The Aesthetics of Sustainable Energy

Laura Feigen
December 5, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017

Fig. 1: Arcosanti, designed by Paolo Soleri. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What happens when technological innovations for harnessing renewable energy intersect with the aesthetics of public art and urban planning? Perhaps the easiest place to observe the interchange between two such seemingly disparate entities is architecture. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the word sustainable entered into the consciousness of architects and became an essential concern in the discourse of architecture. [1] In many ways the emergence of these frameworks for sustainability were engendered by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at which, through the Rio Declaration, heads of state committed their nations to exploring ways of achieving developments which fulfills current needs without compromising the capacity of future generations to fulfill theirs." [2] Pairing the Rio Declaration with Agenda 21, the Rio Earth Summit recommended an integrated, creative approach to ensure sustainable development encompassed both social and economic dimensions.

Although widespread awareness of these issues dates only from the Rio Summit, the need for environmentally friendly architecture has been appreciated for several decades. Over this period, conflicting approaches have emerged which can be divided into the realms of low, middle, and high-tech. These three tiers of sustainable architecture are eloquently surmised by Stefan Behnischs description of his own approach: There are basically two schools of sustainable architecture. The Norman Foster school, where environmental problems are solved by bringing in technology (i.e. the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt c. 1997); and the Soleri school, which rejects technology (i.e. prototype town Arcosanti in Arizona which can be seen in Fig. 1). We fall somewhere between these two: I am convinced that we can achieve an acceptable level of comfort by following the laws of nature (i.e. Forestry and Nature Research Institute at Wageningen, Netherlands. [1] In this description, Behnisch touches on two of the key pillars upholding the designs in sustainable architecture: that of innovative aestheticism and creative application of renewable technologies.

While sustainable architecture is geared towards cultivating new urban communities built around renewable sources of energy, architecture in itself, first and foremost, is the art of design. Distinguished from other art forms by its sense of function, its localized quality, and its public and non-personal character, sustainable architecture, in its very essence, becomes an aesthetic of everyday life. One of the more recent examples of an aesthetic emphasis on sustainable architecture is The Land Art Generator Initiative, or Lagi. Founded by Pittsburgh-based artists Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry, Lagi seeks to generate renewable power through public art structures. While these infrastructures would contribute very little percentages of energy to a city's energy demand, the creation of such projects demonstrates how municipalities are trying to interweave renewable energy practices into urban fabrics. One example of this is Solar Hourglass, a crisply geometric structure designed by a Brazilian designer with the intention of powering hundred of homes using concentrated solar power. In the design an array of mirrors would create a beam of solar energy visible to anyone who walks under the structure and would have an estimated annual capacity of 7,500 MWh. [3] In crafting projects such as this, cities can alter the way the public perceives and uses energy. As Ferry noted in an interview with The Guardian, he believes that Lagi is changing the way people are thinking about the solutions to renewable energy and climate change. [3] More than this, initiatives such as these would change the way a city's cultural structure approaches and operates around the notion of energy. He states, if we are serious about attaining 100% renewable energy infrastructure, then it will have a profound influence on the visual environment of our cities and rural landscapes. [3] Uniting renewable energy practices with the cultural topography of a city, Lagi effectively evokes a notion put forth by Barry Lord that: each of our cultures depends on sources of energy that make it possible to practice that culture. [4]

In his book Art and Engery, Barry Lord argues that human creativity is deeply linked to the resources available on Earth for our survival. From our ancient mastery of fire through our exploitation of coal, oil, and gas, to the development of todays renewable energy sources, each new source of energy fundamentally transforms our art and culture. [4] Effectively determining how we interact with the world, organize our communities, communicate and conceive of and assign value to art. It is here that we see sustainable architecture is at once a continuously evolving technological solution to catalyze smaller scale renewable energy initiatives and an innately creative art form whose very design and execution is deeply rooted in both our aesthetic cultural history and scientific innovations.

Looking towards the future, it would be too easy to say that investment in sustainable architecture will significantly decrease our energy footprint. Some argue that the answer is to not to give up technological advances, but to use the best of them, to combine them with the best traditional methods, and to test every building, every community plan, by "green" principles. This is a nice thought, however, the sobering truth is that, despite inspiring developments, biofuels, wind, and solar power together account for 364.9 MTOE of total world's energy consumption of 13147.3 MTOE, that is, 2.78%. [5] While in 2016 the demand for renewable, hydro, and nuclear energy did increase by the largest increment on record (14.1%), so did our global energy demand (+1%), and oil continues to be the worlds leading fuel (accounting for 1/3 of energy consumption). [5] The immensity of 2.78% renewables of the total energy consumption can be more clearly seen if we compare it to the 7,500 MWh per year of the Solar Hourglass by putting them in the same units:

364.0 MTOE × 4.187 × 1016 joules/MTOE = 1.52 × 1019 joules
7500 MWh × 3.6 × 109 joules/MWh = 2.70 × 1013 joules

The first number is one million times bigger than the second. Therefore, the Solar Hourglass would only provide one millionth of the energy currently provided by renewables, primarily wind. This disparity, perhaps, demonstrates the illusion sustainable architecture, as art working towards a more environmentally conscious world, provides. As the difference in their contribution towards world energy consumption shows, the impact of this singular Solar Hourglass only contributes a small fraction towards the whole. This shows that any transition to renewable energy within architecture on a global scale, like all energy transitions, will require many decades of dedicated effort. Fortunately, the cultural impact of renewable energy is already being felt. Just as coal was our trajectory in the 18th century or oil and gas were in the 20th, renewable energy is the direction we are headed in the 21st. The transition to renewable energy will be a long struggle for incremental growth accompanied by occasional breakthroughs, aggravating setbacks, and political and economic delays. However, we can hope, that through small initiatives such as sustainable architectural developments, we can slightly alleviate the worlds colossal energy demand.

© Laura Feigen. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Gauzin-Miller, Sustainable Architecture and Urbanism (Birkhauser, 2002).

[2] "Rio Declaration on Environment and Development 1992," United Nations, 1992.

[3] K. Wing, "Public Art Projects That Double as Renewable Energy Sources," The Guardian, 16 Nov 15.

[4] B. Lord, Art and Energy: How Culture Changes (American Alliance of Museums Press, 2015).

[5] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016," British Petroleum, June 2016.