Does It Really Matter What It Looks Like?

Posted on September 7, 2007 by

Author: Darin Fenger
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #136

Daniel Greenberg admits he’s secretly thrilled every time a visitor to Sirius Community in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, raves how the community isn’t just interesting and inspirational—it’s beautiful, too. “I’ve always held a hidden satisfaction when someone comes to visit and says ‘Oh, I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful! I was expecting a hippie commune with half-finished outhouses … I could live here.’”
Fran Hart of Heartwood Cohousing in Bayfield, Colorado agrees. “I personally feel delighted when I see what a beautiful place we’ve created and by the feedback we receive. I know others feel the same.”
And beauty in community does go further than skin deep.
Nurturing the Soul?
Daniel Greenberg and many communitarians around the world stress that focusing on the aesthetics of a community’s buildings and lands works far more magic than simply pleasing the eye. These folks make the case that beauty in community—whether it’s a tidy yard or smartly-appointed common area— soothes and feeds the communal soul, making color, creativity, and cleanliness much more than a pretty detail.
“Our surroundings always tell stories that can stretch or constrain us,” he continues. “Aesthetics means more than what color we are going to paint the doorknob. Paying attention to how our environment affects us and how we can manifest our highest ideals in our physical surroundings is an art, a spiritual path, and a very practical means of building community. Put that way, it’s hard to overrate.”
Imagine the surprise of a prospective member who has read about a community’s dedication as spiritual stewards of the Earth, only to find junked-out buses and piles of garbage standing in for sacred space and altars.
“People come here to get renewed, and beauty plays a part in that,” adds Amy Sophia Marashinsky, also at Sirius. “Likewise a desolate landscape can create disconnection and possibly even depression.”
Many communitarians say creative order and artistic design are ways we can manifest our spiritual selves in a way that’s both holy and a driving force behind our community’s health and happiness—and wholeness.
“This physical world is an aspect of God’s creation, and as such, we honor it,” asserts Jaya Helin, longtime member of Ananda Village in Nevada City, California, and Ananda East in Rhode Island, and currently cofounder of an Ananda community in India. “On an experiential level, beauty uplifts the spirit and stimulates joy. On a subtle level, beauty reminds us of the ‘astral realms’ from which I believe our soul descends between physical births. I think most would agree that beauty, harmony, and elevated aesthetics are qualities associated with a refined consciousness and that their cultivation attracts and stimulates these qualities within.”
In many ways, some communitarians say, a community acts like a giant canvas and all members serve as its artists. A German communitarian tells us, “Everyone is an artist and when we build something, we always combine practicality with beauty. Beauty is a reflection of love, is a balm for our souls, and lightens our mood and energy. To see a beautifully designed bathroom, for example, creates joy and delight.”
She adds that her community does a good job valuing art and beauty, all the while honoring its divergent visions. “We can have long discussions about the color of a wall of a public building, for example, and the tastes of the community can differ a lot. But it is more a question of how to do it and not so much about ‘if’ at all.”
“Beauty and aesthetics are communicating something to us—at minimum something about life being worth living, and at best, inspires us about how to live,” says Hank Obermayer of his community, Mariposa Grove in Oakland, California, where the community focus is on arts and social change.
Is It Practical?
And pretty can be practical, too.
“People and cultures value what is beautiful, even if attaining it is elusive. When a building is beautiful, it’s more likely to be maintained and not fall apart,” says architect Chuck Durrett, who with his architect partner Katie McCamant brought cohousing to North America in 1988 with their book CoHousing. “Every cohousing group I know hates maintenance,” he adds. “So make your buildings beautiful so they will be more readily maintained and therefore require less maintenance in the long run.”
Aesthetics also drive how people will use a space. Beauty, some say, actually plays a role in building community. “We have made common space and common grounds pleasing, while keeping private space simple,” said Jaya Helin of Ananda. “This encourages people to use common areas, thus promoting community interaction. If you have a beautiful green lawn, children will come to play. Parents will follow. Community happens.”
Lisa Ress of Shadowlake Village Cohousing in Blacksburg, Virginia, finds this also. “The beauty of our common areas and of many of our gardens makes residents feel good, feel relaxed, and creates a sense of well-being. I also believe that the beauty has enhanced the pride we feel in the community and thus enhanced our commitment to it.”
Like the folks who focus on the spiritual aspects, community organizers agree that public aesthetics render a powerful and useful effect on the human soul. Some say there’s nothing better to assure happy and peaceful meetings and organizing than to undertake that work amid pleasing surroundings. “I have found that the aesthetics and design of meeting spaces are among the decisive factors for the success of a meeting,” says Kosha Joubert of Ecovillage Sieben Linden in Germany. If I want to build trust quickly in a group, I want to make sure that they can relax, and people don’t relax easily in surroundings that don’t please their senses.”
We Like It!
Complaints about fellow residents who don’t always support beauty and cleanliness may not be rare within intentional communities, but, for the most part, residents usually seem to give their communities a pretty positive score overall. In fact, of the thirty communitarians who responded to our survey for this article, not one came out and lambasted their community for being ugly or even close to that. Most actually praised some real concrete efforts toward beauty, and these comments far outnumbered the gentle gripes.
“Lebensgarten is a pleasant place to live and visitors are quite taken aback at what we have achieved in creating serene and lively surroundings,” declares Declan Kennedy, an architect and longtime resident of this German ecovillage. “It is a constant reminder that we retrofitted an old barracks that only 20 years ago could almost be categorized as, and was even called by the local population, ‘the slum up there’.”
Lebensgarten even recently formed a small committee of people with design backgrounds to oversee local aesthetics. “There is still a lot to be done,” Kennedy adds. “You’ll still find corners of the community that jar and make your hair stand on end!”
Community efforts range from emphasizing attractive building design to simply maintaining buildings and landscaping and keeping buildings clean. In many cases residents say it’s the existing, natural beauty of a place that pleases their eyes and souls anyway.
“The daily experience of that (natural) beauty is undoubtedly one of the great reservoirs of our community strength and resilience,” responds J. Brush of Cedar Moon (formerly Tryon Life Community Farm) in Portland, Oregon. “And then, walking among the structures we’ve built and gardens we’ve grown is a living experience of the story of our community. It’s as beautiful as we are.”
Martie Weatherly, a resident of Liberty Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C. praises her community’s dedication toward landscaping and gardening. “We have financed some extras through volunteer donations such as the circle garden with benches and a fountain. We had donations for the trees in the orchard we planted. This really is a beautiful place to live.”
Lotte Meyerson voices her pride in the prize-winning gardens at Westwood Cohousing in Asheville, North Carolina, while residents at both Shawdowlake Village in Virginia and New View Cohousing in Acton, Massachusetts, laud their community’s beautiful landscaping.
Some communities even want to make their immediate wider community more visually attractive. Lois Arkin, cofounder of Los Angeles Eco-Village, told us how residents at LAEV have worked to counteract being near a “rather ugly” strip mall and an extremely busy street by painting and decorating the intersection in front of their apartment buildings and working with the city to make their street a Slow Street Project.
Not Aesthetic Enough!
Still, there are complaints, but almost always mixed with a little praise.
“People use their front porches and decks like basements and create awful messes outside their units, but on the other hand we have lovely gardens,” reports Sharon Villines of Tacoma Village in Washington, D.C. “Most people do not want to spend money on the furniture in the common house so it looks like a thrift shop, which drives me nuts, but on the other hand our common house is one of the cleanest in all of cohousing.”
Daniel Greenberg at Sirius took issue with an all-too-common community aesthetic he describes as “early hippie accidental.” “There was a particular architectural theme in the many 60s communities that continues in some today,” Greenberg says. “It has two rules: no two elements can match and nothing can work too well, because that would be too ‘professional.’ While this aesthetic can come across as creative, anti-consumerist, and perhaps even empowering, it can also be viewed as chaotic and amateurish.”
Is It Economical? Ecological?
Some communities may want to be more beautiful, for example, but are faced with the reality of working with inherited buildings far from most people’s liking and sometimes a bit too far gone to truly dress up much.
“Living in ‘legacy’ structures that do not truly represent the aesthetic values of this community is difficult,” observes J. Brush of Cedar Moon. “Challenges like use of space and keeping the kitchen clean are exacerbated by design choices and aesthetics we would not have made. But in those situations we make the best of it and our community soul is calmer and wiser.”
Sometimes going that extra step and making a resource or piece of infra-structure pleasing to the eye simply costs too much or demands too much time. “We started off putting ecological considerations first,” notes Kosha Joubert of Ecovillage Sieben Linden in Poppau, Germany. “If, by chance, the most feasible solution with the lowest ecological footprint was also beautiful, we were delighted, but this was often not the case.”
“Sometimes pressing issues take over—the need to conserve water, electric power, auto fuel—and these take precedence in discussion and action,” comment Adele and Eugene Jaroslaw of Westwood Cohousing.
“With limited resources, we still struggle about when to prioritize beauty and when other things,” says Hank Obermayer at Mariposa Grove.
Jaya Helin of Ananda agrees that the basic issue of resources sometimes must dictate priorities. “We may all agree that beauty is a good thing, but how do we implement this and how much time, money, and energy should we invest in aesthetics when so many other needs must be addressed?” he asks. “I think we have all faced this.”
But he adds that Ananda communities are still focusing on aesthetics more and more—when the situation allows. “In the early years of each Ananda community, when projects by necessity demanded low cost, our emphasis was upon cleanliness, removal of disorder, restoration, and lots of new paint. As time passed to allow new construction, improved landscapes or remodeling, aesthetics became a component of our desires.”
“I guess I’m one of those artists in the community who thinks that no matter what the cost, safety, or other factors,” asserts Elana Kann at Westwood, “there’s always a way to bring a sense of beauty into the design, as well as being sensitive to other considerations.”
A Distraction?
Still others feel that even if resources abound, getting too caught up in aesthetics may only prove to be an unhealthy distraction from more pressing issues.
“I personally do not give a high value to aesthetics, but appreciate that others here do,” said Dana Snyder Grant at New View Cohousing. “I value simplicity over beauty. I personally care much more about our relationships with one another and how to nurture them and our community connections.”
Even Jaya Helin at Ananda, a strong advocate of finding spirit in beauty, adds a few words of caution. “If we love God and see this world as His/Her creation, it is important to remember that the focus of our devotion should be on the Creator, not the Creation.”
But perhaps the greatest problem of all is defining beauty, an issue that dredges up an often-heard cliché: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Communitarians report struggling with respecting everyone’s individual needs and visions, most often ending up with a good and balanced agreement or compromise.
“Given its subjective nature, there are bound to be conflicts over aesthetics in any community,” says Daniel Greenberg at Sirius. “What one person considers ‘cluttered,’ another sees as ‘lived in.’ What one person considers ‘Zen,’ another sees as ‘sterile.’ Coming to a consensus around community aesthetics often brings up deep-seated assumptions and world-views.”
A Tyrant?
Some folks even see the push toward beauty as simply being a materialist vision driven by group bias, a sort of carryover from mainstream society that could threaten the unanimous consent of community.
“Sometimes ‘aesthetics’ is used as an indicator for a small range of values and design practices shared by a dominant cultural elite,” notes J. Brush at Cedar Moon. “Imposing any external set of values on a community will not effectively improve its health or function.”
Evan Richardson at Westwood Cohousing agrees, stressing how an anxious push “to look a certain way” threatens to make residents feel squashed or controlled. “To me, this is an instant community drain because the net result is that some folks are asked to not be authentic in order to successfully live in community,” she says. “Often the ‘lack of room’ for true diversity creates a drive in others to grumble about aesthetics being overrated, when the truth may be that what is really overrated is one person’s idea that their definition or style is synonymous with the community’s definition or style.”
Evan continues: “What is healthy is each of us learning to give up enough ego and control to make room for each other.”
But others still stress that tackling such challenging issues can push emotions a bit —but it is worth it all the same. Jaya Helin reminds us that taking up lively debate in the search of something beautiful will surely find just that in an attractive mix of aesthetics and growth.
“Finding that point of common agreement can sometimes be contentious,” he says, “but this is the art of living in community.”

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