A New Humanism: Part 2

Experience: What is it like to be there?

Experiencing architecture, landscapes, and urban places is inescapable and as integral to the pleasures and frustrations of life as our encounters with people – or with the natural world or ideas. And as we respond at conscious, but more often unconscious levels – spontaneously, instantaneously, and in reflection years later – the environments we’ve built shape everyone’s moods, thoughts, emotions and the ways we move and act.

But what we feel or think is only triggered by the places we’ve built “out-there.”  “Experience” takes shape when a mix of sensations flows into our inner worlds, already restless with memories, associations, trains-of-thought, and our motivations of the moment, in other words when they encounter our evolved mind and body – who we are “in-here.”

The people who regulate, design, and build the places that add up to our habitat know, or at least talk about this, and many are working with sophisticated, well-tested technologies, knowledge and ideas. Yet, look around. Over-and-over again the results on the ground, the places that are actually built and lived in – the clear, tangible expression of our society – after a first flash of marketing and excitement, prove disappointing.    

More from Metropolis

Designers, marketers, and the design media naturally tell stories of great successes. And there are many splendid ones. But the stories told outside these professions by the day-to-day users, heard in hostile public meetings, repeated in the popular media, explored in research, taught in universities, and broadcast in best-selling literature, are just as often about dysfunction, fragmentation, standardization, and alienation. The public reaction to surveyors’ stakes, bulldozers, and demolition is most often fear and defensive warfare. We talk about utopias that we don’t deliver and then settle for the least objectionable. 

Why does this keep happening when it’s so clear that we have created, in one style after another, finely-tuned places that give great pleasure year-after-year – places we call “loved” for their beauty or soul or timelessness or cool, awesome or user-friendly? The answers are, of course, as complex as the design and construction world itself – its established, interwoven laws, politics, social structures, and business, financial, and professional practices. All have long histories, skilled practitioners and advocates, and all produce unintended consequences. For this series, I have singled out the part of that world I’ve been in – what land planners, urban designers, architects, and landscape architects do, when we translate others’ ideas, numbers, and dreams into tangible places to live.

In all of these professions, there is no lack of competence, creative ideas, ambition or high expectations. And the practices and results envisioned in the modern movement – the neo-classicisms, organic architecture, new urbanism, post-modernism, placemaking, green building, and many other sensible ideas – have proven to hold great promise. The problem remains, though, that applications of these approaches and styles, in practice, tend to explore too narrowly the actual human experience of the places that are built. While these places may or may not deal brilliantly with functional and technical issues or display an intellectual rigor, they still tend to become focused more on the personal drive for expression by the designers, the “producers” and their design and business processes, than on the thought-out impressions and subjective experience of the “consumers.” They concentrate on the attributes of their products rather than the responses of the people who use them. Creative ideas are too often about the striking image, the style-makers, theories, manifestos, celebrity or a quick-fix, more than “what is it like to be there?”

Structuring what we know.

This is not for lack of resources. The design and construction world includes well-trained specialists in programming, expert in how people will use and operate their built environments. Others manage meetings and confrontations that can elicit deep, revealing, emotional responses from “stakeholders” and the public. Professional libraries and courses at all levels – all staffed by sensible critics, teachers, and historians – have fascinating studies of the senses, body images, ecology, aesthetics, and the other influences on human perception and use of an environment. And new perspectives are continually introduced from the other arts, mathematics, and philosophy. These are rich sources of thoughtful observations for anyone who wants to understand how people will actually experience and respond to the places we design for them. And further, there are practicing professionals, scientists, and scholars, continually enlarging and combining their analyses and imaginations to improve the “habitat.”  Yet, look around. The memorable places we call “great” are few and scattered. Our publics have a right to expect more from us.

That is why this series is about enlarging the ways we think about design by structuring concepts and knowledge we already have, organizing it into a perspective – a discipline – that can be applied, now and globally, to the design of distinctive habitats, to places that work, that feel authentic and communicate in a meaningful way to the people who are depending on us. It’s a perspective I call a “new humanism.” In many ways it is already being applied in rethinking the humanities and the arts and sciences of other creative professional fields – in entertainment, advertising, and politics – but rarely across miles of built environments where we live out our daily lives.

What’s going on in a mind and body

I use the term “humanism” in a narrow sense: to describe ways to design that are rigorously based on how human minds and bodies actually shape, and then respond to the places we build. I call it “new” in the sense that we are able to draw on the work of scientists and scholars who have been opening up new and expanding insights into nature and human nature – insights into the likely origins of the “intuitions” of the most creative pre-modern generations – and the exceptional talents we admire in our own. Given the rapid pace of discoveries about perception, “new” means, essentially, that we’ll just keep on learning.


Gateway Arch in Saint Louis — Eero Saarinen, architect

To start, I have drawn on six current sets of ideas about how the mind and body work, ones that seem to me promising for understanding how places are experienced, and they are outlined here briefly.

First,  what we usually call the “mind” and the “body” are so interconnected that the use of either word simply and inevitably means both. What affects one affects the other. Singling out the central role of the body itself in initiating the experience of our surroundings can, however, produce important insights. This is not, in itself, a new idea. Geoffrey Scott’s brilliant 1914 The Architecture of Humanism describes how “we transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves” and “ourselves into terms of architecture.”  And the 1977 Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore study of Body, Memory and Architecture went into more detail and drew on a wide range of then-current research to update and clearly spell out how to apply this often-neglected line of thinking. I build on both of these sources as well as on continuing research into the extraordinary mind-body, fine-tuned detection systems that underlie any experience of the physical world.

Second, the insights of evolutionary scientists about the origins of human success have proven enormously useful in providing new ways to understand what actually goes on in a mind-body – and why. Their studies of adaptation, natural selection, and the overwhelming drive for survival, winning, and prosperity – for ultimate reproductive success – can explain powerful underlying motivations for our day-to-day instantaneous responses and decisions – as well as the uniquely human imagination, creativity, reflection, and thought.

In this connection, Grant Hildebrand’s analysis of evolution-based ideas as The Origins of Architectural Pleasure summarized a wide range of recent research and applies it to architecture.  E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia and his other works, and Winifred Gallagher’s study of the Power of Place and, as she says, “How our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions,” open up related paths.  I build on those insights, many of which have, of course, consciously and unconsciously – enlightened the creative minds of perceptive designers for centuries. And they are aggressively and effectively applied today in the persuasion businesses.

Third, the maturing study and practice of ecology is demonstrating to all of us that the habitats we are building can only be understood clearly when we see our own behavior as one integral part of dynamic ecosystems. Distinctions like “culture-and-nature” or the nonsensical “development-and-the-ecology” may have some analytical value, but as organisms we are continually, intimately interacting with natural and built environments. The connections are an integral part of who we are at any moment, and networks in a brain, even the operation of some genes are molded by the on-going interplay of “out-there” and “in-here” that is our reality.

Fourth, the multilayered mental activities in the brain can be usefully conceived as two minds with no clear lines between them: the aware, conscious mind, and the non-conscious one that perceives, remembers, and thinks without our awareness. The latter is where essentially our entire experience is processed and stored, where memory is turned into what feels like intuition and where action begins. In consciousness we focus attention, bring into play, and bind together unified resources from the vast reservoir of the unconscious – the networks of relevant memories, emotions, reasoning, and imagination – as we search for significance in the messages being received by the senses. In what we call the “experience” of the built environment, most of the mental activity by far is at an unconscious level, ready to interact with the conscious mind to draw conclusions and make decisions. But just as often it simply directs the action itself.

Fifth, at the core of experience are the emotions, “feelings,” and every experience – every rational thought – has emotional contexts. They seem to have evolved to amplify our immediate perceptions and then inform the mind quickly and memorably about potential consequences.  They are sometimes called omens of life and death or success and failure, and the stronger the feelings that become associated with a place, the closer it is likely to be linked to basic “survival” values – family, alliances, security or freedom of action. Their power comes from their speed – faster than conscious thought – and their origins in changing body chemistry which, consciously and unconsciously, selectively arouses the body’s resources and steers moods, reasoning, judgments, and actions.

Finally, when making decisions about design for a specific environment, it can be useful to sort out the inputs into three interacting components. Most accessible to analysis is what can be called an individual’s personal project, what each of us is and intends to do or be. It is essentially the interconnections of each person’s unique genes and experiences, ambitions, expectations and motivations into a narrative – a trajectory of a life – that feels like it “makes sense.”  It’s the way we link our past, present, and future.  And, in response to changing external surroundings and internal body states, it naturally adjusts its priorities from moment to moment. 

Much of what feels personal is, of course, shaped by the culture(s) in which each of us has been immersed. Deeply imprinted networks of beliefs, symbols, metaphors, and stories whose significance has evolved over generations, organize our own perceptions and hold us together in communities.

Beyond their clear expression of the unique individuals and communities who created them, places are shaped, too, by a more basic, shared human nature. The personal and cultural are, in a sense, flexible elaborations overlaid on, and interacting over time with the primary, innate demands of biological structures that were created in the process of evolution – created by natural selection in the challenging, competitive world of survival-of-the-fittest.  And it is this third component – the individual’s way of evaluating how it will survive – win and prosper – that I explore and apply. By tracing out these sets of ideas and their applications, more of us, at all levels of talent and training – beyond just a gifted elite – can be released from the inertia of conventions, innovate with confidence and make experience of the places we build more moving, predictable, and powerful – or simply do what we set out to do.


The Spanish Steps in Rome

This is the second 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. The next post will examine human “origins” and, in biologist E. O. Wilson’s words, how we “stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.”

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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