Academic journal article Human Ecology

Using Design to Advance Environmental Stewardship

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Using Design to Advance Environmental Stewardship

Article excerpt

In his research, writing, teaching, and artwork, Jack Elliott is one of a small number of design professionals in the country focused on realigning aesthetics and ethical values. This architect and assistant professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis encourages designers to create innovative, sustainable solutions for environmental and social issues.

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Last summer, Elliott presented a paper at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture's international symposium in Helsinki, Finland. Titled "Reflecting Eco-Ethics, Architectural Aesthetics Reconsidered," it ended with this message to his colleagues:

"Through its manifest aesthetic devices, architecture communicates its sympathies, based on values and feelings, and its rationalizations, based on knowledge and understanding. It is the realignment of this hybrid that offers hope. It makes the aesthetic experience capable of incorporating a new ethical sensitivity, an expanded sympathy to things non-human in order to effect real environmental change."

Elliott believes that design has the ability to provide ethical leadership for the environment through its aesthetic expression, and that designers have the responsibility to innovate within this eco-ethic, thus helping assure a sustainable future.

"When you aggregate the various deleterious effects occurring worldwide, you see that the natural environment is under severe strain as a result of human activities in the built environment," says Elliott. "Our own well-being is predicated on the health and well-being of natural systems--it is imperative that we take action to safeguard the natural environment."

For Elliott, taking such action begins with students. That approach became apparent while he was serving as co-chair of the Atlanta chapter of the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment. As part of his responsibilities, Elliott organized exhibits of sustainable design and offered presentations on environmental issues to a wide spectrum of the city's design firms. He found that most practitioners' values already were cast. Once they were immersed in the realities of practice, they were unlikely to alter their approaches to accommodate environmental concerns. "That is why I went from the private sector to the academic one," he explains. "I felt that I could make more of a difference working with young minds before they are set."

Elliott's goal for his design students is the realignment of the aesthetic/ethic hybrid. In his classes, students learn how to create beautiful things that also accomplish something good in terms of the natural world.

Ever since designers began describing themselves as such, Elliott says, they have been striving to create works of artifice that engage the intellect of the observer, thereby offering an aesthetic experience. This intellectual engagement is mediated through the senses. The "manifest characteristics" of an object are perceived through aspects that a person can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste.

But the ethical aspects of artifice, the "latent characteristics," are often impossible to discern. Elliott's desk is an example. It features a composite top made of red oak. The oak could have been harvested through either clearcutting or selective cutting, but there is no way to know which by looking at the table, he says. Nevertheless, the consequences of the wood's harvest are significant, going beyond the immediate act of cutting down the trees. Clearcutting deprives future generations of plant and animal life of the habitat they need to thrive, whereas selective cutting actually can increase the biomass of a forest by enhancing habitat. "The ethical dimension associated with the table is not something perceived, but, once understood, it greatly influences the viewer's valuation of the table and makes viewing the object a much richer experience," Elliott explains. …

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