A New Humanism: Part 14

Finding authenticity through references to iconic places, building details

Authenticity. In a way paralleling analogies, the mind welcomes the sense of authenticity or authority communicated through allusions – finding references, direct and indirect, to ideologies, social hierarchies, a person, events, stories or comparable environments of another place or time.  They are, in a sense, “quotations” of something else and imply a kinship. Most familiar in built environments – and fully exploited in brands – are the repeated revivals of styles and references to iconic places, associating a place we design with other admired, envied, or ancestral buildings, gardens, or cities – or past and present celebrities.

They have been an integral part of design in America since the settlement by Europeans. Before and after the American Revolution Jefferson’s and others’ tangible architectural references to the democracy of ancient Greece, and the virtues underlying virile, republican Rome, were their way of expressing the ambitions of their new Republic. Later the allusions in the Vanderbilt’s and others’ homes and gardens built up and down the east coast, were intended to associate them with European landed aristocracy – the American continent’s colonial masters – and express the validity, and the confidence in the social stature of this un-rooted crowd of upstarts. Christian churches still tend to allude to the spiritual certainties at the medieval peak of their power and, more recently, designs of new communities tend to allude, detail-by-detail, to the small towns of a romanticized past in east or west.

At a larger scale, when yearning for the refuge felt in an earlier home territory, we still try to transplant European or eastern landscapes in western American deserts, and other allusions invoke emotion-filled memories of earlier homelands in the architecture and street scenes in the urban villages of every colonial or immigrant settlement. At a place like Disneyland or the Las Vegas Strip, the high density of very different cultural allusions adds to the excitement and   “disorientation” into a novel kind of reality. At times, allusions relate to functions, too, like naturalistic ponds or the famous duck and hot-dog buildings, and crisply detailed metal and glass have been used to allude to the precise, efficient, high-tech thinking or manufacturing processes that go on inside.

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The effectiveness of many intended analogies and allusions can be limited, of course. By themselves, they maybe recognized only among “insiders,” people who have studied or shared a common history, religion, literature or the branding campaigns of corporate or royal powers. At a wider, more primal level, though, are the allusions we discover through our own visceral responses – ranging from our sense of the Earth’s permanence in massive burial pyramids and the domes of heaven in sacred buildings, and even the restlessness of the sea attempted in the stone details of the New York Yacht Club’s façade, or the glamorous sense of taking flight designed into Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal.

Saarinen’s TWA terminal in New York – allusions toflight sculpted around the passenger flows

Metaphors are a third way of “understanding one kind of thing in terms of another.” Where analogies and allusions tend to animate connections to physical sensations and tangible places, metaphors link places with concepts – abstract ideas and visions, like a garden as “paradise” or a house as a “machine” for living.  Or at a larger scale, landscapes and cities have been designed to represent a physical microcosm of an imagined world – like the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia or again, Versailles. Far more than figures of speech, metaphors are, in a sense, what make possible conceptual thinking about the places we design. And like analogies, they tend to be grounded ultimately in direct physical, everyday events experienced in our sensory and motor systems. 

Metaphors involving interaction with the natural world come especially easily. We are constantly immersed in its forms and functions – growth, decay, recycling, and renewal, water and energy flows, roots and branching, complex order and microclimates – and we simply and naturally draw on these as concepts when we design, respond to or talk about a built environment.

The most pervasive, though, originate in perceptions of our own mind-body – like the feeling of “up,” or of overcoming the burden of gravity – an urgent matter that’s routinely translated into competitive and emotional terms. Above and “high” tend to be metaphors for “more” and “better,” victory and, ultimately, the physically unachievable “heaven;”  “down” tends to be the opposite. Physical temperature sensations, warm or cold, are used as metaphors for person-to-person social relationships and then extended another step to describe those social qualities sensed in a built environment. And concepts like formality, dignity, and control in classical design principles seem grounded in our own physical order, balance, and stability. And we routinely describe places in terms of the sense of boundaries and containment, of core and periphery – the way we experience ourselves. Each of these ideas is explored further later  – in The Body that Responds – but below they are applied as the source of a whole range of specific, often decisive responses to a built environment.

Places/people.  In The Architecture of Happiness, philosopher Alain de Botton spells out persuasive examples of how we tend to perceive buildings and people in similar terms, in analogies, allusions, metaphors – using parallel concepts and, as a result, the same vocabulary. In addition to “architecture,” the idea applies equally, of course, to landscapes and cityscapes, but also everyday objects that we give personalized names – like houses, animals or boats. The point is not, of course, that the physical places or things themselves have human feelings or qualities. What’s happening is that we explore, interpret, and come to understand them with the same detection systems, brain structures, experience, memories, and reasoning that we use in our contact with people. Our experience may be far less intense, but we respond with the same mind, body, and the language we speak, to whatever surroundings are “out there.”

What’s happening is that we’re applying what we’ve learned in the primal relationships experienced within ourselves and with each other – from birth. We tend to judge whether a place is distinctly masculine or feminine, warm or cold, welcoming or domineering in its posture, competent, graceful or awkward, retiring, reclining, boisterous, charismatic or honest. We take pleasure, too, in recognizing and relating a place to our unique personal values, and in the mix is the full range of abstractions that we use to position each other in a society – beliefs, styles, ideas, interests, status or power. Just as we are quick to read attitudes toward social class, religion or ideology in human conversation, in parallel we find them in the modest good manners of Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square or at another extreme, the militant grandiosity of a crusader’s castle. The “halo effect” comes into play too, when one outstanding fragment, like a smooth “perfect” skin, casts its glow, for better or worse, over the whole person/place. Finally, we make emotional judgments: do we resonate with, love, desire, detest, or envy the kind of personality that we read into this place. Does it echo or reflect our values and tastes or reject them? 

Louisburg Square on Beacon Hill in Boston – a crystal clear story of the puritan society in “New” England

“Generations” are recognized in built environments, too.  In a gentrifying historic district or an expanding college campus we tend to value designs that allude directly to layers of predecessors – respecting them by blending and extending our reading of the trajectory of their history. And ultimately we may even give to the history symbolized by an environment an authority over our lives – calling them ancestral or sacred, and we sacrifice other interests to protect and restore them as National Historic Landmarks, World Heritage sites or sanctified ground.

Further, we each tend to mirror in ourselves the qualities we sense in a place; we adapt to their body language. And we tend to admire places when we discover in them the range of qualities that a human individual has needed to survive and prosper – the energy and confident spiritual enthusiasm felt in Gaudí’s work or Chartres, or the measured, controlled strength and permanence of Roman engineering, the welcoming generosity of space in great estates or urban parks, the authenticity and earnest integrity found in parts of historic cities like Annapolis or a Vermont village, or the vitality and optimism in marketplaces or Victorian rooflines, a dedication to rationality and learning in a neo-classical courthouse, or the independence of a free-standing home or a compact, cohesive village surrounded by the fertile productivity of farms, forests or water. We read relationships between buildings, land- and streetscapes in human terms, too: we see in them – and their sponsors – competition or cooperating alliances, rejecting or welcoming us, almost like a family member or friend. Then, depending on the scope of our own education, we respond with pleasure, too, when we experience the cultivated, refined skills, creativity, resourcefulness and intellectual sophistication invested in a place by its human designers and builders.

Confidence, vitality and spiritual enthusiasm in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona

Many of us, too, depending on priorities we have given contending predilections, will admire first the efficient use of resources or earning power of a place, and others, the contribution to social vitality or cohesion of a community. Others may judge in terms of morality, too, as Ruskin did in his eloquent admiration of the honesty and integrity of Gothic craftsmanship and dismissal of the corrupt moral nature of architecture in the Renaissance, or as early modernists did in abandoning dishonest traditional styles.

In other words, like architect Geoffrey Scott whose ideas are outlined later, de Botton explores ways we tend to experience – his word is “transubstantiate” – architecture in terms of ourselves.  In his words, we call things “happy” that make us happy. And that may be why a literally copied design is so unsettling. Unlike a person, it’s a deception, like a mask without creative life behind it.

This kind of thinking has been dismissed as a primitive anthropomorphism or animism, or misinterpreted as a pathetic fallacy. But, of course, it is not. The human qualities we identify in our surroundings are not “out there” – just as they are not out in a sea we call “cruel” or climate called “benign.” They are “in here,” What’s happening is that we are experiencing a place – the “what is it like to be there” – and responding to it in terms of what kind of human qualities we attribute to it, in de Botton’s terms: what kind of human being would this place be? These kinds of judgments consciously and unconsciously permeate language and beliefs. They are a way the mind and body work, and we do not even try to describe experience and responses to a built environment without them.

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Next: The places we design have parallel lives as symbols that carry heavy loads of information; and then we structure and express virtually all built environments with symbols of hierarchies and stature.

This is the fourteenth 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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