A New Humanism: Part 18

The body that responds to the built environment

Following an “introduction” in parts 1 and 2 were a series of posts exploring the evolutionary “origins” of our responses to built environments and then, more specifically, “The Mind that Encounters Architecture.” This next series explores what happens in “the body that responds.”

In their innovative study, Body, Memory, and Architecture, architects Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore spell out how the experience of architecture originates as a body’s responses – how architecture is, in a sense, a “body-centered” art. They distill our enormously complex human nature into convincing insights, and the ways they trace out their significance make their insights immediately available to apply in practice. The basic ideas, once they have been stated, may seem simple and obvious–fact, they have been exploited brilliantly by artists, designers, and critics. Yet the power of the insights to steer designs into more satisfying, humane environments – from grand monuments to livable communities – is more often mysteriously neglected.

This is a mystery to me because generations of educators and students have had readily available Geoffrey Scott’s extraordinary The Architecture of Humanism. The first of many popular editions was published in 1914.

More from Metropolis

The Architecture of Humanism

In clear and persuasive language, Scott describes the pleasure, the “delight,” we can take in the art of architecture – the line, mass, space, and coherence of the form itself – as we transcribe the compositions of physical contours “into terms of ourselves and ourselves into terms of architecture.”

“The whole of architecture is,” Scott says “invested by us with human movement and human moods, given clarity and value by our intellect.” And he summarizes this way: “The humanist instinct looks in the world for physical conditions that are related to our own. For movements which are like those we enjoy, for resistances that resemble those that can support us, for a setting where we should be neither lost nor thwarted. It looks, therefore, for certain masses, lines and spaces, and tends to create them and recognize their fitness when created. And, by our instinctive imitation of what we see, their seeming fitness becomes our real delight.” This, he says, is “the natural [spontaneous] way of receiving and interpreting what we see… This is the humanism of architecture.”

He describes how, without conscious effort, we follow lines of paths and sculptural gestures, tracing out with moving eyes their orientation, extension, and interpenetration until resolved. And, within our bodies, we sense the movement as an eloquent line “speaks to us.” And mass, its contours and dimensions in light and shade, is sensed – like a human body – in terms of its unity, stability, and proportions, and at the same time its pressing weight, balance, and support, as if they were forces we feel acting on ourselves. Likewise, the configuration of spaces are sensed in terms of the body’s potential movement or repose – open-ended or enclosed and secure – with the resulting clarity and pleasure, or contradiction and confusion.

Then, what the body senses and feels, the mind tries to understand, and together they bring into play our capacities and memories to find or invent coherence – intelligible, usable patterns and order – just as we experience in ourselves a consistent cohesive presence, or literally, a person-ality.

Palladio’s Villa Capra, “La Rotonda” near Vicenza in Italy.

For some of us, this is a narrow, essentially sculptural definition of architecture. And perhaps because Scott was writing in Italy as a colleague of Bernard Berenson and a literary rival of Ruskin’s, he narrows his view further to the classical tradition in design – Greece, Rome, and 400 years of Renaissance architecture. He dismisses both medieval traditions and the 19th and 20th centuries’ romanticism as “misplaced logic.” But the long and versatile life of the classical forms, designed “when thought itself was humanistic,” still tells his story today. “The center of that architecture was the human body,” he says, and when we feel an arch “spring,” a line “soar” or a dome “swell” the body responds before we grasp the cultural messages and meanings.

Scott calls this response “unconscious mimetic instinct,” and recent studies of the brain show what is happening. First, we spontaneously tend to mimic, to mirror – reflect – the movements and feelings we sense in both the people and places around us. And second, in order to cope with the overwhelming complexity of sensations, we are continually mapping in our whole body neurosystem, a representation – a simulation – of our surroundings. It’s in that “embodied simulation” – the same predilections/capability widely used in sports training – that we fix in our memory, predict what will or could happen next and then take action. Third, simply intending or imagining action – exploring, soaring, falling, relaxing – activates brain regions that are involved in the actual physical movements themselves. Those sensations naturally arouse memories and reasoning, and trigger the body chemistry that diffuses through the mind and body as pleasure, confidence, anxiety, fear, curiosity or desire. The end result may be as fleeting as a quick navigational decision or as lasting as an aesthetic experience. But the response is not optional; it’s everyday life.

An organizing metaphor

The important point, extended and studied further by Bloomer and Moore, is that the evolved body is the primary medium for an experience of the built environment. And the mind uses that physical experience, past and present, as the most reliable basis and, in a sense, an organizing metaphor – a kind of instinctive frame of reference – for understanding, judging, and designing the built environment. They apply, too, the work of contemporary philosophers and creative social scientists – the cutting edge of their moment – bypassing the dead-end idea that the body is separated from, and somehow “inferior” to the mind.

In a sense, they spell out the visceral components of responses like those explored in Places/people on earlier posts. And I would add the idea that this organizing metaphor, together with our superb detection skill, inescapably guides interactions with all of our environments – not only the places we build, but also with people, with nature, and with our own mental, intellectual environments, “in here.” Then their combined insights seem to me to lead in the interesting, productive directions that I outline and expand on here.

A psychophysical framework

Bloomer and Moore describe how we tend to – are predisposed to – identify and interpret our surroundings in terms of our body’s own three-dimensional experience – four, for those who want to think of movement and time as a “dimension.” As we interact with environments and create the mental map of our total body, based on what we have learned it is and can do, that map structures how we see the world – with “me” at the center and extensions out into “my” perimeter – as we feel ourselves connecting and becoming an integral part of our surroundings.

The map tends to be made up of a unified perception of boundaries, dimensions, and coordinated parts, connected by centers and joints, plus rhythms and a sense of sequences as time passes. It’s the source of the edges-paths-nodes-landmarks-districts language that Kevin Lynch uncovered and codified, and it’s disciplined by an awareness of our own specific physical capabilities and the resulting patterns of cause-and-effect. When the senses are alerted by a built environment, that map – and I would add the stories we build within it – as much as, and often more than the place itself, is what animates the neural networks that become our “experience.”

Jefferson’s University of Virginia – the human psychophysical framework in practice – with its heart/lawn, topped by the domed head/library flanked by colonnades/arms, and a framed vista reaching out, extending its boundaries into – in his design and in his policies – the open continental frontier that became America.

Boundaries: Extensions of Ourselves

Our constant awareness of the body’s physical boundary – the separation between internal and external – together with the reach of our senses beyond, underlie a spontaneous, imaginative extension of ourselves into space. In this sense our boundaries are flexible, and they’re determined only when we actually enter relationships – interact – with a place. This phenomenon has become part of the conventional wisdom since such studies as “The Hidden Dimension,” Personal Spaces,” “The Territorial Imperative,” or William Whyte’s research on public places. They’ve shown how most of us inevitably and fatefully define, possess, and defend a larger, inviolable “turf” that is part of “me.”

The actual dimensions and meanings attributed to the extended space naturally vary across cultures and depend on the setting – among friends or strangers, isolated in broad open spaces, jostled in the brotherhood of stadium crowds or the voluptuous body heat of a ballroom. In our culture, we tend to define an intimate dimension by “arm’s length” or less, and informal, social, “conversational” distance up to about 12 feet in front us; the shrinking of these distances is a distinctive quality of many other cultures and essentially all festival, and celebration places.

But to understand experience and responses it’s important to recognize that we extend the sense of a “personal” space out along the pathways we’ve learned to other environments, especially where we have experienced emotional rewards and successes – work places, clubs, favorite landscapes, or the center of our village. We live, in a sense, in an environment defined by the boundaries of our actions.

In exploratory moods, we welcome, too, the fluidity and mystery of blurred boundaries – like the courtyards, arcades or porches where boundaries are intended to overlap, or the ambiguity of fenced perimeters intended to unify college campuses. Those semi-secure boundaries at Harvard’s Yard and its Houses invite diverse, improvised responses like the overlaps of college life with Harvard Square, and then, as they’re extended out along the Charles River – and the regional “T” and streets – personal perimeters become as open-ended as an imagination.

The Charles River, extending the boundaries of Harvard College life as open-ended as an imagination.

Marking out boundaries tends to be the first step in defining a home. And the vocabulary of the edges dominates the scene with walls, gates, or levels of stewardship. They’re marked most emphatically, of course, at the places we expect to protect – with a defensible perimeter at “my” room, a family’s home site and its vistas – its refuge and prospect extended out to the neighborhood – or a walled city, national border, or sanctified ground. We routinely calibrate those distances and mark their edges with physical forms or symbols that match the level of expected threats or intended invitations. And those boundary lines, especially “my” property lines, are the essential act of settlement. Once mapped, they are among the most permanent human marks ever made on the land – in cities and over countrysides.

Boundaries: Coherence

In a parallel way we welcome the clarity of a taut fitted skin of shingle-style houses, the undulating, “living” skin of a Baroque church inside and out, or the tall hedges of Southampton. In those unequivocal boundaries we sense a coherence, like the body we experience within our own enveloping skin, yet because it is the breaks in any unified boundary that are the principal clues for predicting how to use or navigate through a place, we take pleasure in discovering and exploring them. We see “invitations” into complex, layered spaces – the vistas through colonnades into linked courtyards or cloisters, glass walls, tree lined meadows, shuttered porches in hot climates or the continuous transparent iron balconies that define the edges of New Orleans’ streets. And the pleasure is doubled when we find nested within them a coherent, comfortable sanctuary.

The “living” skin of a Baroque church – San Carlos alle Quattro Fontane in Rome.

Boundaries:Design criteria

The recognition of extended personal space by designers is now commonplace when setting out criteria for built environments –in precise, carefully graded zones and perimeters of personal, family or public space, indoors and out; in personal space-allowances for crowded concourses, playing fields or parks; in criteria for privacy and personal expression at work spaces; or security provided by a prospect – eyes-at-the-window that overlook and protect “our turf” on the public street.

In reverse, we attribute boundaries and fields of influence in and around the architecture, landscapes, and settlements we build. Feeling as uneasy with crowding and invasion of their “turf” – their dignity – as we do our own, we design buffers and defend setbacks extending the protected boundaries of the environments we value – from a homesite to National Parks or historic battlegrounds.

The innate propensity to draw boundaries naturally creates conflicts – on the ground, of course, but also in a mind where they become obstacles to more effective built environments. This is one more case where the defensive pride of individual designers or our guild-like professions, and more profoundly the binary thinking that denies the facts of ecology, setting apart “human” from “nature” – or a mind from the body – obscures an essential unity.

The important point here is that the boundaries we recognize confer a sense of possession. They define “me” versus “others” and gain added power when felt to be ancestral, traditional or sacred – in other words linked to a family’s genes’ survival. As a result, a challenge can ignite instant passions, violence or group solidarity, and the high value placed on boundaries can be read in the mass of legislation governing land ownership and use and measured even more precisely by prices paid for secluded privacy or extended boundaries – spaciousness – indoors and out.

In other words, we move through a world organized by the boundaries that we perceive, starting with our own. And the energy each of us invests in identifying and defending them sets up, in a sense, overlapping, competing magnetic fields of varying strength that, attracting and repelling, shape our movements, experience and responses to the places we build.

* * * *

The next post continues exploring how we experience architecture in terms of our “psychophysical framework” – our three-dimensional coordinates, multiple centers and linked movements.

This is the eighteenth in 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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