Architect Valentino Gareri's vision for a sustainable and modular tree-house school that allows children to connect with nature.

European leaders and the New European Bauhaus have called for a new definition of beauty in design to meet the requirements of the climate and environmental emergencies. And it will take inspiration from nature.

The New European Bauhaus is about sustainable design, planning and architecture and intrinsic to the European Green New Deal that is Europe’s post-pandemic economic recovery package. It has the enthusiastic backing of the European Parliament.

At a two-day conference last week, speaker after speaker underlined the belief that the eco-renovation challenge should eventually bring greater sustainability, more inclusion, and more beauty for people, not just in Europe but all over the world.

Beauty is local

Speaking from India, Sheela Patel, founder of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) spoke of the exclusive inheritance of colonial architecture and slums and temporary homes. “The design of our cities are over influenced by European design and planning standards,” she said.

“The New European Bauhaus must look to other kinds of architecture and concepts of beauty and sustainability. Architects and designers need to see how they work when they travel to other places particularly in the global South. It doesn’t work there, producing intergenerational impoverishment. They are unsustainable in other places.”

Climate activist Gina Gylver agreed. She spoke of her existing work with urban redevelopments to become “area neutral”, a parallel concept to carbon neutral.

Area neutrality

A place that is area neutral “does not take up more land than needed because of the importance of wild land,” she said.

“This involves reusing already built-up land for new purposes. Building denser is more sustainable and can be more inclusive as we are forced to get to know each other. Denser cities can be beautiful.”

Again, she questioned how to define beauty. “It is class-dependent.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said Sheela Patel. “Informal settlements and street markets might look shabby and dirty, but if you look through the eyes of the people who live there you have colour. We live in a colourful world.

“Globalisation has not homogenised beauty,” she continued. “You have dance, music and celebration, this is beauty. Our cities in the global South, in emulating alien northern culture, bring in ugliness in the disguise of modernity. Our cultural spaces are shrinking as a result. Our street culture is imitated or appropriated in the global North, such as rickshaws.

“The important thing is that beauty is localised. Local materials should also be used, local vernaculars. The New European Bauhaus should not diminish this.”

What is The New European Bauhaus?

The New European Bauhaus was launched last September with a call to artists, designers, architects, planners, scientists, technicians, in effect anybody, who can come up with workable new solutions to the current crises.

Over 450 solutions have already been submitted, said conference moderator Francesca Bria, President of the Italian National Innovation Fund.

She called for more art, culture and design that is “good for systemic transformation. They must support culturally diverse initiatives to empower people to take action at all levels.”

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, speaking via a recorded message because she was present at the simultaneous climate conference of world leaders, quoted Robert Schumann, one of the founders of the European Union, who in 1954 wrote, “For Europe, it is essential to work on the economic recovery and military security, but what would they be worth if we can’t develop deep cultural relations between the European countries?”

She said this remained key to the success of European project. “We need a common narrative to reach our hearts and souls. We need to be able to feel it. The New European Bauhaus wants to create this feeling.”

The original and the new Bauhaus

One hundred years ago the original Bauhaus became a worldwide success due to three factors.

It was created in a time of profound transformation, following a global crisis, the First World War. As part of a new industrial era it would create functional, affordable and beautiful design. Beyond innovation, it strove for a mix of aesthetics and affordability. To this, said von der Leyen, “we want to add sustainability. Sustainability plus style.”

One hundred years ago steel and cement were promoted. Today’s Bauhaus will favour materials that are responsible for fewer carbon emissions to accelerate the transition of the built environment, scaling up nature-based materials and solutions in the circular economy.

Von der Leyen said she was encouraged and that for the first time this year the Pritzker architecture prize went to a refurbishment for affordable social housing, not glamorous new buildings. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, the architects, upgraded social housing dwellings to make them more beautiful and energy efficient.

Throughout their careers, these architects have rejected city plans calling for the demolition of social housing, focusing instead on designing from the inside out to prioritise the welfare of a building’s inhabitants and their unanimous desires for larger spaces.

Von der Leyen called for European cities to capture carbon dioxide instead of producing it. “I see cities of the future as urban forests”.

The third factor linking the old and the new Bauhaus is that both are interdisciplinary. “People need to share and grow their ambitions if culture and technology are to go hand in hand. We need all minds to contribute and work together,” she said.

Competition

The conference launched a competition for €25 million worth of prizes.

This first competition is for existing projects in the categories of techniques of building, circular building practices, the co-evolution of buildings and nature, regenerated urban and rural spaces, cultural heritage, products and processes, reinventing places to meet and share, sustainable community building for the arts, modern learning solutions with a light eco-footprint, and educational models.

Further competitions down the line will call for new proposals, which can be funded.

The New European Bauhaus was announced alongside the Renovation Wave Strategy, which aims to at least double renovation rates in the next ten years, leading to higher energy and resource efficiency, and up to 160,000 extra green jobs in the construction sector.

Maria Atkinson, chair of the LafargeHolcim Foundation, emphasised the transformational possibilities for the supply chain too, if designers concentrate on the circular economy.

Fixing social inequality

“Fixing social inequality is inseparable from tackling climate change,” said the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.

“The New European Bauhaus can clearly contribute to the EU Urban Agenda. The focus on sustainability, inclusion, and aesthetics, combined with the citizen-centric approach, fits the broader context of integrated urban development promoted by the Urban Agenda and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

To fix social inequality, Sheela Patel advised that “Empowerment, the right to speak, is something we have to seize and pull down to ourselves. No one gives it to you. We get women of all ages saying they want to stop being victims of other people’s ideas for development. Much development investment doesn’t help poor people. So this dialogue and partnership is critical.”

“We must ask who in any context are most in danger of not being included?” said Gylver. “They must be brought into the conversation. The pandemic has brought millions into extreme poverty. Climate change will bring even more. This makes affordability important.”

What will be the new aesthetic?

It will be nature based, agreed speaker after speaker.

“We must reinvent beauty,” Gylver said. “We don’t want a grey asphalt city. If we focus on physical and mental health, we will use natural materials and incorporate nature. A nature- and people-centred approach will have its own beauty.

“But combining beauty with affordability is hard, and we need to focus on it so we don’t get cheap and ugly. We find hope in what we have learnt from the pandemic about the need for nature and we can apply it to climate change.”

Sassoli, reaffirmed this. “We need to reinvent ourselves. To mark history. To leave something for young people tomorrow. The way we occupy space must be revisited.”

David Thorpe is the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.