Of Simplicity and Beauty

So, it’s Christmas Eve. If you are reading this you have probably survived the malls and the shopping chaos. You have probably spent more money than you had planned. You have probably bought a whole lot of stuff that you don’t really like for people who don’t really want more stuff. But this is our tradition, or rather this is what we have been lead to believe is our tradition. Even those of us who do not come from the land of snowy pine trees, jingle bells and basted turkeys have kind of begun to play along with the “season” and obediently do year after year what is expected of us.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the year-end break. I love floating in the pool, not shaving and pottering aimlessly around the backyard in those moth-eaten khaki shorts that my wife told me to throw out some time before the 1994 elections. But, when I am quiet with myself and think about it, I see that what I love most about Christmas holidays is that there is less “stuff”. There is less driving, less school, less work,  less email, less meetings and less clothing (at least in the backyard).
It is perhaps in this time that I slow down my mind enough to ask myself: “If having less makes me so happy, why do I spend so much of my life energy trying to get more? “ A curious question actually, and I am not sure that I can answer it for myself completely in my own life. But what I am more interested to talk to you about in this column today, is our cities and the buildings in them.  Because it seems to me that the ways in which we have complicated our lives with more and more stuff, is reflected back at us in the shape and form of our cities and buildings that grow more and more complex, less and less efficient and further and further away from the ideal of “natural beauty” that remains embedded somewhere deep inside each and every one of us.
So, what I am dwelling on in my mind these holidays is the question: “Can we find beauty in the process of simplifying our cities and the buildings in them?”.  For me, this quest for simplicity must be a one that understands the city as a living function whole; perhaps in the same way that the beauty of the flower or the butterfly comes out if the simplicity of the design solution as a response to the “whole”. The design of the honey bee colony seems to me to be the simplest, most efficient way of pollinating flowers while feeding honey to young bees. Therein lays its beauty. But our cities are not like this. Our buildings are not like this. Rather, they invent complexity. They reflect in-elegant clumsy solutions of our busy cluttered minds.
The most efficient and simple way to put bread on the table is surely not to be a worker in a giant bread factory in order to earn just enough wages to buy bread. The most efficient and simple way to deal with rainwater can surely not be to pay taxes to build a bureaucracy to run a massive storm water systems to lead perfectly good drinking water off our roofs through complicated concrete channels to the sea, while catching other rainwater deep in the mountains in expensive dams and piping it hundreds of kilometres right to your toilet where you flush it into yet another pipe that takes the water away again to be collected in one big smelly lake before being dumped again, in the sea.
No, of course it does not make sense. But we have become so tired from working so hard to accumulate more “stuff” that we have forgotten that it even had to make sense in the first place. But before you think that I am going on about bread making or water reticulation, I am not. I am asking myself for example: “ Is there a simpler more beautiful way to educate my children?”, “Is there a simpler more beautiful way to provide quality food for my family?”, “Is there a simpler more beautiful way to provide shelter for my family?” “Is there a simpler, more beautiful way to see to it that my family is clothed?”
The sad truth is that I, like you, know that there are simpler and more beautiful ways to do all these things. We also know therefore that there are simpler design solutions for the buildings and cities that must accommodated these things.
 I, like you know, that if we were to have the courage to change, we would be much happier people on a much healthier planet.
 But……where to find this courage? Perhaps it is here, in my backyard somewhere? Perhaps in the cool shade of the Avocado tree?

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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