“The reason that highly designed contemporary architecture almost exclusively manifests in iconic structures is that it’s the only way that investing in design and aesthetic quality can turn a profit.” This is the central assertion of “The Politics of Architecture Are Not a Matter of Taste,” published in Common Edge a couple of weeks ago. Marianela D’Aprile’s impassioned essay takes issue with a Current Affairs piece from October, “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture,” in which the authors, staff writers Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson, hate on the current state of the design industry.
Both articles confuse me. “Good buildings recede seamlessly into their surroundings,” Rennix and Robinson claim, but the buildings they praise—figural structures such as London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Moorish palace of The Alhambra—stand out prominently. D’Aprile criticizes the authors’ imprecise use of terminology, but, as the opening passage above shows, her own language can be vague, relying on words such as iconic, ubiquitous shorthand among architects. (If it’s intended to convey “distinctive,” the irony is that most buildings described with that term have a similar sculptural character, so in our mind’s eye they all sort of blend together—the opposite of distinction.) She defines architecture as “buildings that have been designed for construction in the physical world.” Aren’t all buildings constructed “in the physical world”? And are all unrealized designs necessarily relegated to something other than architecture?
Nevertheless, I’m mostly concerned with D’Aprile’s basic argument: If there’s a problem with contemporary architecture, “the problem is actually not aesthetic. It is, fundamentally, a problem of economics.” Capitalism doesn’t accommodate architecture well, she explains, because society doesn’t value design much, except when famous architects generate marketing buzz for developers to turn a profit. Yet, since the value of the built environment accounts for some 40% of global GDP every year, it’s preposterous for D’Aprile to maintain that “architecture…does not fit as a commodity into capitalist economic structures.” More specifically, while some developers do seek out renowned designers to command higher sales prices, many universities and other institutions hire the same architects, largely because their name recognition can kickstart fundraising for a museum or other marquee structure that otherwise might not get built. Misguided or not, these clients’ motivation isn’t greed—it’s survival.
Even if we concede that architecture is driven primarily by economics, D’Aprile misses the mark when she claims that good design can’t create value through aesthetics, other than in those rarefied cases where the architect’s fame draws attention. The enjoyment and experience of buildings have no inherent value, because, she insists, “there is no ‘feeling’ that makes a developer money.”
This ignores a growing wealth of evidence about the economic benefits of buildings. As expensive as they are to build, the initial costs can account for as little as 5-10% of what an owner will pay over the lifetime of a building, and high-performance design actually can cost less while creating a significantly higher return on investment, cutting operating costs by up to half and increasing sales, rents, occupancy rates, and property value. Research shows that every 10% reduction in a building’s energy consumption can yield an additional 1% rise in market value. Applied globally, best practices in energy efficiency could save nearly $500 billion annually, according to the World Green Building Council. The vast majority of these gains come not from the choice of materials, methods, and systems, but from simply sizing and shaping buildings intelligently. The earliest design decisions can determine up to 90% of the eventual impact of a building. Design is the key.
Moreover, in a workforce-driven organization, facilities accounts for less than 10% of annual operating costs, the other 90% or more coming from human resources, so the real money is in how buildings affect people. Abundant research demonstrates that designing a workspace with good daylight, fresh air, and connection to the outdoors can significantly improve the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of workers, resulting in higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and better staff attraction and retention. Various studies quantify the potential gains as more than $3 per square foot or $3,000 per employee. Surveys show that 93% of companies with high-performance workplaces report a greater ability to attract talent, and 81% report greater employee retention. For a 1,000-person company, a 5% improvement in retention alone could easily be worth over $5 million per year.
These benefits extend beyond the quality of light, air, and views. As I show in my 2012 book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, over the past couple of decades a growing number of revelations in environmental psychology, sociobiology, and neuroscience have given us more clarity about the effects of form, space, pattern, color, and texture—the designer’s basic toolkit. For example, certain patterns can lower stress by as much as 60%, just by being in our field of vision. By alleviating stress-related ailments and their associated healthcare costs, the economic value could be nearly $200 billion a year in the US alone. Imagine if the entire built environment were shaped not just to look good but to be good for us.
All of these financial benefits rely on design strategies that improve the experience of people in and around buildings—i.e., their “feeling,” the very thing D’Aprile says can’t make money. And the same strategies also enhance the social and environmental impact of buildings through better wellness and conservation. Aesthetic or sensory experience is arguably the most potentially valuable aspect of buildings.
By and large, architects and designers are not sufficiently trained to understand the impact of their actions. If there is a “crisis” in contemporary architecture, as D’Aprile and Rennix and Robinson suggest, it is not merely that too many buildings are “ugly” or that architecture and capitalism don’t mix—it’s that architects fail to grasp the relationships between those things. We think of design as the icing, not the cake. Fully unpacking the social, economic, and environmental value of aesthetics could revolutionize our profession, if we’re willing to rethink the purpose and practice of design.
Featured image: Yale Sculpture Building & Gallery, via KieranTimberlake.