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Projecting Nature's Beauty—Rejecting Blight In Building And Thought

Lori Ryker says we live in a spectacular place, so why doesn't architecture always treat it that way?

Like the narratives of art and beauty projected onto the big screen of an outdoor drive-in movie theater, communities demonstrate their values in how they build.  How would you describe the architectural qualities of communities in Greater Yellowstone or wherever you live? Photo courtesy Library of Congress/John Margolies, photographer
Like the narratives of art and beauty projected onto the big screen of an outdoor drive-in movie theater, communities demonstrate their values in how they build. How would you describe the architectural qualities of communities in Greater Yellowstone or wherever you live? Photo courtesy Library of Congress/John Margolies, photographer
"Let the beauty of what you love be what you do."  —Rumi

Years ago when exploring research options for a PhD in architecture, I began with the topic of beauty.

I was not thinking about buildings, or material breakthroughs enabling ever greater visually captivating feats of engineering, or even revisiting old traditions and vernaculars.

I started with beauty instead because of my love of the natural world and the hopefulness I had for art. And, because I believe both art and nature are tied to beauty. 

It was during this period that I also came across Einstein’s writings about his creative process in which he made clear that “great achievements in science must start from intuitive knowledge.”
What does it tell us when so many people want a dream home that opens to the natural world?  And what is our responsibility to exist as compatibly as possible with the essence of place?  Photo courtesy Artemis Institute/Remote Studio
What does it tell us when so many people want a dream home that opens to the natural world? And what is our responsibility to exist as compatibly as possible with the essence of place? Photo courtesy Artemis Institute/Remote Studio
The idea of intuitive knowledge struck a chord. We all need mentors to support us and hold us up in moments of doubt.  To persevere, even when the status quo pushes back. Hence, think of all the great paradigm-shifting ideas that sprang from artful intuition that could never have blossomed if they were stymied by those limited in the approach to the possible.

Einstein is a thought mentor of mine because he was outspoken in his belief and reliance on intuition and creativity. He was unapologetic about the role intuition and inspiration played in the process of discovery and scientific thought.

It did not take me long, however, to recognize that the academe [and the prevailing teaching method for how we are supposed to perceive architecture] did not believe in beauty as a suitable topic for research.

The position held by higher education research institutions is that because beauty could not be studied through objective methods or verified it could not be known. If it could not be known in objective terms, therefore it was not worth studying. And yet great architecture itself is a product of breaking through barriers. 

Every one of us, every single day in a region like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem recognizes what natural beauty is. We know it even though it is exceedingly difficult to put into words. We have a different aesthetic sense than people who dwell in New York City, Los Angeles, or Miami. Once upon a time the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies and the Wasatch Front in Utah looked a lot like Bozeman.

We know the things that detract from beauty, diminish its impact and when we drive past or through a natural landscape that has been erased by human activities and practices not mindful of such beauty, it registers. It registers in ways that people who dwell in sense-dulling environs no longer recognize.

The bias against knowing natural beauty, held by most educational institutions and only beginning to erode in the past ten years, grew out of the Cartesian way of thinking that preferences rational thinking and objective methods as the only way to knowledge.  

In the biological sciences it has a parallel applying to animal behavior which asserts that almost anything which cannot be documented, measured, quantified or mapped is not relevant to how we choose to protect, care for or manage wildlife. And yet we know that sentience [the existence of animal intelligence and emotional range) is what really distinguishes the depth and spirit of life forms, not data and its measurements.

The Cartesian way of thinking is a method that neatly separates humans from nature, the inside from outside, discredits discussions of soul, and singles out parts from the whole. It is, in many ways, opposite of the ecological thinking as articulated in the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, another thought mentor for me.
The Cartesian way of thinking is a method that neatly separates humans from nature, the inside from outside, discredits discussions of soul, and singles out parts from the whole. It is, in many ways, opposite of the ecological thinking as articulated in the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, another thought mentor for me.
As a mindset, the bias of only considering the objective and measureable resides deep within Western civilization’s cultural sense of value, choice, and general operations for existing in the world.  The result, with respect to our humanity and humility, is limiting to our imaginations and creative thought processes.  All this, while at the same time outliers  supporting the value of taking cues from the durable sympatric designs of nature is, ironically, rapidly growing.

For me, without the support of the institution for my research, I found ways to grow in my own confidence believing beauty is wrapped in the intuition that leads our endeavors in search of the unknown in the world around us. Sometimes, I would argue, “the unknown” is simply the yet to be recognized “known,” as in you will never know something unless you open yourself up to perceiving it.
Many American conservation organizations focus only on public land but avoid from engaging in discussions about the role of the human-built environment in advancing protection of wildlife, habitat and soul of a setting. What happens on private land has huge implications for the health of public land beside it. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has one of the highest concentrations of professional environmentalists in the country yet how many of those groups send staff  to county commission meetings where the meaningful intersection between public and private land conservation happens?  Photo courtesy Artemis Institute/Remote Studio
Many American conservation organizations focus only on public land but avoid from engaging in discussions about the role of the human-built environment in advancing protection of wildlife, habitat and soul of a setting. What happens on private land has huge implications for the health of public land beside it. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has one of the highest concentrations of professional environmentalists in the country yet how many of those groups send staff to county commission meetings where the meaningful intersection between public and private land conservation happens? Photo courtesy Artemis Institute/Remote Studio
The greatest of humanity’s insights arise from our innate intuition and the questions of “what if,” pushing ideas out of the box of a known reality into the universe not yet defined. All ancient civilizations sought out evidence of beauty in the world for this very reason, believing that the manifestation and experience of beauty is a universal truth. Consider all the bright human minds in history, their brainpower open to grasping beauty, that have arrived at the same conclusion despite profound cultural, geographic, ethnic and religious differences.

When Western civilization moved away from contemplating and speaking of beauty we lost our sensitivity to it as an idea and experience which informs perceptions and decisions.
When Western civilization moved away from contemplating and speaking of beauty we lost our sensitivity to it as an idea and experience which informs perceptions and decisions.
When we accepted objective knowledge—science— as the single path to truth, rejecting intuition and its benefit to creativity and knowledge, we stopped relying on personal experience for understanding the world in which we live.  Indigenous cultures that persisted for millennia did so because they did not—and could not stop relying on personal experience.

Thus, successful civilizations endured not only by living within their means through a holistic cycle that resists catastrophic outcomes for their people and the Earth, but they also achieved a harmonious relationship with the surroundings. When we live in harmony with the land around us, we move closer toward sustainability and one way of gauging success is maintaining that which supports and engenders beauty, both the natural and the human-made.

Science doesn’t tell you what’s beautiful—the human senses do that—and architecture as a melding of the analytical and creative side of the brain can both manifest and support these experiences.
It seems obvious: why are we drawn to such scenes and what would negatively detract from them? A quiet growing movement is taking hold among some foresighted architects, one that involves deeper discussions with clients, landowners, students, planners, elected officials and conservationists about how to protect beauty. Part of the dialogue involves moving beyond merely superficial responses to "pretty" scenes and contemplating how to keep them that way. Photo courtesy Lori Ryker
It seems obvious: why are we drawn to such scenes and what would negatively detract from them? A quiet growing movement is taking hold among some foresighted architects, one that involves deeper discussions with clients, landowners, students, planners, elected officials and conservationists about how to protect beauty. Part of the dialogue involves moving beyond merely superficial responses to "pretty" scenes and contemplating how to keep them that way. Photo courtesy Lori Ryker
Einstein wrote: "All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge.” 

We gain the means to arrive at great discoveries of the world and ourselves when we recognize that rational procedures and the scientific method are only part of the process for new knowledge. 

Engaging our intuition provides for the next fantastical musings, the moments of ah-ha, and challenges to the status-quo and conventions of a civilization we grow so comfortable with and experience as permanent. The core of knowledge is not objectivity but the power of the intuition to guide our intellectual processes.

Again, we know beauty and harmony in nature when we experience it but such experiences are impossible to “teach” in a classroom and must come from our experiences in the world. When a client is willing to immerse themselves in the landscape that will become their home, joining a designer to absorb the beauty of the place before the first marks for a place to live are sketched onto paper, and long before science and mathematics informs engineering, the process usually brings about more connected and profound built environments.

Contemplating beauty helped me gain clarity about why a walk in the forests of the Yellowstone region both emotionally overwhelm and enrich us when immersed in its smells, sounds and visual presence.  Knowing where the owl roosting tree is, or where the deer trail is cut at the forest edge or witnessing distant wild mountains are not so dissimilar to experiences of art. Both give us pause to provide time for feeling and the opportunity to contemplate the world we live in. 
Ryker through Remote Studio has devoted the last few decades of her career to inspiring new generations of architecture students by immersing them in nature. Innovation, she says, can lead to better ways of building structures that are more sensitive to their surroundings. Photo courtesy Artemis Institute/Remote Studio
Ryker through Remote Studio has devoted the last few decades of her career to inspiring new generations of architecture students by immersing them in nature. Innovation, she says, can lead to better ways of building structures that are more sensitive to their surroundings. Photo courtesy Artemis Institute/Remote Studio
From the emotionally transforming experiences of nature and art we simultaneously feel apart of the world and miniscule in the universe. These are experiences of beauty and its sense of timelessness that allows us to dwell in a natural moment as it has existed in this spot for 10,000 years. We hold the power to perpetuate beauty or halt it.

The philosopher Alfred Whitehead believed that a civilized society exhibits five qualities: truth, beauty, adventure, art and peace. If this is true, what happens to a civilization when beauty is ignored and devalued?

Without aspiring to adventure to create and experience beauty does civilization fall into decline? 

Does denying the role our experience of beauty plays in being human stall our socio-cultural evolution specifically because we choose to limit the methods of knowing? 

The massive degradation of the Earth is not imagined lunacy, and neither is the fact that we are, at the very least, partly responsible for these environmental changes. We are responsible for polluting the water with arsenic and other poisons. We alone have polluted the air with carcinogens and carbon. We have overfished our oceans and built over our most productive farmland.

We wait for scientists to verify and for someone else to find solutions. We wait for science to bail us out of many problems that we could solve by changing specific practices, small and large.

Einstein also aptly stated that “we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

As research scientists push forward to confirm the state of the Earth from measurements of data, the losses and wastes we have generated continue to mount.

With no time to waste, we need to go ahead with building the necessary future. By grounding our lives in truth, beauty, adventure, art and peace, the result would be communities that live as part of an integrated whole, drawing from knowledge gained in a multitude of ways—not as singularities— that produce radically simple solutions for living on Earth. We would each be creative human beings living on a whole planet.


Lori Ryker
About Lori Ryker

Lori Ryker is a thought leader in place-based architecture and founder of Artemis Institute that teaches students how to be smarter about blending development with natural environments.  She lives in Bozeman, Montana
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