.

Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, ca. 1472–75.

The time lag may arise because the agent of change is initially technical — like the development of the arch, oil paint, air-conditioning, digital representation — and time to experiment is required for the consequences of each new method of production to suggest aesthetic possibility. For example, following on the purely technical discovery of photographic reproduction, the first attempts at “artistic photography” essentially reiterated pictorial composition formats arising from painting. It took a full generation, and a young one at that, to realize how the inherent qualities of the technology might be used to redefine aesthetic boundaries. 2

Top: Henry Peach Robinson, Sleep, 1867. Bottom: Jacques Henri Lartique, Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, Paris, 1911.

It can also be that the ideal comes first — as with Michelangelo, Stravinsky, Cubism, Cage — and that it has no initial technical consequence but is itself so conceptually beyond any norm that a new mindset is required to understand the implications. A familiar example of a radical idea coming well before its consequences are realized broadly is Duchamp’s “invention” of readymades. While the upending impact to aesthetic theory of an object chosen but not physically manufactured by the artist was recognized at the time (the Fountain uproar occurred in 1917!), the conceptual possibilities suggested did not really flower until the 1960s. 3

Actually, these two agents of change — technological invention and revolutionary aesthetic insight arising from cultural desire — typically have the sequential simultaneity of a chicken-and-egg relationship. Neither comes first, and you can’t have one without the other. 4 If some of the insulating technologies currently used to save energy in buildings are a spin-off of experimentation funded by NASA, that experimentation initially serviced a larger cultural desire — to establish American societal superiority (by getting to the Moon first) — which was itself fueled by a technical development — the launch of Sputnik — that was the consequence of still another culture’s desire, and so on. Similarly, it seems clear that evolutions in technical environmental regulation in the building industry, such as LEED, have arisen from a deep cultural desire to do something in the face of the deleterious consequences of existing techniques. There is a history of accidental techniques — vulcanized rubber, Velcro, the Post-it note — but the invention of carbon sequestering pavement didn’t happen in a vacuum!

Accepting that technique and theory (for lack of a better word — I simply mean the operational idea that gives a strategy cultural value) are bound, and that it is hard to establish precedence, there is still an advantage to considering each in isolation. Each has a role, and it is difficult to responsibly speak of the history of aesthetics without thinking about the consequence of one upon the other. I mention this because it can be argued that LEED — today the primary means to regulate sustainable technique in public building construction in America — to a degree serves to uphold a pre-existing aesthetic; or, perhaps better, does not serve substantially or directly to take an existing aesthetic ideal apart.

Aesthetics are not the overt target of LEED, those tacked on “design innovation” points notwithstanding. The target is improved technical performance. Still, since this desired performance is in theory of a nature so fundamentally improved from what preceded it, the change it envisions can metaphorically be compared to the revolution in depicting the world by camera versus paintbrush. While the technological changes wrought by the sustainable impulse will engender aesthetic evolution, they should engender aesthetic revolution.

But it still follows that in the work of the first generation of performers (that is, architects working today) there should be as yet scant evidence indicating the aesthetic revolution that is certain to follow the rise of sustainable techniques (including the adoption of LEED). There should be — like those better Gothic tableaux that followed the introduction of linear perspective — merely more of the same, just more efficient. And indeed, open any issue of Dwell and you will find architects busily congratulating themselves for accomplishing what Marcel Breuer did (better) 60 plus years ago, only now with low-E glazing, ash-entrained concrete and Ipe. 5

Morphosis, San Francisco Federal Building, 2007, San Francisco, California. [Photo by Michele Ursino]

There are, of course, architects who do not just retrofit nostalgia, but use the technical problems posed by environmental performance to evolve their work. Here, Norman Foster’s exceptional output is the key example. There has not been a noticeable break in the character of his firm’s designs as these have been enhanced to produce ever more exceptional environmental performance. Sustainability is not seen here as essentially revolutionary, just another problem to add to the long list of performance parameters. Evolve, rather than re-invent, is the operative verb. Even, and it pains me to write this, a building as seemingly ambitious and experimental as Morphosis’ San Francisco Federal Building represents, I would argue, a series of formal design strategies that were fully in place in architectural discourse prior to the rise of sustainability as a concern. To be cruel (but honest), this building, which I admire, reminds me of every handsome move that an architecture student not concerned with environmental performance wants to make.

Glenn Murcutt’s extraordinary work may be the exception to this general observation. In that first generation of Italian Renaissance painters there were rare exceptions too, like Masaccio. But the interesting severity — and, in the long run, limited consequence — of Masaccio’s work points to the difficulty of translating Murcutt’s oeuvre, since its demanding ground rule is the absence of air-conditioning. My larger point is that if you look across the front line of architects working in this first generation that is broadly (versus locally) grappling with sustainability, you primarily see the adoption and inclusion of technical considerations into normative pre-existing aesthetic models. Not new and improved, just improved.

Masaccio, Holy Trinity, 1425.

What then is the radical aesthetic potential of sustainable performance when not considered as a technical proof of existing formal policy, but as a transformative aesthetic ideal? For architects, this might not seem the central focus of sustainability (or LEED), but it is indirectly, and perhaps should be explicitly. Architects are not, after all, the primary go-to for quantitative performance: engineers are. No, architects remain purveyors of value, that binding agent between the qualitative and quantitative. The question seems straightforward enough. No substantial technological change comes free of aesthetic consequence. Since this powerful bond is central to the history of architecture, changes in one side serve as a lens through which to usefully project possible futures for the other 6.

So, to re-pose the question: what is the radical aesthetic consequence of the cultural desire for sustainable performance? Is it something that expresses itself in a set of formal rules, like the Modern response to the development of the steel frame? Or is it something — because it is essentially about performance — requiring entirely different means to fruition? Well, as with uncharted territory: here there be dragons.

By way of example, I have friends who seek to cattle ranch sustainably, in Texas, using native grasses without fertilization, irrigation, manual reseeding or the importation of hay. Calculating the site’s bearing capacity has proven an extraordinarily complex undertaking. Because cow manure carries coliform bacteria (Giardia, for instance) that pollute waterways, the grazing land first had to be set apart from the stream, and partly re-graded, and the water supply for the cattle moved from the stream to a single tank (supplied in part by collected rainwater) central to the fields. The cyclic rotation of the cattle required entirely re-fencing the ranch into a pie-like configuration around this water tank.

The bearing capacity of the various pie-slice fields — the animals left off of each long enough to allow native grasses to re-seed — had to be considered with regard to a series of variables including solar exposure, gradient, soil type, drainage, etc. The various pieces of the pie had thus to be differently sized, even though the same but still unknown number of cattle were going to be run. Because of this layout, an additional complicating factor was that each field would be grazed at a different time of year. Since the presence of bacterial coliform in the stream was one critical parameter of success, the amount of polluted sheet-flow runoff from grazed fields had to be calculated against the capacity of the ever-dwindling grass to retain this flow against variables of temperature, rainfall, grass growth cycle, and the likely location of cattle.

This turned out to be the killer calculation, attainable only by trial and error. I was speaking with my friends about some architectural design work during these complex calculations, trying to figure out their definition of beauty. One of them put it to me pretty succinctly. “When the coliform count in the stream is high, the ranch is ugly; when it’s low, the ranch is beautiful.” This was followed by a backhanded assessment of the value of architectural form: “It could be just whatever you want.”

Left: iPhone. [Photo by Bas Boerman] Right: William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002).

This story nicely encapsulates the terrifying prospect of the central and profoundly radical potential of the aesthetics of sustainability. At its heart is an invisible trigger — like that coliform count — without apparent formal dimension. Moreover, this trigger is not pulled by any of the formal means by which we currently give value to buildings — “it could be just whatever you want.” You can prove this nicely by means of a simple experiment with school children. 7 Hold up an iPhone in one hand, and a copy of Cradle to Cradle in the other, and ask: which is the more beautiful design? They will say: iPhone. No surprise here since, frankly, Cradle to Cradle is pretty homely.

But if you explain the radical technique by which the book was conceived and made — how it is entirely reusable — as opposed to the horrifying environmental consequences of mining for the rare earth metals needed to make the Apple smart phone so damn sexy, they will change their vote in surprisingly impressive numbers: now the book is beautiful, the phone less so. It’s possible, being the coming generation, that they get the clean-underwear idea of the book, or at least see its fuzzy outline.

This itself does not mean Cradle to Cradle is, as a designed object, beautiful, only that it is not ugly. It might be precursory to beautiful, like looking at a prototypically early peripteral temple without having yet seen — or being able to see — the coming Parthenon. Or not. It might just be, as I suspect, an Ugly Pet. What I mean by Ugly Pet is something that, while ugly by normal aesthetic parameters, becomes beautiful because of the extraordinary amount of care and effort that has gone into seeing the creature to maturity, like nursing a sick cur from the pound to health, and finding you love the damn thing, which has somehow become pleasing to the eye.

Kieran Timberlake, Loblolly House, 2006, Taylor’s Island, Maryland.

Here, beauty is conditional rather than universal, and exists in the eye of the beholder, rather than broadly. Oddly, such beauty is readily explainable (it actually requires explanation), as it is with Cradle to Cradle, and once explained, sharable — though imagining the future of aesthetics as only a set of experiences that occur after explanations is deeply disheartening. Perhaps the best current built example of an Ugly Pet commensurate with Cradle to Cradle is the Loblolly House, by Kieran Timberlake, about as homely a well-intentioned construction as is imaginable, something, in terms of aesthetic dimension, that only a mother could love (I say that with admiration).

I don’t lever this criticism because of the patent lack of formal richness at the Loblolly House. Formal sophistication is not, as noted with the San Francisco Federal Building, the issue. As interesting a construct as the aesthetics of an Ugly Pet might be, there is a missing potential for challenging or enlightening or transcendent — rather than default — aesthetic experience. Still, one senses potential in both the book and the house, without yet knowing the terms. That is what I meant about an idea being so conceptually beyond any norm that a new mindset is required to understand its implications.

If you believe, as I do, that the aesthetics of sustainability are as yet fundamentally unexplored, then this sense of a possibility is doubly frustrating. Beyond the invisibility of the aesthetic trigger, here there are vague implications of a powerful aesthetic revolution for which there is, unlike many such changes — as from abstraction to representation and back again — almost no predictable trajectory. This is so because the history of artistic production in which the aesthetic response arises entirely from invisible qualities rather than formal manipulation is remarkably sparse. There isn’t really a comparison set, a pattern, or a theory one can latch onto for answers.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. [Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, from The Blind Man, No. 2, May 1917]

That said, it is not an empty history, and, weirdly enough, the concept has a few singular masterpieces. Of these, the most familiar (in academic and cultural discourse it remains un-flushable) and usefully notorious is Fountain, by Marcel Duchamp. Prior to being an artwork, Fountain was, of course, a urinal (there were four versions), never flushed, turned on its back, and visibly signed by Duchamp, though not using his own name. Low-flow though it may be, Fountain was not, of course, conceived with sustainability in mind, but what it shares with the potential for sustainable aesthetics is pretty startling (and for the following breakdown I am indebted to William Camfield’s Marcel Duchamp Fountain). 8

Very briefly: Fountain was intended as a test of principles, challenging an existing orthodoxy not merely of taste, but of valuation. Here the terms of aesthetic understanding do not arise from form alone, but from the relationship of form to a constitutional act of valuing that is essentially invisible. Most powerfully, with Fountain, the potential for an aesthetic arises from a carefully calculated indifference to aesthetics. Is there any other consciously made object out there that is closer, as an analogy, to how a sustainable construction could potentially operate aesthetically?

Where Fountain differs from the examples of sustainable constructs I’ve given is in the specific quality of empowerment that invisible content gives to its specific presence as an object. The constitution of Fountain adds friction to its fact, extending its aesthetic consequence in the direction of rich ambiguousness and uncertainty, requiring individual rather than collective assessment. This is simply something we do not yet see in the architectural work of this first generation of sustainable design.

Top: Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 2, 1981. Bottom: Tod Williams, Billie Tsien Architects, Cranbrook Natatorium, 1996, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. [Photo by Michael Moran]

Curiously, one reason for this may be an insidious aspect of what I will for better or worse call the “culture of sustainability,” with its insistence that the products of sustainable design must serve to educate. The aesthetic ideal of the readymades — and works that traffic in the same hidden dimension, like Sherrie Levine’s great and truly upsetting photographs of photographs — point quite precisely away from the possibility of a construction serving to educate toward anything agreed upon (like “protecting the environment is good”) by means of its aesthetic dimension.

I’ll close here with two quick thoughts. If the aesthetic potential of sustainability is in its infancy, still, we can make out from Fountain and the Levine photographs two probable requirements for aesthetic engagement in the coming generation of architecture. First, as with Fountain, some aspect of a construction’s inhabitation will require that the manner in which we experience meaning is set on its head. This may be as simple as the manner in which the great skylights of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Cranbrook Natatorium (which are commonly open to the sky to continuously balance the heat load in the building) perversely and powerfully upset the proper definition of inside and out. And second, as with the Levine photographs, the actual act of making may end up playing a far more instrumental role in how content inheres directly in form. To date this possibility is most tellingly seen in Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Chapel, the formwork of which was burned and sold for charcoal. Zumthor carries the burden of the environment quite painfully, and his work may well in retrospect be the hinge in this story.

Peter Zumthor, Bruder Klaus Chapel, 2006, Mechernich, Germany. [Photos by Florian Seiffert and Claus Moser]

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from a talk given at Beyond LEED: Regenerative Design, a symposium held at the University of Texas, Austin, in January 2012.

  1. John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 20.
  2. Ibid., 66.
  3. William Cam?eld, Marcel Duchamp Fountain (Houston: The Menil Collection and Houston Fine Arts Press, 1989), 21-61. Camfield makes the point that the mechanisms central to Duchamp’s work are more or less the basis on which much present artwork – almost a century later – operates.
  4. Though it often seems the histories of history cyclically choose sides. A recently successful path to widely read publication has been to take a simple technical invention — the toothpick, the pencil, the screw — and explain how Western civilization could not exist were it not for this technical marvel. That this approach is beginning to feel tired may indicate a sea change.
  5. Every time I hear the terms modern or mid-century modern today used longingly by architects, Karl Kraus’s great aphorism comes to mind: “Sentimental irony is a dog that bays at the moon while pissing on graves.” [1909, quoted here from Harry Zohn, ed., Half-Truths and One-And-A-Half-Truths: Selected Aphorisms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 63].
  6. This is the crux idea underlying the relevance of this essay. I presented a rough version of this paper at a conference on “Beyond LEED” at which the possibility of discussing the aesthetics of sustainability was to a degree shouted down as irrelevant. I would use another term: it is not pressing, perhaps. But aesthetics are not the bathwater of technological change: they are its evil twin, and actually share the bathwater.
  7. I most recently asked this question to a group of high school students in the deepest rural area of the Rio Grande Valley (at the Elsa Edcouch High School), and had precisely the response described, though there the pollution of groundwater is a problem that presses in on the health of everyone in the community so directly that I should not have been in any way surprised.
  8. Camfield, op.cit.
David Heymann, “An Un-flushable Urinal,” Places Journal, June 2012. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 06.07.2012 at 13:07

    Great article!

    I got used to think in products such as OLPC (one lap top per children), SAYL (Herman Miller chair) and GINA concept by BMW as a "new aesthetic" in design. One that merges beauty, efficiency and ethics.

    Also, because of this new scenario that you exposed, I am a critic of product design courses that do not consider more technical disciplines (such as Technical Mechanics and Material Technology - as we say in Brazil). How can we even talk about sustainability if we Designers have to guess (or research only at the project moment) product features such as resistance, chemical composition, process and materials specific and complex properties. The engineers - those i´ve come to meet - many times lack creative intelligence to go further with innovation. So, to reach that new aesthetics Product Design courses need to go deeper with engineer subjects.

    That technical orientation based on deeper processs knowledge perhaps is that infancy on this new aesthetics.

  • 06.07.2012 at 14:11

    Another fine piece of writing which provoked a couple of thoughts:

    1. The conversation of "sustainability" rarely gets to the brass tacks of BTUs consumed per occupant; if & when it does (as a fan of Henry Gifford, I am dubious that actual energy savings is a genuine concern of the "sustainable" crowd) it will find that many aesthetic prototypes exist, most of which are huddled together, of modest scale, and frankly much more akin to the conditions Walker Evans photographed than anything we're accustomed to in the first world. My sense is all the energy hogging gadgetry (as epitomized by the iPhone and Chevy Volt) is some passive-aggressive transference of this, but who knows...

    2. The single family detached house - modern, traditional, federal, just whatever you want - with its reliance on motorized transportation and industrial roadway infrastructure can be encrusted with all its gadgets (and oriented sensitively) and declared an off-the-grid solar decathalon winner, but it remains a gluttonous thing. The new aesthetics may not be staked out yet, but to see the architectural press still entranced by these exploitive forms of occupation, clearly not for the masses, a pure dead end - well, its like those hunting magazines at the HEB, some dude in a gimme hat with some once beautiful dead animal hiked in his crotch across the cover. Yes, people like to trophy hunt, and always will, but isn't it gross? Makes a fella wonder what Bear Run was like before those concrete cantilevers...

  • 06.07.2012 at 19:04

    Interesting thoughts. I am reminded of the buildings created in reaction to the first energy crisis in the seventies, low ceilings, small windows, buildings that no one would choose as their ideal dwelling and I think that some aesthetic language has to come into play that is broadly felt.

    Beauty functions as both a diversion and a device to propagate continuity in sexual selection and I think architecture remains bound by some of the same.

    Virtue alone is not enough to change our aesthetic language and it may require a major cultural and social shift, or environmental disaster, to reshape our eye beyond the shiny surfaces and ,most importantly for conservation, new surfaces that we are drawn to.

    I don't know if it undercuts your argument but there is some belief among that the "Fountain" was manufactured by Duchamp. Scholars were outraged and said it made the work less important but I saw it another layer of Duchamp's jester persona. The same kind of upending that time played with those seventies energy efficient dwellings.