5 Reasons why Creative Artists should help Design our Future Living Spaces

As both an artist and a researcher, I am interested in how and to what extent the creative arts are being incorporated into environmental designs for the buildings, landscapes and interiors which are likely to shape future human communities. For example, how many of these designs are both functional and beautiful, and how many accommodate creative spaces for performances, exhibitions and screenings? The role environmental arts play in living, working and leisure spaces is particularly important, since they have the added advantage of bringing slices or representations of natural environments to urban populations who are often alienated from the environments themselves.

Attractive and Sustainable Spanish Home by Zwei Estudio Creativo, Photo credit: Wave Avenue

The integration of creative art works and creative arts spaces into eco-designed landscapes, buildings and interiors will bring crucial benefits. In this article I explore five reasons why.

1: An Infusion of Culture

We are in urgent need of human-designed environments that not only provide economical and technological solutions to problems of resources but which are more broadly nurturing of stable and thriving human communities. Artistic works and activities that are integrated into our surroundings and into our daily lives have the potential to bring cultural richness as well as inspiring aesthetics to the environments which will nurture future generations. It is inclusion and participation in a shared cultural life and the creative expression of our individual personalities that leads to social cohesion and individual fulfilment respectively, and which will ultimately ensure that we are motivated to sustain clean and healthy environments down the generations.

Young people in particular are vulnerable to dogmatism, dissipation and extremist ideologies, all of which undermine sustainability agendas, when they are denied this kind of cultural capital and creative freedom by material poverty, poverty of opportunity, and exclusion from the means of governing their own lives. When the environments in which we develop are infused with the arts, they are infused with language that empowers us to express ourselves and communicate with others, ideas that challenge our assumptions and raise our aspirations, and examples from history and story-telling that can guide us in our judgements and decision making. These are the only means we possess for understanding one another and expressing ourselves, our thoughts, our angst and our dreams in the most fulfilling ways. They are the only means by which our beliefs and attitudes are challenged and by which we grow in wisdom.

The arts and humanities are often undervalued in comparison to the sciences, and consequently they are also under-funded, in spite of their impressive return on investment in terms of both revenue and employment. A lack of breadth and depth in the teaching of the arts and humanities in schools has contributed to the problem, as has the fact that some well-known creatives have made a brand of themselves, without applying the skill and ingenuity to their work that their counterparts in the sciences have demonstrated. These factors have unfortunately created a culture in which mediocrity rather than excellence is celebrated, and in which the creative arts have come to be seen as a luxury rather than as essential to human flourishing.

While the sciences enable us to aspire to knowledge of the deepest physical truths about ourselves and the universe, and allow us to use this knowledge to manipulate the world in our interests, the arts enable us to aspire to excellence in the human-made realm of the narrative, the moral, the relational, the imagined and the philosophical. It is this latter realm which gives us our sense of meaning, purpose and identity, and which most strongly determines our behaviours, biases and priorities, even when it comes to how we do science. The arts and the sciences are, therefore, neither opposites nor competitors. They are seamlessly interwoven.

“Block der Frauen” (Women’s Protest) in the Holocaust memorial park of the old Jewish quarter of Berlin by the East German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, Photo from Wikimedia Commons

2: The Cross-Fertilisation of Ideas

Bringing the arts into the arena of daily life, especially into the workplace with its technical challenges, creates ideal conditions for mutual inspiration and knowledge exchange across boundaries of discipline and across the art-science divide. The messages and ideas conveyed by the works themselves, and the discussions they stimulate, increase the potential for non-linear thinking and therefore for innovation.

An equal partnership between the best of science, with its focus on evidence and objective fact, and artistic reflection, with its ethical insight and its ability to build new connections and communicate new ideas that come from them, is now more widely accepted as essential for the long-term inventiveness, adaptability and survival of businesses and other institutions. The reflective nature of the arts can play a particularly important role in controversial areas of scientific research and commerce where the ethical implications of actions are broad and complex, and where better public understanding and accurate media reporting are essential.

Many organisations have already invested considerable sums of money in collaborative projects and events to get artists and professionals in different fields to work together more effectively. The Met Office HQ in Exeter, for example, is an ecologically designed building which contains environmental art works that are meant to encourage employees to reflect on, promote and debate the activities of the Met Office through exploring the inter-relationships between art and science. The Met Office has worked with Ginkgo Projects, an independent art and design consultancy, since 2002, with the view that effective commissioning of the arts will contribute to the creation of a positive working environment that encourages innovation.

Phillip Mabe, Chair of the Art Project Board in 2004 made the following statement: “We have found the works are challenging, introspective, humorous or simply beautiful; together, they provide an intuitive insight into the delicate relationships that bind us to our environment.”

Met Office Head Quarters, Exeter, Photo credit: The Met Office blog 23-08-2015

3: Benefits for Human Well-being

Experiencing and participating in the arts has been repeatedly shown to have physical, psychological and social benefits. Integrating them into future living spaces would seem a ‘no-brainer’ given that they help keep both our bodies and our minds active and constructively engaged while also providing a medium for social interaction. It is often through the arts that we are able to express difficult emotions that are hard to articulate or awkward to reveal in plain speech. This is why art therapy is such a popular form of psychotherapy, particularly with children.

For these benefits alone, a more thoughtful integration of art works and practices into private and public spaces would be a worthwhile investment at the earliest stages of building and landscape development. At a time when new housing is top of the agenda in the UK, the government would do well to think more long-term, with this broader vision of sustainability that includes community building and well-being, rather than simply getting roofs over heads in the cheapest way possible. It would also seem sensible to include more spaces and activities that explicitly promote the improvement of health such as quiet zones for mindfulness meditation, ‘temple’ rooms which are light and expansive and serve as an uplifting and inspirational community hub, and well-being/sensory gardens where the fractal patterns in nature and the engagement of all the senses can calm the mind and bring our focus into the present. The need of better designs for well-being is perhaps most acute in hospitals, hospices, care homes, affordable housing, prisons and rehabilitation and community centres. However, these are also the very places where finding the financial means to achieve such goals is most challenging in our current political climate.

The need to sustain a healthy and motivated work force is another reason why employers are increasingly investing in cross-disciplinary projects that are concerned with environment and well-being. It is an ever growing area of research and experimentation, and presents innumerable opportunities for art-science collaboration. We are only just beginning to understand how great a role our working and living environments have to play in our over-all well-being and in how effective we are at work.

James and Paula Coburn Wellness Garden, Photo credit: Lynda Erkiletian 10-06-2011

4: Motivating through Experience

The creative arts have a power and subtlety in conveying important messages that need to reach and motivate us at a deeper level than rational argument. For example, where climate change and social justice are concerned, it is now widely acknowledged that simply trying to scare people into changing their opinions and lifestyles with alarming facts and linear arguments that end in doom and gloom, has very little effect. On the other hand, an immersive and emotionally moving experience, one which takes us on a journey revealing the intricacies and extent of our inter-dependence through the parallel stories of real people, is likely to leave a more lasting impression. It is often experience rather than argument that leads to real changes in behaviour, and this kind of experience is exactly what artists of all genres have the power to create. If we show people how changes can and have been made with unexpected ease and how psychological barriers can and have been surmounted in this way, they will feel empowered rather than daunted.

My perspective on the Feast for the Future project is that it is an excellent opportunity to encourage people to think differently about how we meet our global energy challenges. We tend to look at our communities in the light of our inglorious past and all the environmental challenges we face because of it. At the heart of the ‘Feasts for the Future’ project, is the idea that if we look at ourselves from the perspective of possible future communities instead, we will take more positive action in the present. By sharing a meal and telling stories about the ground-breaking renewable energy and energy efficiency projects taking place successfully in our region and around the world, we can develop a realistic and cooperative vision of what our communities could be like in the future. This vision may be more effective than the ever-present threat of destruction and disaster in motivating communities to take on ambitious projects that will transform the way they live. It is my hope that art will be an integral part of the Feasts, not only in the form of the Feast Table, which is being made by a local artist and carpenter, but in the form of the storytelling I have described.

Unlike activists, artists have the luxury of exploring the nuances of a subject, prompting reflection on difficult questions, such as what we mean by ‘sustainable’ and how we determine what should and should not be conserved, or what constitutes a ‘fair society’ or a ‘good life’. They provide safe spaces for communities to explore new perspectives and question received beliefs and practices without coercion or humiliation. They can therefore play an important role in shaping and re-shaping wider cultural values. By facilitating reflection and dialogue, arts practitioners can help to lead us to a new consensus and a stronger collective resolve to do what is necessary for the survival and well-being of our species and planet. This kind of art is not easy of course. It takes hard work, extensive research and skills and talents that are developed over many months and years.

Children sitting on a makeshift raft play in a river full of rubbish in a slum area of Jakarta. Photo credit: Enny Nuraheni/Reuters

5: Educating through Encounter

An infusion of arts which communicate our history and knowledge in original and exciting ways is of course of great educational value, and not just in the obvious places such as schools, colleges and universities. To give an example, encounters in public and private living spaces with natural environments such as gardens or living installations, or with artistic explorations of these environments in photography, sculpture, film, theatre, dance, creative writing or any other artistic medium, have the potential to educate increasingly urban populations on the value of our natural environments. They can reveal how such environments maintain the vital ecosystems upon which we and all other creatures depend, and how they provide us, not only with resources such as water and food, but with the biodiversity of genes and compounds required for human and crop resistance to pathogens, and for vital medicines such as antibiotics. They can also demonstrate how natural environments contribute to our general well-being, including our states of mind and our enjoyment of culture – they have, after all, been the scenes and settings of so many of our human dramas.

The arts can educate us by bringing home the uncomfortable truths about what we have done to our environments, as illustrated by the picture of children playing in filthy water (above), or by inspiring us to work towards a healthier vision of our future, as illustrated by Callebaut’s designs for a future eco-city (below). They can communicate multiple facts and alternative perspectives with an immediacy and impact that could never be achieved by a report. Experiencing a work of art is like meeting a person; you see many characteristics at first encounter and are compelled to discover more about why they are as they are, and what can be learnt from them.

Ecological Designs by Vincent Callebaut, for the ‘Flavours Orchard’ project in the city of Kunming in the Yunnan Province, China, courtesy of Vincent Callebaut Architectures

It is for all these reasons that I believe creatives of all kinds should play a far greater role in the environmental design of the buildings, landscapes and interiors where future generations will live and move. This will of course mean working in close collaboration with research, industry and culture sector partners. We need to make sure that imaginative and effective spaces for performances, exhibitions and screenings are included in designs, as well as ensuring that architects have greater influence on design so that the structures themselves are works of art as well as being practically efficient.

I hope this article will persuade my fellow creatives that we too have a vital role to play in helping to create the human-designed environments of the future. Experiencing and participating in artistic creativity has positive effects on both individuals and communities; on educational and cultural enrichment, innovation, social cohesion, and health. The creative arts, especially the environmental arts, are essential for creating environments that nurture informed, stable and thriving human communities, communities which are far more likely to manage their environments and resources wisely long into the future.

By Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong

(An earlier version of this article was published by Creative Digest in November 2015)

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