The “Subversive Science” of Sustainability.

Architects have long found inspiration in art – from contemporary trends to tackle, to changing theories of aesthetics, to revolutionary ideas about the practice of making. When it comes to sustainable design, however, there doesn’t seem to be the same sort of aesthetic or conceptual cross-over between contemporary art and green building. This lack of cross-over is, at least in part, due to the fact that architects are taking their green cues from engineers instead. And this is a good thing – the desire to improve energy efficiency will inevitably lead to a type of problem solving that can benefit from better engineering. However, in the pursuit of a more efficient, more scientific, more quantitative approach to sustainable building, architecture shouldn’t abandon its long-time muse, the art world. And here’s why…

One of the three approaches to Sustainable Art that curators Maja and Reuben Fowkes outline in their essay “Ecology and Ideology: In Search of an Antidote in Contemporary Art” is one that challenges the dominant ideology of corporate capitalism. They warn against an approach that attempts only to “cash in” on trendy public environmental concerns, saying that this type of “under-conceptualized” work disregards a basic and fundamental aspect of ecology, namely that it is a “subversive science… far-reaching ramifications for all spheres of human society.”

Contemporary art, according to Fowkes & Fowkes, is a domain where people are investigating ideas about sustainability and ecology that remain overtly critical of Greenwashing’s “green capitalist” guise, while managing to avoid falling in the trap of what they call “militant recycling” – an attempt to “coerce people into feeling personally responsible for the ecological crisis.” They insist that “any approach that diminishes people’s freedom to travel or their access to culture…threatens the enrichment of human personality and sensitivity, at a time when the collective answer to ecological crisis lies within the creativity of communities and the liberation of human subjectivities.”

Admittedly, architecture has a tougher course to chart than art in this regard, as it relies on corporate funding and endorsement in a way that contemporary art need not. While sustainable architecture may not be able to shed its capitalist shackles entirely, it might benefit from a little more skepticism, and a return to ecology’s subversive roots, at least if the goal is to achieve something better than Greenwash.