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SXSW Eco broadens the sustainability discussion: Why is sustainable design usually so ugly?

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austin photo: news_dan_sxsw_eco_sept 2012 lance hosey
Lance Hosey, keynote speaker for SXSW Eco Courtesy of SXSW.com

The second year of SXSW Eco is clearly striving to be a little hipper and sexier than the conference's initial incarnation, and that's clear in both a lot of very obvious ways (an appearance by Jessica Alba, a performance by DJ Spooky, a screening of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, sponsorship by FADER) and in the choice of subject matter for some of the prime speaking slots.

That was especially true of Wednesday’s keynote presentation from Lance Hosey, author of The Shape Of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design and Chief Sustainability Officer of RTKL, an international design firm.

 “If sustainable design is design that behaves more like nature, and nature is beautiful, then why is sustainable design usually so ugly?” 

Hosey isn’t the sort of big-name speaker that the conference went to for its keynotes in 2011, but his subject matter was interesting in the way that a presentation at a conference that bears the SXSW name ought to be. Roughly, it can be boiled down to the question, “If sustainable design is design that behaves more like nature, and nature is beautiful, then why is sustainable design usually so ugly?”

It’s a fair point, confirmed frequently by the way sustainable projects have typically been presented to the world. Hosey’s presentation was peppered with quotes from experts like architect Rafael Viñoly, who said things like, “Sustainability has, or should have, no relationship to style.”

Anyone who’s looked at most LEED-certified buildings, the early designs for the Prius or those hideous shoes with a spot for each toe can see that’s been something of a governing principle for decades. What Hosey was given a keynote spot at SXSW Eco to question is why that’s the case.

What followed was 50-plus minutes of smart talk about design, culture and nature. He led us through a discussion of the Golden Ratio, the way humans respond to nature-green colors, and the faces of babies and puppies. (One of his better lines compared the new Volkswagen Beetle design to a puppy’s face, and posited that that’s the reason people find them so appealing.)

Hosey’s question, ultimately, was whether sustainability is a life-support system — that is, if it’s purely functional, so that people can continue breathing, eating and breeding — or if it’s about life itself and all of the things that make it worthwhile. And if it’s the latter (as Hosey clearly believes it should be), then beauty, aesthetics and joy need to be a part of the sustainability dialogue, right alongside clean energy and water usage.

As Hosey put it at one point during the presentation, “Would you take a pill that could give you all of your nutrients every day, or would you rather eat?”

The cutting edge of sustainability that a conference like SXSW Eco is geared to help find is going to be determined by scientists, of course, but the points like the ones made by Hosey need to be an integral part of that discussion, too, if anyone is supposed to be excited about what the scientists have to say.

It’s a good sign for SXSW Eco’s ability to find its role in the sustainability world that it brought the two together, and gave the aesthetic argument such a prime spot to make its case. 

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