A New Humanism: Part 11

The connections between intentions and expectations

Experience tends to take place against a background of expectations.  In his studies of perception in the arts, E. H. Gombrich describes how our responses become shaped by what he calls a “mental set,” a form of selective attention – a filter to avoid being overwhelmed by an inescapable mass of sensations.  In practice, it primes the senses and frames perception until much of what we see is what we expect to see.  Our minds are predisposed to mobilize past experiences and often years of study – or just as often, visions aroused by advertising language and judgments of peers – to prepare for identifying the “distinctive features,” the characteristics of a place that are most likely to be relevant to our immediate intentions for advancing a “personal project.”  With different levels of intensity, propensities to plan or to improvise – differing by age, gender, health or intent – we often enjoy surprises, but we still crave the pleasure of a basic predictability, to anticipate what a place – like a person we encounter – will do to us or for us.

In other words, we naturally bring into play another basic survival skill, the ability to think ahead.  We draw on both our literal “explicit” long-term memories and the momentum of “implicit” ones that fill our conscious mind to imagine a future experience in a place. And we often find as much pleasure, or anxiety, in the structured anticipation as in its actual, complex, challenging presence.

Because a “mental set” tends to create a context for responses, naturally it may become self-fulfilling. And because it’s shaped by the places where we live and the biases built into the languages we speak every day, the mental images we’ve formed can fill the brain’s networks until they override an on-the-spot experience with easy habitual patterns of judgments or stereotypes. But just as often the preconceptions are repeatedly penetrated and updated by feedback from the qualities of the place itself, and the mental set, for better or worse, is re-primed by the design. In the end, the mind that remembers a place is no longer the one that encountered it. 

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Looking for evidence

Many of the most effective designers are the ones that have educated themselves about, and analyzed the likely expectations of their intended audiences. Thoughtful research into the likely stresses and fears brought by people to hospitals and schools is now a routine part of many design processes and has produced pleasing, welcoming – more “humane” – user-friendly, child-friendly places. Sophisticated architects and landscape architects have learned how to design convincing first impressions and sequences of experiences, composing signs and symbols, light and color, scale, soft or warm places, the presence of non-threatening sounds or people, and the presence of nature – all in ways that tell a story of empathy, understanding, and security – offering a sense of refuge, and neutralizing “perils” and fear – in advance, almost like the refuge of home.

It works. But using “research” in to human feelings in this way has been so unusual that it’s even being called a “movement” and given its own name, “evidence-based design,” as if it were a breakthrough. It’s hard to believe, but in large sectors of the design professions “evidence” of deep human responses has simply not been in the mainstream of practice. Again, we tend to work with a narrow kind of humanism.

It’s another obstacle raised by our inward-looking professional pride. All around us, our publics’ intentions and expectations – their innate propensities and motivations of the moment — are clearly expressed and precisely measured everyday in billions of transactions in commercial marketplaces. Of course, we expect and educate design professionals to apply their artistry to projects that exceed those market-bound ideas – places that haven’t even been imagined. But for virtually every design team producing today’s great places, their creativity is built on a respect for and understanding of the evidence-in-action of human experience and responses out in the field. It’s not difficult. We apply well-researched evidence when our own interests are at stake: designers and artists competing for recognition and awards naturally study and respect the anticipated mental set of design juries, critics, and patrons, and respond with great care and often success.

It’s routine, too, for the teams that design successful new homes and communities. As their clever packaging manipulates our trains of thought and body chemistry, channels of memory and networks of associations are opened, priming a positive response to their products. Designers of successful retail environments are even more expert at innovative research-based, market-driven design that escalates vague intentions and expectations into on-the-spot action by the publics they rely on.

Just as often, however, the intentions of our most important publics are frustrated and their simplest expectations disappointed by the narrow definition we give of what’s encompassed in the arts of architectural, landscape, and urban design. It’s a legacy from the 19th century when “engineering” began to be demoted to a servant of “design.” However, whether or not form-follows-function – or form-follows-fashion or follows added-value or emotion – the expectation of our publics that a design professional’s forms will produce practical, functional performance – fitness-to-purpose – is embedded in essentially every mental set – as it should be.

Typically the neglected issues relate to a broad range of failures called under-performance: congestion, discomfort, inconvenience, noise, glare, confusion, delays, unhealthy hazards, alienation, and monotony – and the iconic leaking roofs. All can be readily “engineered,” but all are actively, if inadvertently, designed into our environment, signed and sealed in professional contract documents. While they may be forgiven, we see first impressions stir up emotional responses – annoyance, impatience, disgust, or fear – obscuring whatever intellectual concepts or aesthetic pleasures were the designers’ own intention and expectations. These ideas are explored further in later posts, because applying our best creative sciences to these kinds of basic human disappointments is a target of any comprehensive humanism.

“It’s about me.”

When we, the designers, become passionate about the depth of thought, logic, and magic of our own designs, it’s worth remembering how perception works. “Two-thirds of what we see” a popular proverb says, “is already behind our eyes,” or in Thoreau’s words, “we hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”  And we have all heard, “I don’t know much about architecture, but I know what I like.”  In other words “my” background is the key context giving meaning to “my” experience. We take pride in what we have learned and in the small differences – our tastes – that distinguish each of us from others. And we personalize the places where we spend time – home, of course, and a work-place, and even – as William Whyte has pointed out – the movable chair we choose to occupy at New York’s Bryant Park. In practice, we each re-state the designers’ intended messages in our own terms and then respond to our own internal images and preoccupations as much as we do to the full physical reality of the places “out there.”

There are three important points here.  First, each person prioritizes the messages detected in new information or new experiences and processes immediately, “how this place affects me,” my “personal project” – my daily life, my way of life?  Second, once we have established a connection to a built environment – whether through physical proximity or the intangibles of ownership, membership, scholarly study – the place feels like a part of our own personal presence in the world. It is one part of the way we compete and/or cooperate. And that’s the third point. This innate pattern of thought sets up one of the fundamental tasks of a designer – and of a society: resolving inevitable conflicts between individuals’ interests and those of their allies or opponents. Each of us is likely to give priority to our own short term and to protecting what we have as individuals, rather than creating new and longer-term benefits for all of us. That’s the way evolution itself works, and it’s a formidable challenge to ecological thinking.

This simple wisdom, though, is a given for facilitators, mediators, and negotiators, of course, but it’s only erratically applied in designing built environments. Design-build teams make assumptions, often hopelessly subjective, about natural systems, climate effects or about the minds and memories, symbols and motivations of their audiences. Even when representative groups are invited to participate, we tend to impute our own knowledge and responses to them.  In designs that are aimed at a cohesive family or a selected “elite” of professionals and critics, that may work well, but just as often, designs and rhetoric that seem so thoughtful and sensible to each of us individually can be wildly irrelevant.

In that connection, I recall a broadly representative “public participation” meeting called to resolve a highway planning controversy. The highway engineers knew their career advancement depended on implementing their departments’ established practices within long-since adopted capital budgets. They couldn’t understand why anything else was on the table. The local officials tried, of course, to steer the discussion toward plans that would motivate voters and donors in their districts. The affected neighborhood groups naturally were passionate about avoiding negative impacts on their individual lives. My “sophisticated,” professional, sensible-planning group was equally passionate about the fact that only transit, combined with better ecologically-based land use planning, could ever provide honest answers for regional transportation. Each group was right, of course, but we all just talked about ourselves, and the frustration escalated until the governor, using negotiating techniques that were not accessible to the rest of the group, finally settled the issue. Our “broadly representative” meeting was not, in fact, about the highway but about the most powerful individual’s next election campaign. It should have been obvious from the start.


The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – the three-battle worn soldiers looking over the sunken wall, telling the story of their war.


Public debates about conflicting memories follow similar lines. A classic example is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Capitol Mall. It seemed originally designed to tell the home-front story of family sacrifices. But for the veterans, it was not a memorial to their fighting war, and it later was supplemented – to capture different emotions – by sculpture, showing The Three Soldiers meeting challenges with the unique comradeship of battlefields – as they overlook the wall of names and families that descends into the earth.

Finally, each of us prefers places that pay attention to “me” – or “us” in a group or crowd we’ve joined – expressing and validating my/our tastes, feelings, beliefs, and interests of the moment.  They’re places where it’s easy to read the “language” and feel a resonance that we remember long afterward. As a result, a designer has uncounted, unknown, me-centric and we-centric clients – each with a unique subjective awareness – a difficult assignment. Yet, with a broader humanism, one that embodies an understanding of nature and human nature – the earth and the evolved human mind and body that millions of us share – underneath the overlay of “personal projects” – we will have one more set of skills to apply as we try to stir experience, elicit responses or advance the culture with the places we design.

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Next: Our obsession with “order,” and the innate structural intelligence that uncovers – or invents – the coherent patterns we live by; plus the comfort of settling into and protecting “the familiar.”

This is the eleventh 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.

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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