A New Humanism: Part 12

Structuring experience: Order and Patterns

As the senses continue to absorb new information, intersecting and roiling the currents of thought and memory flowing through a mind, networks in the brain are actively structuring the multiplying messages into coherent relationships – an order – so that decisions can be made and action taken with convictions about the outcome.

Sorting out the input

Finding “order” is a primal response to environments. We crave the pleasure of exploring complexity, but with it, the rewarding experience of recognizing, simplifying, and organizing perceptions into practical patterns we can understand and live by. And we’re good at it. Each of us has, at our own level, a kind of “structural intelligence” – just as we have a musical or social or mechanical intelligence. Facing discrete, concrete perceptions we are able to sort out similarities, differences, categories, connections, and associations, and then imagine them structured into unified pictures. In built environments that may mean coherent styles, fashions, hierarchies, narratives or legible pathways. It always means theories, too, the abstractions and generalizations needed, in the absence of enough facts, to understand, plan and predict. And in practice day-to-day, our predilection for order is so strong that we are willing to work with quick scans, plausible hunches, or a “best fit” to impose patterns on disorder and surprises. We want clarity; we need an answer; we need to reduce uncertainties; and given a few clues we guess, infer or imagine the rest, move ahead, and search for reassurance in repetitions and redundancy. It’s a way we can sense we’re in control, and it’s an essential survival skill.

More from Metropolis

Experiments in Gestalt psychology and its principles of perception – part of the conventional wisdom of the design professions for decades now – have demonstrated the predisposition in most of us to find orderly patterns and see things “whole” – like we see ourselves. Confronting fragmented, ambiguous visual images, we tend to connect points, extend lines, and fill in gaps.  In our imagination and with “optical illusions” we assemble whatever minimal clues are available into conventional, or at least recognizable, complete forms and functional flows. And as we infer a closure – seeing what “ought” to be – we, ourselves become more engaged and our projected presence enlivens a design.

Specifically the Gestalt and related experiments have shown a propensity to assemble shapes and patterns into the basic geometrical shapes spelled out in ancient Greek culture – or following the same basic principles, in organic patterns, like a tree, watershed or a body structure – with boundaries, centers, symmetries, rhythms, and harmonic relationships. Further, on the way to constructing a “whole” we tend to organize complex places into two, three, four or five connected, coherent segments, or “chunks” of sorted out categories, in order to accommodate the limits of a working memory. These propensities are most evident in classical designs, where such things as grids or symmetrical and three-part or five-part vertical and horizontal compositions connected by axes tend to frame the distinctive, settled clarity of its recurring styles.

These specific responses are explored further in later pages, but the point here is that our sensory systems tend to channel sensations into basic patterns that were prepared as the mind evolved.  We seem to naturally sort out spatial information into stories – we’re all born story-tellers – and maps-of-our-known-world in such image-of-the-city perceptions as Kevin Lynch’s edges, paths, nodes, districts, and landmarks. Or we may organize perceptions of a city into its “signature”, fundamental settlement pattern, like the meeting of land and water along the canals of Venice or Amsterdam. And beyond that, we take pleasure in finding the order in unifying themes that can anchor a large and diverse place to our purposes or memories – and into longer patterns of space and time. We see themes everywhere and assign picturesque names based on the geography of “hill-country” or “lake country” or the urban ambience that emerged – like New Orleans’ “Garden District,” and “French Quarter,” or the urban paradise of the “Champs Élysées.”

We celebrate order, too, dedicating land and resources to landmarks whose function is to symbolize a surviving social or political structure – like a triumphal arch that records victory over the out-of-control chaos of war, or in older European cities, “plague columns” that celebrated the healing of a shattered society, linking it back to the timeless order of divine protection. And today we are just as likely to build a holocaust museum memorializing the opposite – an out-of-control, destructive brutality that’s inherent in human nature – a work of art dramatizing and clarifying the tragedy of dis-order and our dis-jointed restlessness in the face of what seems like a broken world.


Our behavior at any moment can be guided just as much by the theorized order that we give to facts as it is by the facts themselves. We follow an innate impulse to generalize – finding order in complexity, and we need those theories. But in the eagerness for understanding we can be seduced by a simplifying vision, an elegant diagram, logical pattern or slogans that have drifted away from its underlying human sources – especially when it confirms an architect’s or engineer’s bias. Whether less-is-more or less-is-a-bore, though, inevitably simplifying is about reduction. It necessarily obscures a rich variety of significant details, ignores contradictions, and, as a result, can fail when applied in practice. Many will remember the early, idealistic government housing design standards of the 1930’s to ‘50’s. They were born in a well-meaning, orderly, cooperative, bureaucratic process, but, based on an architect-driven vision of form, became uninhabitable and then memorialized by the dramatic Pruitt-Igoe project’s destruction by dynamite in St. Louis.  And we have seen the same happen in rational transportation planning that’s been based on a neatly simplified, quantified, specialized vision of complex urban life – and in the machine aesthetics of the resulting highway design. The massive unintended consequences – the collateral damage – of those planning and design processes were memorialized in the demolition of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway. 


The Pruitt-Igoe housing project – theory that had drifted away from its human origins into wishful logic.


The comfort of the familiar

We come into the world with a predilection to find patterns – to give order and predictability to an overwhelming mix of interacting perceptions. And that propensity grows and blooms with imprinting in childhood, when we first learn how to survive and succeed in our home territory.  Just as our newly forming minds are set up to develop bonds with people, the same impulses are at work on our total environment. As we go about pursuing youthful “personal projects” – exploring, bold or frightened, learning, finding refuges and prospects, interacting with peers, measuring our energy, maybe experiencing transcendence for the first time – the memories of our “native habitat” underly a “native language,” a mother tongue of landscapes, settlements and architecture – an implicit memory.  It’s rich with emotional links, coded information and lasting tracks of memory. Because new experiences flow quickly and easily into them, the habits of thought and behavior adapted to the earlier experiences are poised to come into play. Although memories and even gene functions can change as we adapt to changing environments, still the imprinted networks, resonating through the whole mind-body, linger and can even dominate a lifetime of responses.

Over time, as continued interaction multiplies the networks pioneered by imprinting, we tend to align our streams of learning into our individual “tastes” and beliefs – into “intuitions” about design – or visions of a “dream house” or a proper community. They come to feel like a part of our identity. And as they are repeated, applied, adjusted, and as they produce practical successes, they take on a comfortable sense of settled authority and authenticity. Classical designs or the urban village in Jane Jacobs’ blocks of Hudson Street, or a tree-shaded suburb in a savannah landscape, come to just feel right. And these now familiar patterns become, in a sense, a refuge-and-prospect in the mind – an escape from uncertainties or anxieties of change plus a clear outlook. This innate response, of course, underlies the power of brand names.

The recognition of familiar kinds of places, symbols, and paths has a positive, warm emotional power that is easy to rationalize – this worked in the past; it’s safe; it’s reassuring; we know our way around; we feel competent and fluent, in control; we “belong” here. Then when we build, it’s a pleasure to repeat what we have learned; it’s easy and most likely reinforced by other like-minded people we respect – or envy – and mirror or imitate. The body chemistry says “relax” and what happens, in the words of design critic Paul Goldberger our familiar surroundings’ “greatest gifts are conferred quietly, without our even knowing.”

In the same way, when we come across a well-traveled path, we tend to follow it. Or in Gombrich’s words, “art is born of art” that precedes it and the mental set we bring to a new place is most likely in the “grip of tradition.” We’re likely to experience a new vital reality “out-there” in terms of the settled representations of it “in-here.” Then over time, our responses can be dulled by habituation, when we no longer bring sensations of the familiar surroundings into our consciousness at all, or, at other times, by monotony, when we do, but are no longer refreshed by new information. Naturally one person’s monotony can still be another’s comfort.

In the marketplace the design professions live with, and exploit the results. Most people who analyze markets – that is, analyze human values – know that the best predictor of future behavior is not the “intentions” they are able to articulate, but past behavior, much of it directed unconsciously. They learn in advance the conventional, familiar patterns – styles, landscapes, shopping streets, business parks – that are likely to be the implicit, unwritten design criteria of the relevant market sub-cultures. Based on that research they are able to create a reassuring familiarity in a totally new place – like mass-market master-planned-communities – which are then saturated with the selected, cohesive patterns that add up to a brand identity.  Repetition and consistency over a variety of formats simplify decisions by steering them into the well-carved channels in the brain making it easier to say “yes; this is right” than to stop and analyze.

Just as often, however, the pleasures – the survival values – of familiarity add up, for better or worse, to a resistance-to-change, the immediate suspicion or rejection of something, anything, different. It can feel like a violation of a implicit hard-earned order, and our propensity to avoid losses can overpower the attraction of “the new.” We can become prisoners of our preconceptions, and then uncertainty and sensing a loss of control triggers stress reactions. “Unfamiliar” becomes “ugly.”  And in a clash of visions, historic preservation groups or land trusts march, laws are invoked to defend a distinctive “look” or legacy, and communities unite to repel the strangers coming in with outlandish values and vocabularies.

In a related perspective the conservative comfort of the familiar favors stereotypes that can themselves be actively destructive. Investors’ and designers’ “lessons learned” from repeated successes gain their own momentum, and they tend to lead to easy repetitions of “proven” design and development formulas – ones that can be radically un-responsive in a new culture – ones that have given different priorities among our shared mix of predilections. For years I watched mainland investors force the ambitious visions of their familiar Los Angeles projects and Wall Street financing into the new-to-them soft climate and aloha culture of Hawaii. And even the invading well-educated architects and town planners who had the best intentions often saw the pleasures of the Islands as just one more setting to be updated with their modernizing wisdom. Still, even in booming Honolulu a few landmarks remain to show how a broader humanism could marry the contrasting cultures in practice – in homes, clubs, spectacular parks with their massive trees, or the welcoming landscapes and architecture of the Academy of Arts, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and the State Capitol. We’ve all seen it happen again and again in to less aggressive populations in great natural environments. The comfort of relying on the aggressors’ “familiar” destroyed the unique qualities – the “market” conditions – the values that attracted investors in the first place, replacing them with a different, narrower humanism.


The Hawaiian State Capitol – a new broader humanism – creative, practical, bold but a respectful continuity for the unique culture of the 50th State.


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Next: The lure of “the new”. We’re predators as well as prey, always hunting for the next new advantages and victories. Plus another capability/predilection: understanding one kind of thing in terms of another, starting with analogies.

This is the twelfth 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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