A New Humanism: Part 33

The value and values of learning about nature and human nature

Tentative conclusions “…to do what we set out to do.”   The perspective I call “a new humanism” is a way to enlarge how we think about design, and to do that by learning more, much more, about nature and human nature – about the people we design for and the ecosystems we change. By continually re-educating our intuitions and “design sense” with bodies of reliable, available knowledge, we can open up new opportunities for the performance of everyone investing, elected, appointed or commissioned – and, most important, at all levels of talent and training, beyond a gifted elite. Then, as we design a habitat, we can produce and communicate, more predictably and more generously, the experiences we have envisioned. In other words, we can do more often what we set out to do for our patrons, publics, or our own personal pleasure. 

Ultimately, a new humanism is about updating the day-to-day practices of the design-construction world by expanding and applying the knowledge base that underlies the building arts, and to do that through extending open-ended explorations into the human and natural sciences. The design professions have already had quick, forceful responses to revolutionary advances in the “hard” sciences of building technology. And further, with equal creative force, we’ve responded to modernism’s turbulent intellectual currents and factions in the arts. But we have fallen behind our smart, aggressive business and engineering colleagues in understanding the people and the sites we design for.

As a result, narrow agendas – our own and others’ – are setting the standards for the living environments we actually build.  Some standards are high ones, some disappointing, but it’s been our design professions’ historic role to see the broader picture – to humanize modernism’s ongoing revolutions. I’ve been exploring how to do that by drawing on the work of smart scientists, perceptive teachers, and open-minded design professionals, and there’s a clear-cut way.

An outline of the ideas 

The preceding posts sketch out a humanism following trails that start in ecology, evolution, and neuroscience, and then connect human biology to the subjective experience of the visible, tangible presence of the places we build. 

The structure of the ideas is described in these words: I use the term “humanism” as an organizing concept to describe the collections and collisions of a person’s beliefs about human nature – and specifically about why we experience and respond to environments the way we do. It’s a perspective on what we design. Then by “new” I mean opening up – continually learning and enlarging – the ways we think about built environments, by catching-up with the mainstream of modern culture, the maturing of the applied human sciences.

By “human biology,” I mean the mind-and-body – our psychological/physiological systems – so interconnected that to analyze either inevitably involves both.

By “the mind” I mean what is happening in a brain. And it can be usefully conceived as two fluid, malleable minds, with no clear lines between: a conscious one, our awareness, and a vast non-conscious one where most of our perceptions and memories are processed. Together they are brought into action by messages from the interacting senses translated into changing body chemistry that selectively mobilizes the mind-body resources – steering emotions, reasoning, decisions and behavior.

By “experience” I mean the continuing subjective, indivisible, on-going mix of conscious and unconscious sensations, perceptions, ideas and feelings that dominate a moment, become interlaced with already flowing streams of thoughts and moods, and then are filed among interwoven memories – in effect, continually changing the brain’s networks and opening new channels over a lifetime.

And by “response” I mean what happens in a mind-body when “experience” encounters our motivations – our “personal project,” our goal of the moment – and we act.

The specific ideas that seem to me most useful in practice now are outlined briefly below. This is essentially a “checklist” because the science and scholarship they’re built on is young and moving fast.  And, in a sense, these ideas, like the sciences themselves, are not prescriptive but more of an agenda that can keep us looking for workable answers.

Our origins in ecology and evolution   

Because we evolved and live integrated into ecosystems, naturally we can only build the kind of habitats we aspire to by learning and adopting the inescapable perspective of ecology – the total interrelationship of organisms, including us, and our environments.  Because our human ambitions and creative imagination are a powerful force in any ecosystem we inhabit, ecology is, in a sense, a human as well as a natural science.


Design and construction always means we are invading pre-existing natural settings and populations, and we are predisposed to master them and adapt their momentum to our purposes of the moment. At the same time, awareness of our connections to a nourishing natural world remains part of our sense of wellbeing. It’s latent in any experience of built environments. Ecology, too, offers a practical, functional “geo-metry” – the way we measure and re-shape the earth – an organic one to use alongside Euclid’s abstractions. We have started, but only started, to discipline planning and design practices to match these realities.

Evolution and neurosystems   

The findings of scientists working with evolution, neurosystems, and psychology are inescapable as well. They are tracing out how innate adaptive values and skills have led us to interact with people and create places, in competitive and cooperative ways that can be traced back to a survival advantage.  Civilization and affluence have naturally enlarged the terms of “survival” – of winning, moving ahead, and prospering – but still, primal, genetically-prepared patterns of a mind and body – our innate predilections and capabilities – underlie the rich cultures we build and the unique personal searches and motivations that each of us brings into the environments we encounter.

We’ve been primed by evolution to create tools and build shelter that will make the best home and habitat for “me,” here, now – evaluating the qualities of a secure “refuge,” with an ample outlook or “prospect” and a supportive natural setting – all matched to our own capabilities.

Refuge and prospect – shelter and outlook – in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

Just as fundamentally, while we welcome the “comfort” of familiar places, we’re lured by novelty and new horizons, and we share an urge to explore them and to risk, to dare, and to win – tempered, as always, by each person’s maturing level of curiosity, confidence, and energy.

In parallel, we share an innate impulse to anticipate and plan.  Constantly looking for, or creating legible, predictable patterns, we lay out mental maps as aids to orientation and navigation through physical, social, and intellectual space. Then those representations, those images “in-here,” become an integral part of our response to what’s “out-there.”

Our open-ended creative imagination carves out for us a unique niche in any ecosystem we enter. We are able to visualize new forms and functions that will reconfigure an environment, adapting it to our ambitions and “personal project.”

While we necessarily evolve and learn as individuals, we tend to act out our lives together in settlements.  We’re social animals that compete by cooperating, moving to a new level of “fitness” by joining in larger alliances and structuring our relationships in hierarchies. And in the physical infrastructure of our social contracts – in the villages or cities – the highest status is given to the symbols and stories of our shared success in working together.

Even within alliances, though, the hard reality of limits on our human strength, skill, energy, time, and resources mean each personal decision has an efficiency and economic dimension as well.  It’s the way natural selection itself works: opportunities and success are disciplined by calculations of costs and benefits.

In the mind that encounters architecture, the first impression of a built environment begins with an instant, visceral response and instinctive or “intuitive” reactions to perceived threats or opportunities.  We feel more than we know, and that first impression lingers.

The initial sensations then race through the neural networks prepared by evolution, channeled by culture, deepened by learning, reflection, and reasoning, and biased by intentions and expectations of the moment. In other words, we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.  Any experience is first about “me.”

Our propensity to “simplify” comes into play immediately, too.  Immersed in massive overloads of information we crave the pleasure of finding order and understandable ways to predict and shape what a place can do to or for me.

To do that we are predisposed to make sense out of too much or too little information by understanding one thing in terms of another that we already know – with analogies, allusions, metaphors, symbols, hierarchies, unifying theories and the trajectory of our own personal stories. Or we may try to discover some deeper, cosmic spatial order of things.


Finding analogies or allusions comes naturally to us, and some, like the new National Stadium in Beijing, the “Birdsnest,” are so apt that they become it’s name pre-empting other responses.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

Finally, since we experience both people and places with the same innate detection systems, patterns of predilections and emotions, we tend to judge and respond to the places we build – or natural settings – in terms of human qualities we attribute to them.  We use the same vocabulary to describe all three and, like connections with people, we can come to value places as a part of our own identity, bonding with them – for a moment or a lifetime. 

The body, intimately interconnected with the mind, responds in its own direct ways. We tend to follow an impulse to “transcribe” a place into terms of ourselves, using the body as a metaphor for mapping and experiencing a built environment. We respond through our own psycho-physical framework as we sense boundaries, our own coordinates – set by gravity, balance and the forward orientation of sight and movement – plus centers, human scale, and rhythms, all like our own.

But we still search for, and abandon ourselves to opportunities for breaking loose from our frustrating human limitations to feel a sense of transcending into imagined physical or spiritual space.

And in practice our behavior is regulated by body-states – mixes of body chemistry that mobilize the body’s resources, refocus attention and shape moods, emotions, and the pleasures or anxieties of being in a place. They underlie – and by lingering, complicate – what we think and feel, the judgments we make and action we take, biasing expectations and on-the-spot responses.

The interwoven sensory systems – aroused by light and sound, scent, taste, or touch and space – are where all perception begins. Together, and within their limits, they are a shifting, but continually interacting interface between our interior and outside worlds.

The eyes’ physiology is widely understood, and sophisticated optical science, engineering, design, and related industries can measure, model, control and predict human responses.  The way we are integrating this knowledge into the arts and sciences of day-to-day practice is a facet of what I mean by a more science-based humanism – though more systematically than we do today.

The same applies to hearing.  As with light and color, all experience is suffused with sounds, and we have the skill to build exceptional “soundscapes” using its energy. We have the science, engineering, and industries, too, for managing the molecules of scent in the air and the sensations of temperature that can dominate responses to a place, as we build virtually any microclimate. And like vision, all these sensations can trigger a broad range of responding body states – moods, fear, exhilaration, and transcendence.

In built environments, though, it is the sense of space, imagined or felt in muscles, tendons, joints, skin and their links into the other sensory systems, that takes the lead in organizing perceptions and then “transcribing” a place into terms of ourselves.  And here again advancing sciences and technologies – space standards, ergonomics and – within limits – traffic engineering are expanding the scope of humanism in design.

Language is an inherent property of any environment because it’s inherent in us, and we communicate with each other through the places we build. We are continually reading their messages, combining direct visceral responses with more verbal and abstract ones into coherent stories. We seem to have a basic “native tongue,” too, usually and usefully sorted into classical, organic and sacred modes of expression that marry and overlap – each derived from the biology we share.

With a deeper understanding of nature and human nature we can refresh our languages, releasing another level of expressive power. And to start thinking about what that could mean in practice, I have summarized the ideas of some thoughtful, sensitive professionals that seem to me promising templates for forging our own personal languages.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia – a sacred precinct representing that divine order of the cosmos, laid out using what we recognize as Western classical design principles.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler


Aesthetic experience, in the perspective outlined here, is a way the mind and body respond when we encounter enhanced human mastery, the fulfillment of actually realized ideals, and a kinship with the extraordinary people – or deities – who are able to arouse the feelings of transcending what we are.  The range of feelings and the intensity of spellbinding lucidity or surging warmth, a release into another “higher” world, necessarily depend on past personal experience and training, but they are experienced by everyone in their own way and in everyday life

Overall these “new humanism” ideas are offered as one way to think about and apply the momentum of nature and of the prepared fitness to survive – in natural selection – built into us by evolution as innate predilections, skills, cravings, and the pleasures of achievement.  In a sense, the essence of the idea is in open, exploring minds educated to think of design not just in terms of building “places,” but above all, as “days-in-the-lifeof the people there.

When we design“places,” we’re designing “days-in-the-life” of the people there – like the interwoven working, social, religious, and home life shown here on the Greek island, Hydra.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

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The post that follows, the final one, explores a path ahead into education and “common sense.”  



Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Albrecht Pichlerwho drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.

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