I have been reading the book “Mindfully Green” by Stephanie Kaza (thank you Mr. Heukrath!). The book offers a Buddhism-based spiritual guide to whole earth thinking. I was struck by a concept in this book that seems to characterize my work on Blue Design. This is the Zen Buddhism concept of kōan.
In the words of Ms. Kaza, a kōan is “a continually unfolding puzzle that takes more than mental effort to answer. You live with a koan, you wrestle with it, you get stumped by it, you have sudden breakthroughs with it – all with the question burrowing itself into you like an irritating thorn…If you come to answers too quickly, you will have missed the deeper insight hidden in the questions.” Merriam Webster defines kōan as “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.”
Some things have been swirling around in my head lately, spurred by my work on the higher purpose essay. What is the relationship of logical thinking, emotional thinking, creative thinking, and lateral thinking in creating a beautiful, prosperous, and sustainable future? Or more importantly, in living a good and rich life? It occurred to me, given this mood, that Blue Design is a kōan.
And the Blue Design research group’s work has me thinking about the definition of Blue Design. I have a half dozen elevator speeches for it (I will share some of these in a future post), depending on who I am talking to, but I have always struggled to create one, all-encompassing statement of what it is. I used to fixate on that; I felt it was some shortcoming that the philosophy could not be contained. But last winter I moved past this, with posts such as The Path and Tracks. I had begun to understand Blue Design as a kōan, although I had no word for it at the time.
Still, the fact remains, it is difficult to explore a kōan within a business environment, with an architectural firm’s ever-pressing need to find work and differentiate itself in the marketplace. These are things that demand definition and packagable answers. I feel this pressure and the need to contain Blue Design, but as a kōan it resists. Blue Design offers neither easy answers nor a clear view, and this can be disconcerting both within a business and among its clients.
In architectural design, sustainability has been consumed by logic, and I believe that both emotional and lateral thinking have unrealized potential in solving the problems we face. Logical thinking is best in the paradigm of improvement that I write about so often, first in Blue Design version two. Lateral thinking is Blue Design’s response (also contained in version two), that if logical thinking leads us to a future of extreme conservation and severe shortage (of resources), then we must “jump the tracks” using lateral thinking to interact with resources under a different paradigm, as nature does. This is also the key to overcoming peak theory’s seemingly inescapable chain of logic. And emotional thinking is what motivates us; it gives us respite from logic, gives us our personal drive, gives us the depth of what exists behind the curtain, and leads us to unexpected solutions. I can argue that sustainability can be achieved only through changes in the way each and every one of us emotionally views our world, in feeling what is wrong and making those emotions the basis for action. I believe we need more of both lateral and emotional thinking in sustainability’s implementation. How do we do that in a field preoccupied with performance metrics and short term gain? How do we convey the importance of such things to clients?
I don’t know the full answers to these questions, and probably never will. I am drawn to Blue Design as a kōan, something I can engage with for a lifetime and never answer. I feel Blue Design is a success if it draws others into its journey; I am not looking to advertise easy answers, because life and sustainability have no easy answers. Like Blue Design, they continually unfold and evolve. But a kōan teaches us to understand the act of wrestling with the questions has more value than easy answers. And it draws us below the surface of simple logical thinking.
There are products that come from wrestling with a kōan that help to resolve the connection of Blue Design to business endeavors and to sustainability’s implementation. The change in viewpoint that comes with a kōan gives us new insight to existing practices. In my firm, it resulted in deeper questions about passive design and its philosophical implications on the relationship of beauty and performance. In practice, this has resulted in the design of buildings that function at extreme energy efficiency; certainly a marketable product. The explorations of control and variability contained on this site do have implementation strategies, related to fostering a deeper individual relationship with nature so we may use that relationship’s insights to more sensitively guide our technology. And the stylistic implications of control and variability suggest a differentiator in the market for anyone who seizes the opportunity to create an aesthetic driven by sustainability.
But Blue Design remains at its heart, a kōan: uncommon given the fast-paced and solutions-oriented mood of culture today, and critically important to consider.