Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things


When architectural historian Vincent Scully gave a eulogy for the great architect Louis Kahn, he described a day when both were crossing Red Square, whereupon Scully excitedly turned to Kahn and said, "Isn’t it wonderful the way the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral reach up into the sky?" Kahn looked up and down thoughtfully for a moment and said, "Isn’t it beautiful the way they come down to the ground?"

If we understand that design leads to the manifestation of human intention, and if what we make with our hands is to be sacred and honor the earth that gives us life, then the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it, soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design.

We can use certain fundamental laws inherent to the natural world as models and mentors for human designs. Ecology comes from the Greek roots oikos and logos, "household" and "logical discourse." Thus it is appropriate, if not imperative, for architects to discourse about the logic of our earth household. To do so, we must first look at our planet and the very processes by which it manifests life, because therein lie the logical principles with which we must work. And we must also consider economy in the true sense of the word. Using the Greek words oikos and nomos, we speak of natural law and how we measure and manage the relationships within this household, working with the principles our discourse has revealed to us.

There are three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design. The first is that all materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to the earth without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly with all waste equaling food for other living systems.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2005
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