ECOPOLIS: The Aesthetics of Ecological Architecture

As part of a coherent and intelligent approach to ecological development it is necessary to incorporate appropriate aesthetic and design guidelines to ensure that a rethink of the development process does not provide a new carte blanche for aesthetic chaos.

Architectural principles have been a commodity in short supply all over the world during the last fifty years or so. As the principles have become less and less in evidence so the general public and lay people have become less and less able to enjoy the fruits of the labours of architects, planners and other urban design professionals. Nowhere has this been more true than in Britain and it is in Britain that the biggest change in attitude has taken place with the battle for a return to accessible and popularly appreciated design principles being led, ironically, by the heir to the English throne.

Prince Charles has goaded the professionals and demonstrated a strong personal bias with regard to the architecture he favours, but he has provided a set of Ten Principles for urban design which are drawn from well-proven antecedents and which have universal applicability. Any planning and design organisation which has a serious claim to respect both intellectual endeavour and popular taste could do worse than to adopt the Prince's Principles as a starting point for design.

Allied to the Ecological Development Guidelines above, these Ten Principles provide a serviceable warp and weft on which to weave good design. The following are very brief quotes from the Principles accompanied by some comment from myself:

Ten Principles

1. The Place

"Respect the land"

This clearly relates to ecological design principles but is not as strong or as ecologically orientated as the Principles and Checklist above.

2. Hierarchy

"Architecture is like a language"

If a building cannot express itself, how can we hope to understand it? Ecological architecture should honestly reflect its antecedents.

3. Scale

"Buildings must relate first of all to human proportions"

4. Harmony

"The playing together of the parts"

Harmony is not achieved by uniformity. Harmony can include counter-points and is usually the better for it. Most conventional planning fails to respond to this simple observation, leading to the curious notion that green custom orb roofs somehow `blend' in with the landscape. Ecological architecture needs a more enlightened approach than this.

5. Enclosure

"An elementary idea with a thousand variants"

This connects closely with ideas of place and location. Architecture and planning can reinforce or undermine any effect of place by the way it responds to climate, for instance. In South Australia's Mediterranean climate courtyard enclosures are excellent means to respond to climate and reinforce the quality of the place - yet such simple architectural devices are rarely employed and are not encouraged by existing planning regulations.

6. Materials

"Let where it is be what it's made of"

Put most simply, in timber country timber buildings should be the dominant form of construction. In clay country - clay or adobe construction, and in stoney land - stone. This is what used to happen because importing non-indigenous materials was too difficult or expensive. It gave, unconsciously, an integrated character to buildings of a region which we now need to regain by design and by insisting on local content in construction. This would also strengthen the construction sector of the local economy.

7. Decoration

"A bare outline won't do; give us the details" And decoration should be something of and about the thing it decorates, not a mask over the reality but make-up highlighting its intrinsic features.

8. Art

"Art should always be an organic and integral part of all great new buildings" - and the most humble.

9. Signs and Lights

"Don't make rude signs in public places"

10. Community

"Let the people who will have to live with what you build help guide your hand" Very important. Ecological towns and cities must have balance in all respects, and that includes socially and in the way by which design, planning and development decisions are made. Public input to ecological development processes is essential and the inhabitants of the region hosting an ecological development should be involved.

The easiest way to approach this in a practical way without getting top-heavy or clogged with extensive committee structures is to have a design, planning and development office on-site for any project with models, drawings, information and feedback mechanisms (something as simple as a ballot/comment box). By maintaining an open-door policy and enabling a free flow of information about ecological development ideas and programs people will be taken into confidence, feel confident and be more able to assimilate new, or unexpected ideas.