Aesthetics and Economics?

What role might aesthetics play in shaping our towns and cities? How might aesthetics and economics interact? We often think of the two as inversely related, like you can only have a concern for design if you’re flush. If economic times are bad, then concern for aesthetics goes out the window. But what if there are other possibilities? These are some of the issues we’ll explore in the Shaping our Towns and Cities project.

In our current economic downturn, aesthetic considerations for construction might seem irrelevant. Architectural design might be out of reach for most. But the downturn also means more material to work with at more accessible prices. Inga Saffron, the Philly Inquirer’s architecture critic, touched on some of these issues in a recent piece about the “Fertile Ground” exhibit in Philly. The firms in the show, she writes,

have taken inspiration from the city’s great tracts of vacant land and its wealth of hollowed-out factories. Their designs embrace cheap, tough materials […] They are determined to recycle cities by making buildings that are deeply sustainable, and that don’t merely collect points for the sake of a U.S. Green Building Council seal of approval […] It’s not unusual for these architects to pitch in with construction […] Becoming an architect/developer is a viable career path in Philadelphia because this is the land of cheap real estate. A North Philadelphia rowhouse lot can be picked up for almost nothing, allowing architects to work out new ideas …

Another piece that got me thinking is this segment the public radio show, Speaking of Faith, entitled An Architecture of Decency on Auburn’s School of Architecture Rural Studio project. The Rural Studio program involves undergrads in the design and construction of homes and public spaces in rural Alabama (you can check out the Rural Studio’s own site here). Krista Tippet, the host of Speaking of Faith, describes their approach as one that sees architecture as a “social art.” As Andrew Freear, the current director of the Rural Studio describes it:

It’s students and architects understanding the bigger, broader societal responsibilities that they can have and take on. I mean, we shape the environment. I mean, for west Alabama, we’re incredibly optimistic. We want people to dream about having a better world. And that’s — what better to have than a bunch of 22-year-olds who are just, you know, walk through walls to try and make it happen. And it becomes infectious. People love to be part of it.

These broader societal responsibilities include not only utilizing recycled and sustainable materials in their constructions, but also bringing a sense of how the design of our living spaces touches us as humans and influences our sense of community. You can listen to the whole show from the Speaking of Faith website. It’s really quite powerful.

–Jeff Prudhomme

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