Design Has No Boundaries Conference
Queensland University of Technology
26-29 September 1995


I was awakened here at Ivory's Rock this morning at first light by the most incredible sounds, and spent one of the most delightful hours of my life from first light to dawn, listening to the birds. The sense of space, silence, and a wonderful emptiness was utterly unique in music I've heard. It's a music which listens. Nowhere else have I ever heard birds wait until noone else is singing - until silence has again deepened - to begin their song. One bird's song would go out, and then fade into the silence. And then another song would come back from afar. I was mesmerized! So, Peter and the other conference organizers, thank you for making this possible.

This is a precious thing I've heard nowhere else on earth. And incredibly fragile. It would take little of the ceaseless noise of our urban culture to destroy it utterly - even a couple of Land Rovers going cross-country daily at this special hour. Things we live with can become so commonplace that we're not aware of their uniqueness and power. Sometimes it takes a foreign eye or ear to remind us of what we have, what we stand to lose, and what we have available as a basis of a unique and wonderful local spirit of place.

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I have no universal answers to anything that is in front of us. All I can share today is what I am. I'm here, actually, to ask for help - because I am in a place today where I feel an immense need to understand and to resolve a brokenness inside us. It is a brokenness that I can approach and communicate intellectually, but that isn't the level on which it exists inside us. The whole society that we live in is living out that same dream.

The dream we live is literally insane - in that it flies in total disregard of the laws of nature, mathematics, and life. It seems the one basic dream of our society is unbounded growth in numbers and appetites. How exponential growth can exist in a finite material world is incomprehensible to me. It will inevitably and soon come crashing down around us as it pushes against the limits of natural law.

I don't understand how we can continue to believe it. I talk to people intellectually on this and they agree - yes, of course it can't - we can't put twice as many people in here tomorrow and twice as many again the next day and the next. But somehow this agreement doesn't reach the level in our hearts where we can let go of such fantasies.

It isn't the numbers themselves that represent the greatest harm, though that will be fatal enough. It's the damage inside us that happens when we allow ourselves to be separated from the whole web of the rest of life and to assume the right of taking from other people, from the future, and from the rest of nature to satisfy limitless desires for material things. This dream lies at such a deep and intractable level in us that I don't know how to reach it, and I need your help.

This attitude towards growth contains a heart of violence. It is the basis of our agriculture and medicine that we go out and "kill those bugs". We "kill those microbes". It doesn't work that way, of course. All we do is help to breed much more virulent forms of such organisms. Our taking of things from the earth, other life, and other people, is based on a similar kind of violence. And then we wonder where the violence comes from in our cities and are puzzled by it.

We can't resolve that poison we're creating in our culture without dealing with the root values deep inside us that are allowing this kind of violence to occur. It is an attitude of taking, as opposed to an attitude of giving - and it is totally alien to the basis of life. I remember the story from years ago of the bird and the thistle. The thistle creates the seed which feeds the bird. Then the bird in the process spreads the seeds of the thistle. That is a means of survival and self-perpetuation. But it is also a giving, and that kind of relationship is a totally different kind of economics than what we base our world on. It is a giving that ensures the continuation of all life.

I never would have dreamed a few years ago that I would be standing here today to talk about the need for a sacred society. My knees were shaking the first time I got up and talked even about sacred building. Such ideas belonged to "crazies", and had no business in the real business of life. Yet speaking of it makes it permissible, and I see the relief in people's eyes that finally we are beginning to confront real issues.

We have many urban problems in our country - whether alcoholism, abuse, drugs, homelessness, or mental illness. None of these things are separate. They are all symptoms of a disease of the spirit. They all arise from lack of self-esteem, mutual respect, or lack of being of value to the community and the world around us. All these things - alcohol, hallucinogenic drugs, or people less powerful than us - have always existed in every culture. But there hasn't been that overpowering weakness and inability we have to free ourselves from their attraction.

When I graduated from architecture school twenty-five years ago, I felt that what I was designing was empty. Functionally it was fine, but it somehow was unsatisfying inside. Everyone else's work I looked at had the same problems, the same emptiness. Ever since then, I have tried to find ways to create something which is satisfying. I found it necessary to work through a lot of mundane things - dealing with energy, technology, economics, etc. - to get away from our consumption of resources and into patterns which were simple and worked with nature rather than against it.

I started out dealing with renewable energy because we I we had to first release ourselves from dependence on nuclear power before we could acknowledge the need to separate ourselves from it as a destructive weapon. The result was discovery of wonderful possibilities in renewable energy and energy efficiency and the sensitivity they required and brought forth in our design. In terms of technology I did a lot of work in learning the difference between tools and machines - learning which things support our lives as we work and manifest good things.

What we are really talking about here is the mind versus the heart. The mind is like an engine in a car - a wonderfully powerful thing. But without a steering wheel, and without a road map of where we want to go, all it does is careen all over the place causing destruction. We have a good engine, but there's still the rest of this vehicle we need to create to reach a good future.

So working through energy, technology, economics, and other issues, it has finally reached the point where we can build in ways which are right on the material level. Now we can begin to really deal with where this emptiness comes form. We held a series of "Spirit of Place" conferences in the States over the last five or six years. In them, we discovered that in almost every culture and individual, some place or something is held sacred.

It turns out that there is almost no universality in the places themselves which causes that veneration. With some of them, perhaps in the case of Ivory's Rock here, there are geomagnetic fields in the earth which create a specialness. Sometimes there is a historical importance - a place where the Buddha reached enlightenment - in the reasons why people hold places sacred. But it seems the essential element is that the process of holding something sacred is what creates the sacredness itself. It comes from us. It is the process of loving something deeply enough that we keep it from destruction and ensure its wellness. It is a lesson we learn early in relationships with other people - that we can't be happy ourselves if the people that we are closest to are unwell or unhappy.

This issue of our happiness should not be divided by our skin, which is an unimportant division in this world. We have to consider ourselves part of everything, and everything a part of ourselves. We have to look at the wellness and happiness of everything - including ourselves - if we want to be happy. A lot of our unease comes out of the violence we perpetrate in our ways of "taking" from others. We've had to close ourselves off from the world around us because we can't stand to acknowledge the pain in it which we have caused. To heal ourselves, regain openness to others, and reconnect ourselves with the rest of the universe, we have to begin to act in ways that are not causing that kind of pain.

When we know something well, we come to love it. When we love something deeply, we come to know it deeply. In either case, we begin to hold it inviolate to prevent it from harm. To me, that is simply stating what sacredness is. The act of holding something sacred is simply that of honouring - of giving, respecting, ensuring the well-being of things in whatever we do.

Honouring is the opposite of what we do today. There is a tradition in the Amish culture in the States called shunning. It is a type of punishment in which people are not incarcerated, not put in gaol - they just cease to exist to the rest of the community. Nobody talks to them. They are just not there. This is a horrible kind of punishment - but exactly what we do every day to people, to places and to ourselves in the process of our violent taking from them.

Our surroundings, and all our actions, are like mirrors - they reflect immediately and intensely whatever deep values we hold inside. Our surroundings become a tool for healing when we can create places which do embody life-supporting values. In the process of doing this, we can show that in whatever we do, we can create this kind of sacredness and honouring. In doing so, we change the rules of the game.

We were talking earlier about tribes, land and fishing issues. These still were being resolved on the playing field of the conventional secular culture. In that context we may be able to bring more ecological information into the decision making. We may be able to ensure a little longer survival of some of the fish that they depend on. But to truly succeed, we ultimately have to change the whole playing field. We have to say, "No, we will not discuss it on that basis. We're going to determine the issue solely on the basis of what is sacred to our culture, why it is sacred, and what this means to our survival and well-being." These have to be acknowledged and be the basis of the discussion.

When we start looking at place in this way, we can begin to start thinking of design in the context of giving rather than taking. In doing so, we begin to turn all of our values right side up. About a year ago, I was working out the program of a building with a client. They were saying, "We want this. We want that." Suddenly, all I could hear was this refrain - "I want, I want, I want." I said, "Wait a minute. This is going to sound crazy, but let's back up, run this through again, and say, "What can we give in the process of creating this facility?"

We did, and we came up with some wonderful things. I'll show more tomorrow about a project proposal in California where we came up with a way to make the whole facility available to the community in off hours, and ways to make a private project of value to an entire community.

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I want to focus this morning specifically on the issue of these basic values, because they influence totally how we act and make things. The first time I actually built a building, I kept asking how I can know if this decision or that one is right. In doing it, I came up with three obvious answers. One, it feels really wrong and you change it. Two, it feels really good, and you say hooray. Or three, it doesn't seem to matter, which means either it wasn't a significant decision or we're so shut off emotionally we couldn't feel if it was good or bad - in which case also it didn't matter! This told me that we can never really make anything different from what we are. Again and again I have tried to get more richness into the way I built, but until it was there in my heart, it never got there in my buildings. We have to change ourselves to change our world.

So I feel it is really vital - both personally in terms of our work and in terms of our culture - that we look at our values, see what they are, and see how we need to change them to have a society which does hold things sacred. For example, the concept of "space" is a twentieth century architectural invention. We keep talking about sacred space; space, time, and architecture; etc. - but in almost every traditional culture and architecture, space was almost irrelevant.

Meaning and place are what was significant. The expression in the building of giving something, or of power - of what the place being made did to the whole pattern of life - was much more important than what was contained in the structure that was involved. In the Hindu temples of India, for example, there's just a very, very, small space inside. It is the iconography of the whole thing, and the whole temple as a pile of gifts honoring their gods and showing what they value, which is the fundamentally important message.

So we talk now about place, perhaps, rather than space. We talk about meaning, rather than design composition. We talk about giving, not taking. We talk about art, not Art. We talk about love, because the most powerful thing that we can put into anything is a lot of love. This can often get mixed up with an intellectual fascination with something. So be careful, because that's where our heads have been at.

* * *
This still is only talking about sacredness. That isn't enough. Doing and being are needed. From the outside, I could see that in a sacred society there is totally different meaning and value from living that way, but I really couldn't talk about it very well, because I wasn't living it yet. It is necessary to let go of the "taking" culture we grew up in, and let the sacred nature of relationships reassert themselves in our lives. In living a "sacred world", we experience those fundamentally different qualities and become able to bring them to our work.

I was speaking at an international environmental law conference last March. Because I was interested in the growth issue, I decided to sit in on a couple of the population workshops. The first one I went to was one of the most bizarre worlds I'd ever walked into. At the door there were groups of intense people with packets of information, and they started thrusting them in our faces. Inside, there were piles of literature on our seats. People were standing up and yelling at the moderator, "You gave them 30 seconds more time than you gave us".

There was obviously a deep and long-standing difference here. People were trying to stuff so much information into us to support their case that the people in the audience felt like a goose someone was trying to turn into påté. If all this information is here, why talk about it - why have a meeting? It was clear that there was something other than the issues on the table and the reams of information that was keeping them apart.

The whole purpose of meeting is bringing our hearts together, sharing questions, fears, hopes, and dreams - and seeing what comes out of it. In the Native American tradition, when people gather, they would often sit quietly smoking a pipe until their energies joined together the way the smoke did. This is an acknowledgment that first we have to create a safe space that everyone feels comfortable in. We need that "safe space" before we can speak from the heart, be vulnerable, and say, "I don't know the answer. Here is what I feel. How do you feel?"

When our hearts truly touch, we can hear somebody else's truth, which is what you get when they speak from the heart, and which comes out of a totally different life and a different experience than our own. We can take that truth and add it to our own and create something greater. And they can do the same with ours. And we can put those truths together and find an even greater one.

But this wasn't happening at all at this workshop, so I started asking questions and things started to unfold. One group was really not concerned about population numbers or immigration control (the particular topic of the workshop). They were, justifiably, afraid that population issues were being used as they had in the past as a cover for racial intimidation and harassment.

It was much harder to ferret out the other group's fears. That really didn't happen until somebody asked one of the speakers, "If you support free international movement of money and material resources, why not people? They are the third element of "production". How about just eliminating all immigration restrictions?" With that, the real fears spilled out. Many of the people had lived lives of great difficulty and precariousness. They had finally achieved some sense of security and safety in their lives, and were afraid that they couldn't compete well and survive as well without the plethora of resources that we've acquired. They were worried about revenge from people who have had resources, culture, and power taken away from them.

These were real and deep fears in their hearts that once we began to acknowledge and bring out into the open, we could understand and start talking about. This is the real meaning of meeting. This is when we start dealing with real problems and start finding real solutions to them.

The clock is another piece of the same wrong values. Letting go of it, of "What time is it?", is essential to truly focusing on what we are doing. We say in the States it is going on "Indian time". You speak from the heart - as long as you have something you feel important, and the meeting goes as long as it needs to go. You don't let the clock cut lives up into little pieces and become itself what is really worshipped and the root value of the meeting.

So I've learned more and more that we can move into a world where we can work, relate to others, and live our lives in a sacred way every moment of our existence. In that process, we take our energy away from support of the secular world. In doing so, we not only change our own lives, but we show other people that it can happen and that they can do it also.

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Some people would say that television allows us to experience the finest ballerina or opera singer in the world in our own home. I've discovered that this, too, is the coin of a "taking" society, and that it has a flip side which causes perhaps more harm than good. In a sense, such quality degrades us, because we can never reach those heights ourselves in what we do, and it makes our own efforts seem so paltry. I find a lot more wonder, joy, and happiness now out of getting together and clumsily making music with other people than listening to the finest symphonic performance. The act of doing something is far more valuable than experiencing second-hand and passively the level of finesse which is achievable by just a few. It creates a whole culture in which people have culture in them. We found there is a totally different underlying value inherent in this.

In drumming, it is very hard to make a mistake. Once you are in the rhythm of the music and totally entrained in it, it leads you along. You can get off the beat, and if you just let it go at that, it feels like a mistake. But if you repeat it - however weird it was - it has suddenly created a new rhythm, which just moves the music into a totally new channel. It is a form of music which generates and is based on success, not failure.

Compare that to the traditional European, American, and probably Australian music. There you learn to play by copying somebody else, by playing it the way that somebody else intended it. You are always trying to get rid of mistakes and "do it right." It is a music based on failure and elimination of failure. In contrast, improvisational music builds self-esteem, and helps us find the music in us. See what happens when you get together making music with a whole lot of people, and see what happens with our children as they get into music this way. My one son taught himself to play the piano, but he still can't read a note. One day, he took the front off the piano and started plucking the strings, humming so they would resonate - anything that would make music and would feel good. What that did to his self-esteem is like, "Hey, I got that all by myself and it's neat!"

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In the last twenty years, I've also been involved in trying to work out different institutional patterns. In 1974, I wrote a paper asserting that we could reduce our energy use by 90% and have a better quality of life. People thought I was crazy, but I've been proven right. I did that again in 1981 on housing. I said we could reduce our housing cost by 90%, and won a top award in an affordable housing competition. I've since looked at other sectors - education, forestry, transportation. Every place I looked, I found this same immense opportunity for reduction of our demands on the rest of the world, for achieving more with less, and for regaining much more effective institutions. Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute, and researchers in Germany have reached the same conclusion in more technical studies of industrial processes and other areas.

Until a year ago, I was going out and trying to sell this concept. I went to the State Forestry Department, and said we had looked at the coastal forests in Oregon. I showed them that by going from a 60 year short cycle of clear-cutting to a 240 year cutting rotation we could have mature old-growth forests. But at the same time we also would get twice as much timber production per year, and nine times the economic return. We found that timber is only a small piece of the overall value of a forest - even in terms of economics. When we added in the recovery of salmon, recreation, and forest products such as mushrooms, we ended up with a total forestry resource that provided 30-40 times more economic value to society. This was a win-win solution that achieved the goals of environmentalists and timber users alike, and a model for changing the framework of discussion on contentious issues. But it didn't reach the itch of "I want it ALL, right NOW!"

I couldn't sell it. And you ask how deep these values are inside us? But what I realized is that every wealthy society gets extremely inefficient in all of its institutions. Its easier to spend more money patching up something that isn't working right than to deal with the real issues of equity or power or decision making.

The exciting result is that we have a one-shot opportunity to release these incredible resources of people, money, energy, and materials to totally change our institutions to a sustainable and sacred basis. It has been said that the U.S. would need an 80% reduction in energy and resource use to achieve sustainability. We've shown that we can achieve more than 90% easily - so why not do it?

Here we need to remember that we can't necessarily buy and sell between "giving" and "taking" cultures. What was being sold with energy efficiency, for example, was a value of reducing our demands on the world. What got bought was a way to stretch resources to accomodate even more of their value of growth. Again - we've got to deal with the values head on, and first. If we don't change our values, those order-of-magnitude efficiency gains would be used only to support more people and more consumption. We will just end up twenty years down the road with twice as many people starving on the planet, and with no resources to make the change to sustainability. We have to deal with the base values - they are root. They are the root for finding our own happiness, for the survival of our society, and for getting back in touch with the incredible universe that we are part of.

* * *
Last night we were looking at the wonderful stars here. When I was a kid, I thought the stars were cold, totally alien objects. I've since learned they are our cousins. Both of us are the ashes of older stars. Those stars burned out, and their ashes - larger atoms further down the periodic chart - were swept up into the next generation of stars. Eventually some of those became our planet. They became the rocks that we stand on. These rocks crumbled to create soil, and became the food which became us.

Now I see the same ashes - these old stars - in us and in the stars above, and feel we are all one! This has changed the way I interact with the rest of the world, and it has changed the way I create things, and I am happy.

Thank you.

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Q: You are moving towards an understandable set of values in our society as a whole. I assume you mean world wide?