A New Humanism: Part 16

Stories and our need for them

A mind is predisposed to organize learning and experiences into narratives, and as we search for order and patterns, our attention is captured by human stories. We can’t resist clues discovered in unfolding plotlines, beginnings and endings or conflict, climax and resolutions; the search for causes and effects is built into our “learning” brain. And we’re equally drawn to moods and settings – all experienced through real or fictional characters that grow, change, solve problems and, ultimately, win in their own way. We tend to package the results in myths, legends, literature, and entertainment that bind families and communities together and ultimately define a culture. This happens, for each of us, in the environments we build as well. The narrative representations made “in-here,” as we mirror, or imagine ourselves in the reality “out-there” become our way to impose an understandable order on fragments of experience – and realize its pleasures. Like naming, stories create their context, giving perceptions a meaning.

Encountering a new place, we enter, in effect, into stories already underway.  And as the setting and the human life that animates it engages our interest, we tend to find our own place, to belong or not, within these flows of people, spaces, and events. As the accumulating sensations trigger messages, associations, and emotions, we fill in the details and fit them into our belief systems, theories, and prejudices. We weave them into our “personal project” – our own imagined journey through life with its intentions and motivations of the moment. Then the narrative momentum, this illusion that we can control, is the way we fix a built environment into our long-term memory and, as a result, merge it into our lives – and often into our identity.

Telling a story with a built environment is integral to design and is often done with great skill by people who know their audiences. And some of the most popular, memorable public places are those conceived as theater from the start – a stage where lives play out. Dramatic narratives are laid out for us with paths, vistas, suspense-and-resolutions, and the choreography of see-and-be-seen entrances and processions.  The great English garden at Stourhead is, literally, designed to tell stories of the owner’s family, of Greek mythology and a landscape architect’s ability to express “the genius of the place.”

More from Metropolis

Cathedrals and churches immerse us in a dramatic narrative of building a community around a faith, spelled out literally in windows, sculpture, and architecture, symbolically in rituals, and subliminally in flickering or suffused “divine” light and sounds. And Henry Adams showed the depth of stories they can tell in his classic Mont St. Michel and Chartres. He imagines for us how religion was woven into the medieval Norman warrior culture or, at Chartres, into the royal politics – the hierarchies – of an emerging French nation. In the process, he persuasively links them to the subjective sensory – visceral – experiences that can still animate our own personal storylines centuries later.

The “stages” that we design for the performance of stories may be as simple as a house – a one-act presentation of a family’s wealth or personality – or as complex and layered as a Grand Opera House. In a parallel way, when we restore historic places for reuse, and one narrative is written over another that still shows through like a palimpsest, timelines are added to our imagined participation in the life of a place. In new environments, a design team can create a larger, deeper sense-of-place by discovering – or inventing – themes and “back-stories” that celebrate a historical continuity of personalities, events and structures that did, or could have launched the plots that now include us.

That’s a way a story can be written and read across a city. There is a dramatic, compact one in the two generations of building centered around 1900 in Chicago. Places designed and financed there were enormously influential at the time, and generations later the narratives we read there are still very much alive. The spectacular 1892-3 Columbian Exposition – the White City – inspired the country with the classical language of a rational, wealthy, sophisticated, optimistic, conquering imperial culture. It was designed by architects serving New York’s and Chicago’s empire builders, the conquering investors, who, like Roman Emperor Augustus, found their primitive “Rome” brick and left it marble. At the same time, for another century large segments of the design professions came to deplore the “dishonest,” reactionary design that ignored the stirrings of the emerging industrial modernism both in their ancestral Europe and on a new continental frontier. Yet its classical imprint across the American continent endures as a way to design an anchor of stability and dignity.

Later, in an international competition to design its “Tribune Tower,” Chicago’s crusading newspaper, rejecting Saarinen and Gropius, chose to tell the story of its mission – in this raw, confident new-world city – with symbols of the transcendence, passion, moral rectitude, and authority long associated with Gothic forms, human craftsmanship, and towering, dominating, venerated cathedrals.  Again, at the time, dissenting critics compared its skyline to a giant spider sucking the life out of the building. Nonetheless, paired with the Wrigley Building, where another triumphant reach toward infinity was used to associate a business with old-world royal power, both are in full, dramatic view, creating one of the city’s signature addresses, where the Chicago River meets Michigan Avenue. This familiar gateway piece of urban design is still distinctive, legible, and vital in Chicago today as it anchors a premier corporate address spreading from the city’s origins at Lake Michigan to the “new” high visibility sites along the city’s inland riverfront.

The Tribune Tower in Chicago – the crusading newspaper of this confident new world city chose to tell the story of its mission in terms of medieval moral rectitude and authority

During those same generations, though, in other office towers a few blocks away, a totally new story was being told about a revolutionary culture – the industrial technology, rationality, and energetic iconoclasm of modernism. The practical construction techniques and the symbolic potential of high-rise commercial office towers – the new instruments and expressions of an open-ended commercial power – were being invented. The creative burst of this “Chicago School” – essentially by architects Jenney, Root, Burnham, Sullivan, and their colleagues – and the practical structural, functional solutions were frank, open statements of their aggressive, independent, pioneering turn-of-the-century mental-set. And at the turn of another century that architecture is still telling the same stories today around the globe.

“The Reliance Building – today’s aggressive, efficient, transparent tower technology refined” in Chicago in 1890-1895

Meanwhile a few miles west and north Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by a liberating modernism and a prairie frontier in a different way. Responding to the primal predilections that shape a home – shelter, refuge and prospect, anchored at the hearth and connected to the natural world, his houses rest comfortably on the land. For some, their informality and openness tells, too, about personal freedom and democracy in contrast to the imposed order of empire. And then in suburban Riverside, the Olmsteads showed how people drawn to the energy and economy of a city could still live – through tokens and symbols – in a story of a spacious, fertile, nature-dominated country estate. At the same time, the “endless” surrounding grids of Chicago’s immigrant church-and-tavern-centered parish communities, built at a new industrial scale, still embodied established, ancient, timeless narratives of village security, family, and belonging in an otherwise symbolically indifferent mechanized settlement.

Riverside – living, through symbols, in a story of a spacious, fertile country estate


We’re designing updated versions telling the same stories today.

As we read them, naturally, stories told by artists, designers, and builders may be widely shared, but, of course, there is no single meaning in any one of them. The seeds of narratives, like the meanings of symbols and analogies, are in the individual back-stories of the people who experience the place – in the memories and restless trains-of-thought of an inner world, where we each respond to the clues we detect in our own limited ways.

And the stories that we do read tend to be fragmented and unstable. The cause-and-effect we are eager to identify is rarely as clear as we would like it to be, and a quick imagination may lead us into the dead-ends of too-quick responses. But when the story telling we see in a built environment unfolds with a credible, human qualities of scale, rhythms, coherence, and relevant new surprises that keep alerting the senses or stirring emotions – within a background of reassuring familiarity – and when, in addition, designers’ expressive skill engages our attention with evocative, captivating style, technique and metaphors – and then when we experience the rituals or events that happen there – we tend to organize and rationalize our perceptions, filter out the distractions that don’t fit our present purposes, and we live both in the place but more intimately in our own resonating story – in what we have built “in-here.” 

Finally, the places we build and narratives that we, in a sense, occupy become one of the contexts that define a community and give our lives substance and meaning. For better or worse, when someone else’s style or scale of building or clear-cutting a landscape threaten the “comfort of the familiar,” they also disrupt the allusions and harmonies in the plotlines of “my” story. It’s a piece of “my” identity that’s at stake. The result: alliances of like-minded people institutionalize their mainstream stories. In this country, in Washington D.C., it’s the powerful Commission of Fine Arts, which operates at the “highest levels.” But all levels of community governance – states, cities, neighborhoods – legislate continuity of both environments “out-there” and shared narratives “in-here,” with impact studies, zoning, design approval, or historic preservation and the techniques of battle.

*          *          *          *

Next: finding some “deeper order of things” in geometry – and in ecology.

This is the sixteenth 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.

Recent Projects