A New Humanism: Part 13

The lure of the new

While the mind seeks out the reassurances and comfort – the known workability – of familiar patterns, and as we become habituated to our styles and surroundings, the hungry senses, always alert for changes – and surprises – are still hunting for the rewards of “the new” – new territory, wealth, status, knowledge and ideas, personal and social alliances, sensations and new levels of security. We have the eyes of “prey,” constantly alert to danger, but also the eyes of “predators” searching environments for advantages and victories.

What’s happening “in-here” parallels and fuels the impulse for exploration. Our, vigilant early warning system is quick to identify anything new as a threat or opportunity; it’s given a top priority, and our response is reinforced by the flows of body-chemistry, triggered often by fear but, for others, by the always-ready anticipation of pleasure. After the “first impression” comes the exhilarating release from confinement – a sense of liberation from limitations of the past and its inadequate technology or subjection to others’ priorities, symbols or styles. There’s the sense of a fresh start – like a “sea change” that rejuvenates and rebuilds channels of thought and creativity. Equally fundamental is the pleasure of feeling “first” – establishing in a place we design or “own,” a unique “number one” identity for ourselves, for our clients or community, as a presence on the turf that we have won.

As a result, we constantly pursue the competitive edge of the “next” new thing because survival and stature has depended on it. In built environments both basic technologies and fashions multiplied as each generation found startling new ways to exploit discoveries, solve problems or express feelings of “transcending” with long spans, heights or speed – the “conquest-of-space” – or a succession of ornamental visions of other romanticized times and places, from democratic Greece, Republican Rome or exotic China and Japan, to crisp, efficient, contemporary, innovative machine production – visions that we want to add to our identity. And the industries of built environments have institutionalized promotion of “new” in massive expositions from London’s Crystal Palace to today’s trade shows.

More from Metropolis

The lure of “the new” is reinforced, too, as we look back on the happy-ending stories of once-shocking monuments – Eiffel’s Tower, that became the lasting symbol of a renewed France or the embattled classics of our own new world by Le Corbusier, Mies, Sullivan, and Wright, that opened tradition-bound eyes to the culture that was changing all around them – and to the opportunities we take for granted today.

Finding, evaluating, and applying “the new” is, of course, already in the mainstream of design education and practice. Today’s schools and professions are among the avant gardes in the revolutions of Modernism.  But again, many leaders in our professions and schools have erected obstacles to be overcome. First, many, naturally aspiring to personal fame, seem to honor, above all, introspection, expecting that inventive, “new” personal languages will be readily understood, admired, and accepted by others, when, in fact, they haven’t learned – they haven’t been taught – how their audiences are likely to experience the places designed for them. Second, creative designers and their clients, thrilled by the promise of discovery, and relief from the rigidity of exhausted ideas, believe they can skip over years of accumulated learning, and the fine distinctions debated in past generations. The result, of course, has been novelty and diversity with as many failures as successful breakthroughs. And often in the struggle for our voices to be heard in a crowd, we confuse striking eccentricity with the creativity that our own sometimes careless, promotional, utopian language has led our publics to expect.

Still, these are exciting times.  Many of the people we design for are obsessed by innovation and the “new.”  At the same time, advancing sciences of human behavior and ecology are opening up a deeper understanding of the people and places we are designing for. And that is why I draw parallels with the creative avant-gardes of the Italian Renaissance years, when liberation from settled, familiar medieval patterns prepared the way for new, open-minded self-awareness – a new understanding of what it is to be human – and waves of a world-changing new humanism flooded into the arts and sciences. Now, as in the past, some pioneering designers will give their clients and publics – again and again – what they never imagined they could have. Some will achieve what we call “celebrity,” and some, after a generation of successes, “greatness.” Others will hesitate. There are always elements of uncertainty, and any form of “the new” may be rejected.  But the hunt will go on.

Britain’s Crystal Palace, designed by landscape gardener, Joseph Paxton and built in 1851 to display and celebrate revolutionary new industrial technology – in a massive structure that dramatized the new materials, and rapid, cost-effective construction methods that we’re still developing today

Understanding one kind of thing in terms of another

When attention is attracted by “the new” – a sight or sound or scent not encountered before – a mind is prepared to accelerate its learning by searching for comparisons: “How can I understand this place, all this new complexity, in terms of what I already know?”  A set of evolved propensities and skills is leading the mind to organize new knowledge by associating it with earlier learning.

Networks of Associations

Over time, as a brain has been building new networks, the pioneering electrical and chemical connections of cells have, in turn, linked tangible built environments with chains of memories.  As a result, part of the experience of a place is re-experiencing parts of our own past, and especially its most emotional, survival-related scenes – of a “home,” a past victory or defeat in business or the arts or sports, or the sites of courtship. Likewise, the associations of built environments with familiar or notable leaders – winners – or events and naming them accordingly is, of course, a part of everyday thought.

Those and many other connections are direct. But just as often we tend to channel associations into analogies, allusions, metaphors, and symbols, patterns that seem prepared as the mind evolved. They are integrated into responses to a built environment just as they are in verbal languages and thought, and they mobilize connections across multiple existing networks in a brain. At their best they can both stretch a mind and sort out similarities that clarify significant differences.

In practice, associations, conscious or unconscious, tend, naturally enough, to relate to what we already know most intimately. First it’s ourselves, our feelings or spatial awareness, everyday experience with others, intellectual preoccupations and our “personal project” of the moment.  Second, we relate them to – because they are ultimately derived from – our memory of the familiar places and processes of the natural world and the built environments where we have been surviving, prospering, winning or losing every day. And the strongest linkages naturally are ones like the familiar “conditioned reflexes,” linked to promises of biologically significant rewards.

In practice, the pleasure or anxiety stirred by associations alone can become the perceived qualities of a place. At the same time, though, as connections are made, the brain can have a hard time distinguishing between the metaphors or symbols it created for itself and the physical reality behind them. Then they tend to prime a response and may well dominate expectations and on the spot responses – especially the first impressions that can divert attention into unintended directions. Yet thoughtfully and subtly applied, they are integral to a design team’s communication – and miscommunication – with its publics.


Rome’s Piazza San Pietro, the welcoming enfolding arms of the powerful mother church


Without thinking we talk about the places we design in terms of our bodies – skins and skeletons, the heart, and such intimate sensations as boundaries, balance, rhythms, movements, and repose and of course, all the attributes of male-female differences that have ever been experienced, named or imagined. We incorporate literal human features from eyebrows to caryatides, and, more fundamentally, look for and value signs of life and movements of our own – like the “embracing arms” of the “mother” Church at Rome’s Piazza San Pietro.

We take pleasure in finding similarities with the other arts, too, bringing more senses into play.  We talk about architecture as “frozen music,” “choreograph” pathways, and see a village as a fabric or collage. Or we describe cities as organisms with inputs, outputs, “arteries” and open space “lungs.” In analogies with nature, we see architecture in terms of forests of columns, cavernous spaces, with roofs and skylines as waves, dunes, or a range of hills.  Or in reverse, landscapes are seen in terms of corridors, rooms, and windows. And those frustrated with the immobility of structures single out a “march” of arcades, the “thrust” of pinnacles – or the flow of positive “Qi” – and focus on experiencing space and masses as vital fields of energy. We look for insight, too, by applying literary and linguistic analogies – and metaphors – saying that built environments are “texts” that engage in “dialogues” with us and each other.

The list has essentially no limits.

At times the analogies – and not only the intended ones – seem so apt they take over, and buildings are given names – pre-empting expectations and first impressions –  like “filing cabinets” or “fortresses,” the dancing Fred and Ginger building in Prague, New York’s Flat Iron and Lipstick buildings and, more recently, a Bird’s Nest in Beijing.

The dysfunctional but awkwardly dancing “Fred and Ginger” building in Prague


The important point is that analogies have set in motion experiences rich with broader associations – for better or worse. Each activates its own networks of memories and points-of-view, and those interweaving channels add more dimensions of expressive language to experience – especially another level of clarity and pleasure when the built forms trigger thoughts and feelings appropriate to, and enhancing our use of a place. Naturally, many are routinely put to work when built environments are employed in branding strategies. 

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The next post continues exploring the idea of understanding one kind of thing in terms of another, but in allusions, metaphors and imagined human qualities.

This is the thirteenth of a series of posts titled 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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