A New Humanism: Part 1

A look at how evolved human biology interacts with the environment.

This blog series is about an opportunity.  It’s written from the point of view of an architect and urban planner trying to work out ways that more of us can design more practical, meaningful, beautiful places—the kinds of places most likely to realize both our own intentions and the aspirations of patrons, clients, and publics who rely on us.

My basic idea has been to step back, look at the unfinished cultural revolutions of Modernism, and continue to build on their defining enterprise – the fast-moving advance of reliable sciences. The impacts they have had on construction-related technologies have been enormous. But the insights of the maturing sciences of nature and human nature – of evolution and ecology and how evolved human biology interacts with an environment – are only beginning to be applied systematically in design education and day-to-day practice. We have valuable bodies of knowledge about the physical environments we build “out-there” on the land – places that profoundly affect how we all feel, think, and act everyday over a lifetime – yet we are only beginning to understand how each of us actually experiences those environments, “in-here,” and why we respond and react the ways we do. In the design professions we are, in a sense, like doctors trained more deeply in anatomy than in a patient’s total experience. That’s left to more or less informed “intuition” and, in our professions’ case, ideologies or “design sense.”

Today, contemporary knowledge of the biological foundations of “experience” seem to me to be potentially as revolutionary in their own way as re-discoveries of the arts and natural philosophy of Greece and Rome by humanists of the European Renaissance. We now have effective ways to understand the exceptional skill of the artists and designers who have been creating over millennia what we call the world’s great places. We can’t know what was in their minds, of course, but we can know why we respond to their work as we do.  Some very smart people are at work in this field learning and writing about nature and human nature, and I have laid out a sketch that applies their findings and ideas in an organized perspective – a way of thinking about design that I call “a new humanism.”

More from Metropolis

Some “deeper order” of things

The full experience of a built environment clearly goes well beyond the biological foundations, of course. Its distinctive, rich contents – in a sense, its texture – emerge from what each of us has absorbed from living in this contemporary, still industrializing culture, and accumulated in unique personal memories. But those cultural and individual influences are already well and widely analyzed in design histories, criticism and education, and they are routinely integrated into design vocabularies – into the expressive languages of coherent styles. Yet, since the Pythagoreans’ vision of a mathematical harmony in the universe, extended by Vitruvius and then later humanists to include the human body, the search has continued for some deeper order of things – some level of human nature or universal laws underlying the development of all cultures and the diverse languages of their architecture, landscapes, and settlements.


The Taktshan monastery in Bhutan

In the perspective outlined here, the source of a unifying order is found in the growing understanding of how an evolved, interacting mind and body seem to work – how the overwhelming mass of information in our environment is sorted out into coherent feelings, thoughts, judgments and effective courses of action. In other words, it is an exploration not so much of what we see, but of how we tend to react – because of what we are.

For my purpose, the important point is this: by learning more about the sciences that underlie the arts of design we can all have a better chance to understand ourselves – our ecological roles and impacts out on the land and on the human experiences we are creating there. It means a better chance of anticipating and then addressing, more reliably than we do now, the likely responses of very different people and the pragmatic, intellectual, sensory and aesthetic pleasures possible in the environments we design. The knowledge we have is fragmented, but we can still make the most of it.

A quick sketch

This perspective will be outlined in the posts that follow after this  introduction to the potential to the potential of a broader kind of humanism, I’ll explore the evolutionary “Origins” of how we experience a built environment, and, as a result, what happens when “A Mind Encounters Architecture” and “The Body Responds.”  Then I’ll look at how the places we design communicate in the “Languages of Humanism” and aesthetic experience.  My “Interim Conclusion” is a summary of how a new humanism could be applied to create the kinds of places we aspire to, more often than we build.

A note about words, names, and places. 

I use the word “we” in two contexts.  Because I am writing from the perspective of a practicing professional, I use “we” to refer to members of the teams that produce the built environment: the design, engineering, legal, financial, and marketing professions, businesses and government officials, and our patrons and clients – all of us who have taken on the direct responsibility of shaping the habitat. In most contexts, however, I use “we” as a brief way to say “homo sapiens.”  In addition, I try to use sparingly well-worn terms like “meaning,” by focusing on how we create, recognize, and use meanings – the significance to us of built forms in practice.

I use the word “experience” in its general, conversational sense: a continuing, subjective, indivisible but shifting mix of conscious and unconscious sensations, ideas, moods, and feelings that dominate a moment and then become selectively filed away among networks of memories. 

Finally, I use the term “science” to include scholarship in the humanities that’s based on thoughtful, rigorous observation of the links between human biology and the places we build.

Regarding illustrations and designers 

Most of the examples I have selected are more – usually much more – than fifty years old. The purpose is to try to be free of the intellectual biases and commercial culture of the past generation or two and refer instead to the work that seems to have gone through test-after-test of time. In an important sense, too, these are not “my” selections, but places chosen by arrays of visitors who decide to spend significant measures of their energy, time, and purchasing power just to experience what it is like to be there.  I’m trying to understand why that happens.

Most illustrations refer to our Western European-American culture because that is my background – my “native language.” They necessarily express my North American bias, just as my reading of human nature reflects my male-brain bias. But analyses by others who are more broadly educated suggest to me that this perspective may well apply more widely – allowing, naturally, for the substantial variations in genetic heritage. And equally important for me, the ideas in this blog series first came to life in the excitement of having my mind opened by these “Grand Tour” places, as I experienced them one-on-one. I’m convinced that if I had studied them early in my career as passionately as I did later, I would have practiced architecture and the planning of settlements differently – and better.

Finally, if, in these unsettled times, the outlook outlined here may seem overly positive, it is because architecture, landscaping, and city building are essentially positive, optimistic acts.


Mont S. Michel on the Normandy coast of France where "…arrays of visitors" go "just to experience what it is like to be there."

This is the first of a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called "A New Humanism in architecture, landscapes, and urban design". They're about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do. The next post will examine Experience: What is it like to be there?

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 Pichler, who drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton's New York office.

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