The Windmill And The Lighthouse

Image source: flickr

Image source: flickr

On the way out to Provincetown from Boston, a few weeks ago, I noticed a sole windmill on the shore, largely ignored by the passengers on the ferry. However, on the other side I saw people rush over with digital cameras to snap at a lighthouse on the other side. I made a mental note to get some pictures on the way back. Sure enough on my return, the lighthouse drew out the cameras, even in misty and slightly choppy waters.

In a time of soaring energy and fuel costs, plans to build modern windmills are decried as wrecking the “natural” landscape of the Jersey Shore as well as Nantucket Sound. T Boone Pickens, the legendary Texas oil business man, is placing bets on wind, investing millions into wind farms in Texas. In an interview in Fast Company magazine, he has an interesting quote:

And you’ll do all this on your beautiful 68,000-acre ranch?

“I’m not going to have the windmills on my ranch. They’re ugly. The hub of each turbine is up 280 feet, and then you have a 120-foot radius on the blade. It’s the size of a 40-story building.”

I appreciate Picken’s overall strategy that this country needs to shift away from dependence on oil and carbon-based fuel and towards sustainable and clean energy sources. But it’s too bad that he has such a distasteful view of the aesthetics windmill.

On the other hand, the lighthouse is an interesting piece of architecture. Once a crucial aid in navigating the waters at night or in storms, they usefulness is challenged by advances in GPS, telecommunications, and mapping. However, they remain camera worthy icons of the sea and coasts. Preservation societies have been formed to assist in their upkeep and some lighthouses have been designated as history buildings. I wonder if the original construction of lighthouses were challenged for corrupting the natural landscape. Or if they were largely ignored at telephone poles are.

I do not think that there is something inherent to the lighthouse that makes it more palatable to the mainstream cultural aesthetics, because the traditional wooden windmill have the same elevated sense of historic and aesthetic value.The funny thing is that I find windmills really beautiful, especially many of them in row. Without any post-modern irony, these structures conjure allusions from Boeing to Walter de Maria to Don Quixote.

How can the modern wind farm reach the same level of good will that lighthouses and wooden windmills are afforded? Is it just that they icons of another time, having lasted long enough to achieve a romantic cultural status? Are the protests even worth arguing? New proposes are suggesting that windmills can be moved further off-shore and out of sight. This sounds more expensive to operate and build that ones closer or on the shore. I do know that a high percentage of power is lost in transport. Aesthetics have an economic and social cost.

The relationship between the windmill and the lighthouse is emblematic of a larger question that been occupying brain space for over the past year, which has to do with building an ethic of design. Many people and groups including Buckminster Fuller (more on him soon) and designers in the Bauhaus movement have approached this idea, or least defined an intention for design to improve lives. However, we are at at turning point, where the stakes seem much higher and the need for ethical design seems more relevant.

Can a framework exist for an ethical approach to design that would balance aesthetics, sustainability, equality, and empowerment? If it doesn’t yet exist, what kind of structures would it entail? What can we provide that goes beyond a suggested philosophy? Can the advancement of technological tools and computational metrics can be utilized to guide the ethical designer?

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