Intrinsically political. Beauty in social sustainability

Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency
9 min readFeb 23, 2018


Benjamin Loyauté, The Astounding Eyes of Syria, 2016 © Benjamin Loyauté 2016

Until the very recent years, the notion of beauty has been overlooked and neglected in design. Perhaps against the odds, practitioners of societally and politically engaged design, art and architecture are slowly beginning to imply beauty as one of the key elements in their practices.


Until the very recent years, the notion of beauty has been overlooked and neglected in design. Beauty has been considered superficial, and it has been suppressed into a tool for marketing. It has been doomed to be only something for the eye — decoration, beautification, and luxury that money can buy. In its subjectivity, beauty has been condemned useless and vain.

In 2012, Dutch designer and entrepreneur Dingeman Kuilman reflected on the neglect of beauty in design in an essay ‘Aesthetic Awakening.’ In the essay, which was also published at Works That Work magazine with title ‘Custodians of Beauty’ in 2013, Kuilman traces the disregard back to the World Wars that shook Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

“For [poet and painter Lucebert (1924–1994)] and the rest of his generation, beauty had become something unfathomable,” he writes. “The old trinity of truth, goodness and beauty was no more. Their experience of the aesthetic had been upset by a crippling awareness of futility.”

The political and economic situation in Europe today has even raised questions of whether the world is, in some way, in the midst of the Third World War. Radicalization, uncertain economic situation, masses of fleeing people and threatening environmental issues create an atmosphere in which it perhaps wouldn’t be a surprise if the notion of beauty was still neglected. If beauty was rejected during the years in which design was understood to carry an aura of luxury, why would it bear any more meaning now, when design has taken a leap towards contributing to societal challenges?

Against the odds, the notion of beauty actually is reviving in design and architecture within generations that were not directly affected by the 20th century World Wars. Often today, the notion is also attached to societal and political contexts of design.

Lukas Franciskiewicz, Taste of Light, 2013 © Lukas Franciskiewitz and Daniel Tauber

In 2015, Biennale Internationale Design St. Étienne in France brought together ten exhibitions around the theme ‘Les Sens du Beau — Experience of Beauty.’ Especially ‘Hypervital,’ an exhibition curated by Benjamin Loyauté, dug deep into social and political issues. In 2016, also the Smithsonian Design Museum Cooper Hewitt in New York set the focus of Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial into the theme of ‘Beauty.’

In architecture, Aga Khan award winner, architect Raul Pantaleo speaks and writes strongly about the notion of beauty as an element of psychological recovery. His Venice-based architecture office TAMassociati works on projects such as hospitals and social housing often in conflict areas around the world. Similarly, beauty is one of the corner stones for awarded Boston-based architecture office MASS Design Group that designs and builds schools, hospitals and community centres around the world, many of them in crisis areas. An Italian architecture magazine San Rocco will publish an issue dedicated to ‘Pure Beauty’ later in 2016 in quest for new parameters of beauty in architecture. German artists’ collective Center for Political Beauty works on humanitarian and political art projects with a perspective of moral beauty. Also Pascal Gielen and Niels Van Tomme’s 2015 book ‘Aesthetic Justice — Intersecting Artistic and Moral Perspective’ investigates the same issues.

Center for Political Beauty. Kindertransport des Bundes, 2014.

Based on these examples only, a quest of redefining and reappropriating beauty in context of design and architecture seems to have appeared in the recent years.

Quality of Encounters

In context of social and societal design, beauty can take a material or immaterial form. Several researches show that aesthetic and sensorial elements of an environment contribute to human wellbeing. In everyday material environments, the notion of beauty seems to come down to quality and functionality of the environments. As architecture office Snøhetta’s co-founder, architect Kjetil Trædahl Thorsen states, quality of everyday environments can trigger awareness and trust in users, encourage to take care of the spaces, and contribute to the users’ experience of being respected. For architecture office MASS Design Group, beauty as a quality of an environment can also encourage users to take ownership of their environments. “That is the ultimate sustainability,” states Alan Ricks, an architect and co-founder of the office.

In immaterial societal contexts of design — in designing encounters, interaction and connectedness between people — the notion of beauty turns into questions of hope, respect, dignity, morals, reciprocity, and humanity. Even though Dingeman Kuilman writes about abandonment of the trinity of truth, goodness and beauty, immaterial beauty in societal design can perhaps be rightly defined as ‘goodness.’

A variety of researches show that both material and immaterial encounters with one’s immediate environment contribute to human well-being. Social and societal design inherently focuses on encounters with one’s material surroundings and fellow humans, as well as quality of the interactions.

In the recent years, designers have focused in an increasing number on participatory community projects, and a PhD program TRADERS by LUCA School of Arts aims in training art and design researchers in participatory projects in public space. The program, which was started in 2013, will run until 2017.

In the past couple of years, many of the initiated design-led participatory projects can be at least partially traced to the recent political events both in the Middle East as well as in France and Belgium. Year 2015 saw a flow of refugees to Europe, which triggered a set of social, designer-led projects, such as Studio Refugee or Cinemaximiliaan, to aid in integrating refugees to their new environments and societies. After the March 2016 attacks, people in Brussels have gathered to the city centre for nights to discuss about recent events — not to protest, but to understand and to make a difference. Make.Brussels initiative calls for proposals for community and public space projects in Brussels to improve the city and to strengthen the unity of the citizens.

The recent wave of community projects aim in bringing people together as well as encouraging and facilitating citizens to make initiatives that affect their own lives. The projects intend to create a dialogue and connectedness between people. In an uncertain and hyper-individualized society, these communal acts have a potential to create a feeling of caring and connection — a safety network in the midst of the uncertainties faced in today’s society. They also have potential in contributing to one’s sense of place and belonging, connectedness, appropriation, as well as curiosity and tolerance towards social diversity. At best, the projects can contribute to the aforementioned values of immaterial beauty.

Design for Meta-Design

Whereas not all the current initiated social and community projects are design-led, many are initiated by designers. Is there a difference between these two, or should there be?

As previously mentioned, aspects of beauty in societal design projects can be understood to come down to quality of encounters with both material and immaterial elements of a society. On the other hand, designers are supposed to be educated as specialists in understanding and defining function and form that aim in creating a desired user experience. If experience of high quality adds to users’ experience of respect in their everyday surroundings, is a role of a designer that of an educated facilitator of quality?

In social and societal projects, a designer can take a role as a facilitator of material or immaterial quality, or both. Perhaps the first is that of a designer in a more traditional meaning of the word as a form-giver, and the second that of a meta-designer, who aims in (re)creating social, political or economic frameworks of design practice. In one way or another, both types of a designer develop and guard quality of material or immaterial encounters in their practices.

However, in many of today’s socially or societally conscious design projects that can be understood as meta-design projects, these two seem to reject each other. Perhaps this leads back to the reasons of rejecting the colloquial notion of beauty that has been prevalent in the past decades — that of understanding beauty as related to marketing forces, vanity, and wealth. Perhaps in projects that are rooted in grass-root activism, aesthetic material decisions are considered seemingly futile. Focusing on the content — facilitating, enabling and bringing people together — is a priority, and intentional use of grass-root aesthetics can be considered easy-to-approach and even sympathetic from the perspective of the participant.

Aesthetics of a community project can also be approached from perspective of quality as respect to the users — in case of a participatory, socially oriented design project, the participants. For some participants in small-scale projects, the grass-root, adhoc aesthetics probably work perfectly well. But, do the aesthetics work to attract wider audiences or do they expel them, and thus maintain the projects on a small-scale grass-root level?

Matters of Communication

If well-designed material form and function — material beauty — contributes to the very same elements of human well-being than immaterial elements of the projects, both forms of beauty can be considered equally important. Also, if the desired aim behind the community projects is to make a change in the society by spreading the action, the material form of the projects should also appeal to wide audiences.

A good example of this is Brussels-based architecture collective Rotor. Even though working on material flows instead of social sustainability issues, Rotor transforms the content — salvaged and recycled building materials — into aesthetically appealing entities for exhibitions and publications. This enables them to reach significantly wider audiences for the purpose than they otherwise the most likely would.

TAMassociati, Qoratu Clinic, 2015

In an interview, architect Raul Pantaleo of architecture office TAMassociati also gives an example of the unity of the two forms of beauty that contribute to human well-being. TAMassociati built a small clinic on a refugee camp in Khanaqin in northern Iraq. The clinic physically functions just as well or better than its usual equivalent clinics in the refugee camps, but TAMassociati paid more attention to the aesthetics of the building than usually is done in the circumstances. The building, located at a secondary entrance of the camp, soon turned the gate into a main gate when significant guests arrived to the camp. The small clinic became the pride of the camp and the first thing that was wanted to be shown to the guests.

Soon later came a call from another refugee camp. They wanted a copy of the clinic to be built on their camp. The primary aim of the building was to cater to the well-being of the users — patients and staff — but the aesthetics also made the well-functioning type of a clinic desirable elsewhere, thus contributing to further well-being in other locations. Humans’ innate need for imitation of beauty becomes a medium for the purpose in both form and function.

At the moment, questions of designing encounters, quality, communication and distribution of meta-design projects are relevant from the perspective of social sustainability. Even now and perhaps even more in the future through changing demographics and possible further masses of relocating people, these actions can contribute to further mutual understanding and coexistence of individual citizens, cultures and religions.

Together, these forms and roles of beauty can contribute to wider social sustainability. No matter whether notion of beauty is discussed in material or immaterial contexts of society and human well-being, beauty is inherently political.


The interview is a part of ‘Beauty in Exile,’ a research project by design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Beauty in Exile’ looks into the meanings of beauty, design and architecture in societal contexts.

The essay was originally published as ‘Intrinsiek Politiek — Schoonheid in Sociale Duurzaamheid’ in Kwintessens 97 magazine in 2016.



KNAPTON, Sarah. Beautiful urban architecture boosts health as much as green spaces. The Telegraph 28 December 2015.
KUILMAN, Dingeman. Custodians of Beauty. Works That Work, Issue 1, Winter 2013. The Netherlands.
KUILMAN, Dingeman. Aesthetic Awakening. 25 August 2012. The Netherlands.
LEHTINEN, Heini. Snøhetta — Subtle Shapeshifters. TLmagazine, 24 October 2015.
LUBELL, Sam. How MASS Design Group Uses Architecture to Empower Communities. Curbed, 12 November 2015.
PANTALEO, Raul. 9 November 2015. [Interview.] TAMassociati, Venice, Italy.



Heini Lehtinen
RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Specialist of societal impact of architecture. Co-editor of book ‘Studio Time: Future Thinking in Art and Design’ (2018).