A New Humanism: Part 15

Symbolism, the essence of communication

Whatever may be intended in theory or practice, the places we design always have parallel lives as symbols.  Symbolism is at the essence of language and communication; it’s found everywhere in the arts; and it’s inherent in the built environment because we expect it to be there, distilled as physical forms – materials and colors, obelisks and gateways and a whole range of icons that trigger associations. They’re our visible evidence of otherwise invisible ideas, values and beliefs – our own and those of the people who are legislating-regulating-investing-designing-and-building our habitat. They make it possible to communicate in abstractions, and in day-to-day experience they condense, and carry a heavy load of information.

Symbols gain credibility from repetition, and each follows its own path of change as well. Like metaphors or traditions we, as well as our predecessors in religion, politics, business, and design have continually invented new, and debased old ones, to fit the shifting contexts that give them meanings. They may be as durable as the classical orders and pointed arches, “sheltering” roofs, marching colonnades and altars, or as ephemeral as l’art nouveau or jugendstil ornament. 

The most effective display of their power in built environments is where the arts of persuasion have been practiced at their best – in the rituals and settings of royal grandeur or of ultimate immortality – in other words in associations with survival, winning, and prosperity – wealth, status, and the favor of the gods.

More from Metropolis

At a glance, a steeple on a skyline or soaring Gothic vaults – a reach up toward heaven – can, for millions, symbolize a path to salvation aided by a visceral sense of transcendence or, for others, represent a complex, reassuring, reasoned theology and truth. The serenity of the Buddha or elegantly written verses from the Koran or a skyline of minarets and domes can do the same.  Each can evoke an overriding emotional response – for some, peace, and for others, rage and violence.  In either case, we often merge the symbols of these larger alliances into our own identity, purposes, and destiny. And when we do, they can dominate responses to any person or any place.

The most prolific symbols that we design and “read” in settlements – the ones that frame experience of a place – tend to announce individual worldly competitive successes – prosperity, mastery, and security – in places built big, tall, spacious, private, refined or excessive, by the “winners” in a society, and alongside them, sometimes dominant, are symbols of cooperative successes – the lasting strength and cohesion of a community – the monuments, token walls and branding that stake out the boundaries of the territory we have won together. And in community infrastructure – in public statuary, land stewardship, fragments of “old town,” history museums, and names that pervade the built environment at all scales – we symbolize the record of the ancestors, technology or harvests that were the sources of our prosperity and distinction.

In parallel, we’re all aware of, and routinely exploited by symbols of physical pleasure, exciting the senses, that magnify the attraction of entertainment, markets, or places like the magnetic Disney theme parks and Las Vegas Strip. Those places have, with enormous success, assembled and built into their spaces, the colors, movement, sounds, and scents of both the “familiar” and the “new” as symbols they know will trigger the pleasures found in fulfilling whole arrays of primal human desires – across genders, age levels, and cultures.

Symbolism at work

Over centuries, in places like central Florence, a city’s population and crowds of visitors – those with almost any level of education in Western Christian civilization – continue to be engaged and moved by a story told in symbols. Walking through streets of sober dark stones, past the great fortified houses the strength, faith, and passion of an extraordinary people is brought to life by architecture and vivid sculpture–the artistic mastery of Ghiberti’s golden Baptistry doors, Giotto’s campanile, and the Brunelleschi dome. Then, reaching the Piazza Vecchio, the city tells its history in dramatic sculpture. The virtuous feisty underdogs David and Judith, invincible Hercules and Perseus, Cosimo de Medici returning to power on horseback are all backed up and unified by the pride and lasting, communal power sensed in the indestructible, towering Palazzo della Signoria. For us today, of course, the story they represent is not nearly so vivid and nuanced as in the city’s more embattled years, yet millions can still be thrilled by these expressions of the unity and victories of a living alliance of competing/cooperating families with their linkages, through symbolic biblical and classical ancestors, into the mainstream of our civilization’s myths and history. And the eloquence of the best talents of their time invites us into that narrative of realized primal human ambitions and independence.

Sculptural forms at the heart of the city telling the story of its strength and conquests


In a similar way, in places like the Washington Capitol Mall, each American generation enters into a living narrative. From the long axis from the historic Potomac to the classical hilltop Capitol, potent symbols of a civilized population claiming and mastering the wild lands of a continent. And the monuments on the prime axis – for Washington, Justice Marshall, and Lincoln – memorialize the actors who made the alliance, the uniting of the states, a reality. The paternal executive authority, no longer royal, is relegated to one end of a lesser cross axis where a house, not a palace, is surrounded by its vast, expert bureaucracy; at the other end is Jefferson, who put into words the new nation’s revolutionary affirmation of independence from a monarchy’s constraints on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Around them we have built museums and monuments – all secular – as symbols of the fitness of our unique republic and political philosophy to survive and prosper. And in the broad lawns and long axial vistas of the Grand Manner, the story told in symbols becomes, in L’Enfant’s, its designer’s, words, “proportioned to the greatness which…the Capitol of a powerful empire ought to manifest.”

The Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. – with symbols telling the story of the fitness and “greatness” of a powerful alliance

The important point is that symbols of life-or-death or trivial intangibles are woven – deliberately or unconsciously – through the narratives, hierarchies, and geometries of the places we design. And the symbols can become indistinguishable from the concepts behind them. The flag that flies from a building can make all the difference to a response. But again, it’s always about “me.”  Whatever the designers’ intention, we look for symbols that affirm our own moral values and beliefs – a place we feel secure and want to identify with.  As any campaigner knows, each of us will look for symbolic language to learn whether the people in this place value what we care about, and we will tend to experience, with pleasure or disapproval, their work and its meanings in that context.


In the search for legible order – finding familiar patterns or creating new ones – the mind is predisposed to detect hierarchies, in fact, to structure essentially all relationships into hierarchies. Like symbols, they pervade the built environment because we are looking for them, and we’re uneasy when we can’t find them. The impulse seems to originate both in family life – we’re born into them – and in the predilection and skill for ranking perceptions and responding to them in the order of importance to us – starting with the life-or-death threats and opportunities that instantly clear a mind and prepare the body for action. It’s practiced as a critical social skill in the innate impulse to judge and rank the “fitness” of the best potential mate or potential allies, and then to sort out individuals – in a goal-oriented hunting party, team or business – according to their special strengths and most effective roles.  In fact, social groups and settlements can’t – or at least don’t – exist without hierarchies and leaders. They make cooperation work.


Evolution, itself, works through hierarchies. As a part of our biological inheritance we are as much a “tournament species” as a “monogamous” one.  Competition is built into not only mating, but each “personal project.”  And everywhere we have some control, we compete through the places we build or occupy in order to be – or at least to be seen as – “number one,” earning, at some acceptable level, the status of a dominant “alpha” male or female, family, business, team, or city. 

And as we compete with varying degrees of intensity, we tend to keep score and rank success.  Whether higher or lower, we continually search for and take pleasure –in discovering and being able to fit “my” unique position, or my group’s, into a larger hierarchical order.  Then we use built environments to practice, show off or celebrate the subtleties of these social and economic relationships – in order to lay claim to, explain, and confirm them to allies or rivals – and naturally, ourselves.

We measure positions in these hierarchies – and put values/prices on them – along scales that are culturally, functionally, and locally specific, of course, but ultimately based on the physical qualities that characterize or symbolize evolutionary success–essentially a command of the most valued resources of a settlement: First, the land and water – the prime sites on hilltops and waterfronts – the 100% high traffic retail corner, the piano nobile, the most sought-after refuges and the broadest prospect. And second, in parallel, we read hierarchies in terms of our own physical, sensory awareness – higher, larger, in front, at the center – or of levels of energy, or focus, like the axial views of confident, challenging look-at-me visibility of towers.

And third, we express and read status in graduated degrees of ornament and comfort, like the “royal box” and the codified standards of a corporate headquarters, or in the graded ranking of entrances – the Pope’s door, the guests’ welcome – and the most rare, costly materials or stewardship or the most honored artists. In other words, personal status tends to be at the essence of the expressive façade of a place. And further, the legitimacy of higher status – of prestige – tends to be granted to the proven survival of the “best” genes found in “old money” or ancient trees, and a ranking in time – the glamour or celebrity of the “oldest” or the “first.”  As a result, in practice our perception of architecture, landscapes, and settlements can be structured – can be given meaning – as much by  the hierarchies we have built in our minds as by the topography and waterways of the underlying geography.

At the top, though, the most potent symbol of superiority is usually the excess that tells a story of unlimited winning – in a sense, the unquestioned favor of the gods. One high point in the architectural history of this kind of innate one-upmanship is in the words of Roman Emperor Justinian when he completed Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the largest dome in Christendom.  They are reported as “I have surpassed thee, Solomon.”  And he may have.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – surpassing Solomon?


Further, as both prey animals and predators, consciously or not, we share an impulse to follow leaders. As every ambitious person knows, we’re willing to restrict our own independent stature when, in a family or in alliances, we can align our own “personal projects” with people, ideologies or places that lend us the power of their greater knowledge, strength, practical skill or divine inspiration. We grant them prestige and accept their authority as a way to add meaning and validity to our own efforts. And the enormous resources dedicated to their continuing life – in the next world or in memories – are a measure of their value to us.

In the built environment that’s expressed by adapting our beliefs and tastes – our “personal projects” – to theirs, and struggling for proximity to the leaders and their favored places of the moment – mirroring their identity. That is, of course, also at the heart of using celebrity designers or the flood of branding strategies along retail streets, or establishing ourselves in the high-profile places where social elites display their accomplishments in the borrowed superiority of their “address,” a club, school, ballrooms, offices and tastes in the fine arts. 

Following related impulses, professionals in the building industries read and rank built environments as works of form or function. We award prizes and recognition based on symbols of the human virtuosity we attribute to their authors – the intellectual sophistication, refinement, fluency, reliability, authenticity or creativity that add levels of fitness and pleasure to life. Included in these judgments are often tortured architecture or barren landscapes apparently intended to express social dysfunction or alienation – human qualities rarely thought to have a survival value. But a current generation of leaders has a dedicated following that seems to see in them the pleasure of expressing a superior insight or wiser preparation for the real world we’re in.

Hierarchy wars

Balancing – often overbalancing – each person’s determination to stabilize or advance in a hierarchy is a fear and anger that come into play when stature declines – when events cause a separation or loss of control. And the story of settlement is almost inevitably the story of invading strangers with superior strength causing just that, from Indian “removal” to today’s less violent hierarchy wars – “outsiders” gentrifying an established urban village, a global Wal-Mart that takes over from the magnetism of a friendly, mom-and-pop downtown, for years the living heart of “my” territory, or co-opting the open landscape views I always thought were “mine.”

Because all new building projects necessarily disrupt established hierarchies – and are usually intended to – they can become a threat to “my” winning, surviving and prospering. They excite emotions – because that is what the emotions are for – and they provide high-energy fuel for combat. That is not a reason to simply work with, and support a status quo, but it is a reason for those of us who take on the responsibility to change a habitat, to better educate ourselves and, as humanists, to understand the complex striving that has created bonds to the sites and hierarchies where thousands of personal victories have been symbolically embodied over generations.

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The next post explores how we are predisposed to organize perceptions of a place “out-there” into resonating stories “in-here” – unfolding, dramatic plot lines with sequences of cause-and-effect – that frame our experience and responses.

This is the fifteenth 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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