Reflections on the Intentional Spaces Summit
Hello Aesthetics People!
I recently attended the inaugural Intentional Spaces Summit in Washington DC on November 9 and 10, 2023. I was invited to facilitate lunchtime discussions on each of these days. And it was delightful to meet so many of you in person and to make many new friends and colleagues!
Through formal conversations from the stage to casual conversations over lunch and drinks, we connected and discussed a plethora of issues and ideas surrounding the impact of the built environment on human well-being.
As humans spend about 90% of their time in the built environment, understanding the way that spaces affect us has reached critical importance. It should not be limited to architects and scientists to alleviate the problems arising from our move inside. We are all responsible for our individuals actions, but also to explore solutions together.
I have a few thoughts after attending this summit:
Philosophers are vital to this work and these conversations. Yes, as a philosopher, I am biased. But many of the topics discussed included human flourishing, intentionality, the infinite (transcendence and immanence), and the human experience or condition. All of these concepts or topics have a robust history of analysis in the philosophical traditions. In fact, it was a philosopher (Alexander Baumgarten) who brought the term “aesthetics” into its modern usage in the year 1735.
Related to my first reflection above, Sally Augustin, during the final panel discussion, proclaimed, “We don’t have to quantify everything. We shouldn’t disparage qualitative arguments.” Evidence is certainly useful, but we cannot lose the human-side in a sea of data. Sometimes our intuitions (that come from experience) are incredibly useful. After all, science has not settled everything as we witness(ed) scientists disagreeing about various things.
Some of what we discussed should be construed as human rights. Buildings that circulate stale air deprive people of a basic human need for quality air. As a basic human good, aesthetic experience should be possible or conceivable, to some degree, in all buildings. Ugly buildings diminish our humanity.
hierarchyof needs was not fully present at this summit, it’s implicit in a lot of what people consider important. And it’s about time that we dismiss the hierarchy as archaic. It’s true that people cannot survive without food and water, and they can survive without paintings on their wall. However, why would we want to concern ourselves with only the bare minimum? We should want people to flourish.
Commuting is surely a factor, but it seems likely that people don’t want to return to their offices because the lighting, furniture, colors, and atmosphere is not inviting.
A diverse set of voices is crucial to moving forward. People view things from their own perspective, which is fairly obvious. So, even if we ignore overt discrimination and assume people have the best intentions, someone or group will always be left out, if we don’t have more people in these conversations. Equity and justice need to be part of the beginning by including people in these conversations.
Design is not neutral. Designing for humans is hard. We need to work together to design our way to a better world.
[The above are meant as reflections, or thoughts in progress. Each one of these ideas could be developed into a longer essay and explanation, but I wanted to lay down the foundation for future conversations here.]
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “We fly to beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature.” Albert Camus wrote: “Man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard.” And Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “Beauty will save the world.” Wise thinkers of the past knew the power of aesthetics, and somehow we consumed ourselves with efficiency and function at the expense of a basic human drive to experience aesthetically.
What I’ve been up to.
Here are my latest articles for BeautyMatter: Subversive Beauty. I’m currently working on an essay about the grotesque body versus classical beauty.
I’m part of the collaborative network for the Artful Banyan Tree, empowering individuals and organizations to reimagine the future through art and aesthetics. Founder Bella Zhang and I are creating a workshop about developing creativity at work through art and aesthetics.
I am nearing the end of a first draft on a small book project that addresses the question: Is Your Business Beautiful?