A New Humanism: Part 19

The center is key to our understanding of ourselves, our built environments.

The evolved body’s structure leads us to feel that we inhabit space through three sets of sensed coordinates – front and back, up and down, right and left, radiating out from a center.

Front/rear: encounter and feedback

Front is where the senses are focused, most body language spoken, and as a result, where we’re mostly likely to communicate consciously or unconsciously. And further, our eyes are at one end of a shifting axis along which we expect to see and move, physically and imaginatively. In almost any hierarchy – of a body, a group or a place – whatever or whoever is at the “front” tends to be the most influential and highly involved.

Following the common analogy of façades and entrances as a face and a frontal view like our own, we turn toward them for “eye contact” and expect critical messages, bold or subtle, to be discovered there.  In the “facial expression” of a place that’s built – in its composition, ornament, candor and performance – we read both its functions and also the convictions, and motivations of its investors, operators, and designers. Then, just as in an encounter with a person, we evaluate how this total place is going to fit into the trajectory of “my” life –or not – and we may unconsciously reject or imitate and mirror what we see. In any case, for better or worse, our fine-tuned detection system, which gives primacy to reading those facial expressions, means that we quickly judge both people and places by their “front” – by a surface “appearance” – and our publics expect the presentation of a proposed design to start with images of the “front elevation” and “main” entrance.

We tend to look for, and see faces everywhere – even clouds or rock profiles – and one of the pleasures that leads us to walk city streets, public gardens or plazas is encountering the succession of expressive faces of both people and the places we’ve designed. Then, because we are often moving to and through a place, and with changing intentions at each decision point, the experience of a façade that counts becomes an on-going “event.” It’s the sum of changing responses to changing compositions as we turn to address them moment to moment, responding to a compelling spatial pathway, landmark or view that becomes a conduit for the axis of the eyes. The ground plane, too, where we walk and work is, in a sense a horizontal façade; rising or falling, textured, channeling movement with edges and gateways, it is loaded with information.  Closer in, naturally, the nuances of a “personality” and storyline are in the scale and details of entrances and openings – confined or generous – and the whole topped out by a welcoming shelter or protected by intimidating stairs.  All stir first impressions, and the accumulating “façade experience” is refreshed again and again as each space meets the next. In Louis Kahn’s words, “The plan is a society of rooms,” and we would add, in the historic centers of Savannah or Philadelphia, a “society” of streets and squares.

The messages on a façade are not necessarily, of course, what the designer intended.  In our industrialized habitat the initial biological sense of “front” and its role can lose its priority. As the scale and complexity of our ventures have increased, and built environments are overwhelmed by the costs and benefits of mechanized equipment, the facades that count, for most of us and much of the time, are tangled interfaces of transportation, destinations, and servicing.  That’s a constant in the cityscape-landscape-architecture-interiors continuum, and as the fragmented expertise of today’s design teams follows its own briefs and its own budgets, “back” can become “front.”  Then our first impressions, our day-to-day experience, starts and ends in dispiriting parking structures, lifeless asphalt lots, service yards, back halls or masses of cars, trucks or buses crowded into once splendid historic piazzas.  And proudly designed places are often experienced first and repeatedly as desolate, dangerous, alien, and inhuman.

“Inhuman,” though, is the wrong word.  We’ve made a choice among predilections. Those places are shaped by priorities we give to conflicting but still distinctly human values and motivations. This reversal of façade is about status given to comfort or practical use of time rather than sights, sounds, smells, and the tactile arts.  And, in this sense, design is like evolution itself.  We accept the “best compromises” we can make.  The point of a new, broader humanism, of course, is to make the “best” better by systematically integrating the living experience of a mind and body – the “livability” or what it’s like to be there – with the well-thought-out technical and operating standards at the core of a team’s design criteria.

Up/down: the contest with gravity

Because the structure of a human body is an adaptation to gravity, we understand its force instinctively, feel it everywhere and, as Scott pointed out, transcribe those feelings into – attribute them to – places we’ve designed and built.  We also observe workable and failed built environments – or in nature, the integrity of rock formations, structures of trees and angles-of-repose in hills.  The result is both pre-conceptions and an anxious, on-going awareness of strength and stability as we search for the comfort of reliability or the excitement of safe perils.  And body chemistry responds as we take pleasure in stable ascending forms, while falling is associated with gloom and retreat, even ultimate underworld punishments. But not always; in the face of threats, “up” can also mean unstable and vulnerable, and “down” can be the route to security and refuge. The response depends on our “personal project” of the moment, but the feelings are always present.

For the same kinds of reasons we tend to search for, or imagine stable verticals, paralleling our own upright posture, and horizontals, the plane of both movement and resting in a gravitational field – in Wright’s term, the “earth line.”  And we sense instability in diagonals – an anomaly, processed in a different brain network that alerts the senses. As a result, we feel aroused, disoriented or fascinated by intricate imaginative complex movement through a Piranesi-like scene or an encounter with out-of-plumb openings, sloping floors, or the campanile in Pisa.  At the same time, we can become so sensitized to messages in diagonals that many are able to identify a culture from the angles of a roof slope, or functioning landscapes by their gradients.

Being constantly aware of the strength and energy required to support our own verticality and balance, we read into façades and landscapes – and also each of their component masses, arches, columns, openings, groves – a kind of individual “center of gravity” like our own.  We sense a visual weight.  And when we encounter New York’s Grand Central Terminal or mid-town downtown towers, we sense a victory over gravity – a release – and tend to feel empowered ourselves, transcribing the buildings’ capabilities – the upward climb and energetic penetration into the sky and space – into our own bodies. Or at Dubai’s swelling Burj at Arab hotel we’re thrilled by sensing the immaterial wind’s counter-force.

At another scale we feel heavy loads forcing an entasis into columns or safely supported on a sturdy, broad-stance base, or a foundation solidly merged into earth forms as a geological metaphor.  And we experience both together as in rocky hilltop’s castle or towers, or the massive chimneys that seem to anchor Wright’s cantilevers.  In the same way, we take pleasure in the subtle expression of resolved gravitational forces in a classical façade, as we do in our bodies, or in feeling the play of “weightless” tapestries, awnings, fabric tents, or glass sunscreens alongside an earthy masonry.

Further, because of their sense of conquest, height and “up” have become metaphors for competitive success, transcendence, and ranking systems in hierarchies.  And for centuries, with soaring lines and hovering roofs, we master the pressures of gravity in dematerialized built environments – in a Gothic cathedral, of course, or a painted Baroque ceiling opening to heaven. Today, we have developed technologies that enable the walls and ceilings themselves to become weightless, “disappearing” into windows and skylights – or we use the elegant spire of New York Chrysler Building to dissipate its masses of stone and steel into the sky. 

In a parallel way, all around us we challenge gravity by controlling the inexorable descending flow of water with aqueducts and irrigation, and then celebrate our life-giving victory in the long bridge of the Pont du Gard or the explosive chutzpah of fountains.

Celebrating the control of water in the chutzpah of Rome’s Trevi Fountain.

Right/Left: symmetry and balance

We live with a constant awareness of our visible, tangible bilateral symmetry around a central vertical axis, linked to an always-alert sense of balance. And in the people and objects we encounter, we welcome the pleasure of recognizing a similar, resolved equipoise. As we evolved, some scholars think it likely that symmetry came to distinguish alive from inanimate and indicate health and “normal” growth – fundamental to selecting the best possible mate – and, as a result, a mark of “beauty,” and at times symmetry alone has been called beautiful. But whatever that connection may be, for millennia and all across the planet people have made symmetry and balance a guiding pattern for setting boundaries, framing views, and building environments they honored or valued most – the home of gods, gardens of kings, a plantation out in the wild colonies, or the stable, lasting dignity of the law and social contracts.  It tends to tell a story of a clear, established, settled order-of-things.

Our internal experience of balance is as complex as it is demanding – a coordination of information from the scanning eyes, tensing muscles and joints, and its own specialized receptors in the inner ears.  And it’s dynamic.  We are continually adjusting, either to restore equilibrium or to savor the sensations of change in dancing or sports. And in response to the continuing cultural disruptions of Modernism, we’ve tended to transcribe or project our feelings into an energetic but resolved asymmetries of lines, spaces, and masses in such places as Gropius’ coolly rational Bauhaus or LeCorbusier’s surprising, almost alive chapel at Ronchamp. It’s one of the pleasures of the implied motion sculpted by their many successors – Aalto, Halprin, Burle Marx or Gehry and many others today. Culturally and biologically we’re drawn into the pleasures of sensing complex balance, but unconfined exploration in fluid, effortless movements.

LeCorbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel – resolved asymmetry and almost alive

Locating centers and links

We feel centers of life in our body – each with a distinctive function – a beating heart, the “gut” that responds quickly to emotions, a center of gravity, and above them the head, a central concentration of observation, knowledge, and control.  And we seem impelled to incorporate “centers” in our designs and to find them in built environments. Again, we simply expect them to be there. 

In an unfamiliar city, campus, neighborhood, building or landscape we tend to search out the central gathering places – nodes, the notable landmarks, a centrum – the highest-concentration of a community’s energy and people-acting in public.  That’s where we expect to discover the signs and symbols that tell about its past and present life.  The place may be as small as a hearth or other promises of food, warmth and welcome; or it may be the presence of fertile land or flowing water – as tokens of a settlement’s sustainable life – in a central village green, or along a waterfront promenade.  Or in Paris, the Place de la Concorde has linked the heart of branching circulation systems to the flowing Seine, the centers of control and memories at the royal Louvre and gardens – symbols of the life-or-death history of the nation – and to a national axis-of-France, along and beyond the Champs-Elysées. 

The words “center,” “core,” and “central” pervade our names for the elements of built environments – for business or recreation, health care, transportation, arts, or worship.  They anchor the order we want to perceive.  And to organize them into coherent functioning patterns, we routinely design and name them for a body’s experience – with a “central spine,” or our “center-radial-circumferential” sensations, or the crossing axes in the grids that seem built into our geometric awareness.  The important point is that we tend to feel restless and disoriented until we sort out the centers and their links. 

Next: the organizing roles of human scale and rhythms in experiencing the order in the places we design.

This is the nineteenth 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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