BuildingSocietyVillage Development

The Social Factor in Sustainable Architecture

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. Photo: Edgar Barany/Flickr

I was recently struck by photographs of energy-efficient houses that were described as ‘sustainable’ — built mostly with natural or recycled materials and even finished with environmentally friendly paint — however, they looked like regular modernist buildings. Can modernist architecture be called sustainable, if only ecological techniques are used? Or, is there still something missing?

Sustainability is something more than just green. Yes, there are many definitions, and the term has been degraded over the years, however, have a look at this definition — the aim of sustainability is to improve quality of life while preserving biodiversity, the abundance of natural resources and social equity. If we assume that the aim of a sustainable design is to create pleasant environments that nourish human spirit, can this be achieved by modernist styling?

Can modernist buildings be described as harmonious, beautiful and nurturing the human soul? Do they create places where it is a pleasure to be in, where people like to sit on the bench and enjoy the surroundings? At least from my perspective — hardly, or not at all. The landscapes they create are mostly ‘cold’, ‘artificial’ and even ‘dead’. And yet there are literally hundreds of places which are visited for their beauty and pleasant atmosphere which have traditional styles of architecture, be it Venice, Paris or Prague.

Contemporary office building in Gdansk, Poland. Would it help to create
a more enjoyable environment if it was made of recycled materials?

If you were to choose a square to spend an evening with your friends or to meet for a date, would you choose the square surrounded by modernist buildings made of glass, steel and concrete or the one that remind you of the traditional architecture of Tuscany in Italy or Provence in France? I don’t have any scientific research to prove it, only a guess that most people would choose the latter. As such, since traditional architecture might be much better in creating enjoyable environments than the modernist approach, wouldn’t it be accurate to conclude that modernism in architecture is a failed approach?

Traditional buildings of similar height in Sandomierz, Poland.
Photo: magro_kr/Flickr

I’m not saying that the solution for good design is to replicate the historic styles of architecture (which in some cases may be fine). My point is that a sustainable design should include the social factor, meaning it should aim to create an environment which is ‘warm’, ‘alive’ and beautiful — where people feel happy and where they like to spend time. If we try to design a building to meet these qualities, we may end up with something that looks like the buildings of the past. Would it actually be something bad?

Newly built residential complex in Sopot, Poland.

Many architects say that the style of architecture should reflect the present culture. However, since we live in the era the of consumer culture, is it really something worth reflecting? Why not design buildings that are timeless — buildings that will be perceived as beautiful and nourishing ten years from now, one years from now and two hundred years from now? A good contemporary design doesn’t have look ‘modern’. If it reminisces of historic architecture, so be it. The social factor is more important than the idea of ‘modernity’.

Traditional architecture in Sopot (Parkowa Street).


  1. I couldn’t agree more. My husband and I are planning cabins for our farm, in which WWOOFers or others can stay. A big factor in the design of these cabins is how comfortable they will be for people to sit near a fire or in a small circle (in crazy creek chairs or on cushions as furniture will be minimized)and commune with one another.

  2. Modernism cold? Try this as a living & breathing example:

    This is a historically ignorant article that ignores the basic context and major elements of modern architecture. Although the Piazza del Campo in Siena is charming, the city that sustained it had narrow streets, crowded living quarters, a lack of modern sanitation and a superstition based society where bigotry and a lack of modern human rights were the norm.

    If you want us to live like 19th century farmers, remember, back then, there was no modern medicine and famines were common.

  3. But we will also be asking new questions:

    – Is it enhancing life, both natural and human?

    – Will it maximize the potential for creativity and broad social changes?

    – Does it reflect love and care for our surroundings (environmental, community, social, cultural, historical, and economic)?

    – Does it support the broader ecological and social systems of which we are a part?

    – Is it the best we can do to nurture nature, communities and people?


  4. I think this quota of Kevin Carson goes straight to the core of why we’re unable to create beautiful and nourishing places and buildings these days:

    “Hierarchical institutions, on the other hand, are almost uniformly successful because everyone’s scared to tell the bosses how stupid their policies are and how shitty their products are. Failure is in fact a byproduct of the process by which success is achieved: most products in the corporate economy are only considered “good enough” because customers are powerless.

    The problem, to repeat, is that no matter how intelligent the people staffing a large institution are as individuals, hierarchy makes their intelligence unusable. Given that the institution does not exist as a vehicle for the goals of its members, given that there is no intrinsic connection between their personal motivation and their roles in the organization, and given that the information and agency problems of a hierarchy prevent consequences from being fully internalized by actors, individuals simply cannot be trusted with the discretion to act on their own intelligence or common sense. That’s the whole idea behind standardized work-rules, job descriptions, and all the rest of the Weberian model of bureaucratic rationality: because someone, somewhere might use her initiative in ways that produce results that are detrimental to the interests of the organization, you need a set of rules in place that prevent anyone from doing anything at all.”


    Beauty and love cannot be created through an bureaucratic process where people are oppressed by hierarchical regulations to express their true inner feelings. This can only take place within a process of morphonogenesis and self-organization!

  5. I agree with you on 100%. Modern design is often soulless and empty. Although there are some firms that care also about the atmosphere, majority do not. But these two things – sustainability and atmosphere are not exclusive to each other. For example the city of Vancouver now strongly supports Green Architecture. They aim to have all new construction in Vancouver be greenhouse-gas-neutral by 2030 – harmonious or not. I believe that it is just the question of time until people realize that they need warm and harmonic environment, not the cold and minimalist one.

  6. Marc, urban design, sanitation and other things that you mentioned were not the subject of this article. I wanted to focus primarily on aesthetics. I agree that the streets in Siena are too narrow by contemporary standards.

    My point is very simple – “traditional” styling in architectural design is better in creating enjoyable places than modernist approach. That’s all.

  7. Øyvind, the beauty of small streets is unquestioned :) I don’t mind, however, if there is more space between the buildings. It depends on the height of the buildings, location, density etc.

  8. Yes, you are right. But remember that the universal scaling law is valid for all sustainable and living systems:

    The universal scaling law is fractal, meaning that the smaller scales become more and more numerous the smaller they become. This is valid for the street pattern of a town as well as the pattern of a watershed:

    “Watersheds can be considered a type of real-world network that is characterized by self-repeating or fractal-like patterns. Fractals are geometric patterns that possess the same proportions on different scales. Rivers and glaciers cut through the planet’s surface, leaving behind landscapes that may appear random or haphazard, but are actually quite precise. Whereas such patterns have been frequently ignored in designing or altering man-made landscapes, there is now interest in emulating them to create more sustainable and eco-compatible designs.” – D.L. Marrin, Ph.D


    The universal scaling law is also part of the three laws of structural order, which are of the foundation for sustainable architecture:

  9. @Marcin, here’s another essay by Theodore Dalrymple that goes along the same lines as your essay:

    – The Art of Destruction:

    Here’s more on street with to height ratio:

    “That Parisian street above is about 12-15 feet wide, and the buildings are 4-6 stories high. In other words, about 4:1…But, if you said, “let’s make a street 13 feet wide and buildings 40-60 feet tall” to most people, they would have an anxiety attack. “Oh, no, that is so horrible! Like sardines in a can! Like rats in a cage!”

    Oh, how people go on and on. But, if you actually put these people – the very same people-in a place with exactly those dimensions, they say: “That is a gorgeous Parisian street. Let’s call the travel agent and get on a plane for eight hours and spend $6,000, so we can spend one week of our life in a place like that instead of this horrible Suburban Hell.” – N. Lewis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button