Culture and Climate Change – Architecture and Urbanism

Green Values — More And More Artists And Architects Are Opting For Ethical Aesthetics

„Perfumed Jungle“ – aus dem Band „Grüne Architektur heue!“, © VINCENT CALLEBAUT ARCHITECTURES / Philippe „Perfumed Jungle“ – aus dem Band „Grüne Architektur heue!“, © VINCENT CALLEBAUT ARCHITECTURES / Philippe When it comes to the quest for ethical aesthetics, all that glitters is not gold, but green.

At some point in the future art-minded parents might tell their children the following anecdote: Once upon a time there was a tiger shark. It lay dead at the bottom of a huge aquarium and had been preserved in formaldehyde. And why was it there? Because an artist wanted it like that.

Back then artists were like superstars and this artist, Damien Hirst from Great Britain, was one of most expensive of all. Just imagine, children, an American finance investor paid nine million euros for this work of art! Yet then, just a short time after this sale of the century, the animal started to decompose. And then, a little later, the big, bad economic crisis struck. There he was – left holding a coffin containing his tiger shark that was now suddenly only worth half of the original price. An icon from the realm of the “ready-mades” now looking as hoary as a hoary old “retro-made”. And that, my dear children, was the start of nature triumphing over art.

Ethics and aesthetics

Vertical Garden von Patrick Blanc – aus dem Band „Grüne Architektur heute!; © Roland Halbe It was not in fact until a short time ago, in Autumn 2008, that the era of turbo-capitalism came to an end. It was an era of frivolously materialistic, luxurious bliss, very much akin to the legendary land of milk and honey. Since then however at all social levels values and needs have started to shift, in the cultural industry, too – away from the market and back to traditional virtues and ethical responsibility. The focus is once again on ethics and also on aesthetics. Attributes we keep hearing at the moment like “sustainable”, environmentally aware”, “ecological” are all geared to the ethical competence of aesthetics. What however do ethical aesthetics look like?

Not patronising, stubborn or boring, but excitingly new, thrillingly surreal, attractive and beautiful. Like Patrick Blanc’s “Vertical Garden” that was presented alongside many other projects in a recently published illustrated book from the Taschen Verlag in Cologne called Green Architecture Today!. The French botanist covered the walls of the “Caixa Forum”, an exhibition centre in Madrid designed by the Swiss star architects Herzog & de Meuron, with masses of leaves, grasses, mosses, ferns and flowers in vivid shades of green. The plants do not need any soil to flourish; innovative research and a utopian paradise á la Rousseau merge into a new, sensually urban, aesthetic form.


The decisive factor today is the fact that domains that were once strictly separated are now merging in a variety of ways. It was indeed the practices of “crossover”, in which art has experimented with fashion, design, music, science and architecture since the 1990s, that paved the way for these new ethical aesthetics. They in fact dismantled hierarchies and abandoned linear structures in favour of cyclical and networked processes. They provoked interactive energies and merged forms till they were completely changed.

Now architects like the Malaysian architect, Ken Yeang, are discovering ecosystems. For him the principle of “recycling” is a most decisive factor, “Ecosystems do not produce any rubbish, everything is unremittingly recycled.”

As more and more architects, designers and artists are imitating these ecosystems, a kind of complex, hybrid style has developed that Yeang calls “Ecomimesis”. It is an osmotic style of flowing lines and contours – an approach also adopted by the French architect, Vincent Callebaut, in the structures and models for his “Ecopolis”. For these he made use of “parasitic processes that had been borrowed from the realms of biology, information and communications technology”. His latest project is the “Perfumed Jungle” – a master plan for Hong Kong’s central waterfront business district consisting of rhizome-like high-rise towers with characteristic bulges, from whose translucent and airily open exteriors there are cascades of greenery hanging.

The ornament of the 21st century

Some artists also broach the issue of green awareness from a point that is way beyond any ecological activist platform. One of the stars here is a Dane who lives in Berlin called Olafur Eliasson. About 15 years ago he was already demonstrating just how dependent nature is on culture. In more recent times there has been another Dane - Tue Greenfort, born in 1973 - who has been translating complex issues into impressive images and sculptures. Take, for example, his piece on the pollution of the oceans, for which he had glass blowers from Murano shape jellyfish into delicate, desirable objects and then had them swirling round the room on a mobile.

Cover von „Grüne Archtiektur heute!“; © TASCHENThe statement by Rem Koolhaas that “sustainability is the ornament of the 21st century” also applies to design and fashion. Ethical aesthetics blends vision with a form of pragmatism that is targeted at the substance, at the material. The material specifies the forms that are to be produced, as the Brazilian super-designers, Fernando and Humberto Campana, explain, “The materials tell us how they want to be formed.”

Just like the artists of the Italian “Arte Povera” in the 1960s, the Campanas get the inspiration to produce their energetic “designs of misery” from the rubbish on the streets of the big cities. At the moment applied creativity that can be put to good use is being paid more attention than autonomous art. This has been attributed to the basic mood of existentialism at the present time.

Style codes of the humane kind

It is all about surviving, and commercial art has to react directly to acute environmental scenarios. In the same way, fashion, too. Fashion is trying to find a new form of luxury by returning to the archaic roots of handicraft. All around the globe it has been trying to track down handicraft techniques that it revives in cooperation with the indigenous local peoples and that it then integrates into its own high-tech production programs. The result is a kind of ethnically ethical haute couture that does not project a folkloric image, but more a cosmopolitan one.

Luxury these days takes the form of the genuine original in the smallest of doses. Maybe concealed somewhere in the material and its processing, possibly of microscopic size or even completely invisible. The idea is not to consume, but to communicate. In a way one sticks to style codes of the humane kind, one scorns trends and loves commitment. And what is the ultimate status symbol? Charisma.

Eva Karcher
works as a free-lance journalist and author in Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2009

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