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August 2008

A Beautiful Thing

The heart of sustainability is a striving to live in harmony with and connected to the earth's systems. But, sustainable design is loaded with all kinds of technical information as well as prescriptive do's and don'ts. The concept of connecting with the earth is easily lost and the design, as in the essence of what we create, can seem to just slip away or get lost under the heavy load. Contemplating this led me to one sustainable design concept in particular that can enhance our designs, boost the inherent beauty of each project and directly support our connection with the earth: use of regionally available materials.

The use of regionally available materials is considered a positive sustainable practice because it reduces the amount of fossil fuel typically used in transportation and it supports regional economies. But, I've been thinking about it in terms of design and all the beauty that is inherent in regionally influenced aesthetics. This is of course partly reflected in the use of regional materials which are an important aspect of a regionally authentic design like clay tiles and stucco used for residential construction in Florida. But, it's also about the spirit that is embodied in regional designs and the sense of place that is both reflected in them and reflected from them. The "whole" being greater than the sum of the parts. Regionally authentic designs sing with their unique beauty as well as their sense of place in part because they are made from materials from the region or you could say of the place.

If materials and form are of the place, then there is a genuine connection with the land which is "the place". It is this connection that we have in so many ways lost. But, we can begin to reclaim the connection with the use of regionally available materials. I'm imagining two extreme examples. How differently would we feel if we visited an inuit village in Alaska with igloos made from snow compared with visiting a log cabin in Montana made from native trees? I would feel totally connected with the people and with the land in each place because each is made from the land and therefore of the place. But, each would feel artificial and just plan wrong in the other location.

Another example is the stark difference between old fashioned main street America and today's highway exits. Sure there were similarities between yesterday's Main streets. But, each had regional differences in spirit, expression, and style. Highway exits look almost identical. The same restaurants and hotels all designed to look exactly the same. You could be dropped into anyone of them and aside from the weather have barely a clue as to where you were. There is no sense of the people, the land, or the place. Highway exits are equally artificial in all locations.

An extreme example of an artificial creation of place is Disneyland. I'm thinking of all the little place like places at Epcot. You can tour this artificial world in a day, see different types of architectural aesthetics and taste food from around the world. As an isolated experience this has entertainment and educational value. I enjoy it. But, how limited are our artificial experiences of place? How many theme restaurants, villages, and shops do we experience? What about the influence of movies, video games, or other visual media on our connections with what is real about place? Have we stretched it all too far?

I definitely felt this confusion between "what is real?" and "what is artificial?" when I took my first trip to Europe. I traveled across the ocean on a plane at night, arrived in Germany tired and hungry. It was hard to believe I was actually in a foreign country across the ocean. It felt like a dream. Sure, a large part of that was understandable since it was my first trip and I didn't actually even experience the ocean crossing. But, along with that was an internal reaction as I walked down an historic street. I thought to myself, am I in disneyland? Is this real? Of course it was more really German than any artificial Germany like place I had ever seen but accepting reality was a mental and emotional adjustment made harder I think because of my past artificial experiences of place.

Disneyland, igloos, log cabins, and highway exits are all extreme examples of how the built environment can support place and our connection with the earth or separate us from it. Still, the concept is just as important and true for all the interior design projects that we undertake. As world markets opened up and we all became a part of the global economy, knowing about unique resources from around the world and bringing them to our clients became one of our services. But, with the emergence of awareness of the varied costs of materials that are not of the place, its no longer responsible professionally to choose imported materials when we can choose regionally available ones. Sure, its tempting as designers to use any material we learn about: tile from Italy, bamboo from China, or wood from South America. Not using them does limit us. But, it can also expand us by challenging our creativity as we use a more limited palette of sustainably responsible materials. We can create a new twist on regional aesthetics and join in creating the aesthetic heritage of tomorrow. At the same time we'll be helping to regain our connections with place which is, more simply put, our connection with the earth.

Joyfully, Sue Norman
Sue Norman, Managing Editor
Associate IIDA
Allied Member ASID