A New Humanism: Part 21

Transcending our physical and mental limitations through creative action

Every ambition to advance, every competitive desire, every impulse to win, survive and prosper, is constrained by the frustrating, in-born limitations and vulnerabilities of our species.  Day-by-day we confront the boundaries of our senses, strength, energy, reasoning and lifespan, or beyond that, our ability to attract a partner or allies or respond to the urges of any number of high priority predilections. Yet, because those limits are paralleled by boundless imagination, we continually discover, or we invent, ways to transcend them.  With creative action – or fantasies that, within limits, arouse the same circuits in the brain – we expand our mind- and body-bound experience to feel the deep pleasure of release into new realms of opportunity. 

The impulse to rise above constraints into a different “order” of things – is as integral to responses in a built environment as it is in social, economic or sacred settings. And we experience our greatest successes not by adapting to, but by mastering – by rising above – the environment where we find ourselves – and adapting it to us.  At a landscape scale, we impose the functional priorities of human settlements – clearing, grading, channelizing, planting, irrigating – on evolved ecologies. In that “development” process we stamp on them, like a brand, the abstractions of our own geometries and machine aesthetics – drawing on the current practices and styles of the leading avant-gardes in business, transportation or the arts. And once we think we’ve overcome constraints of nature, we concentrate on transcending each other.  Throughout history, in our homes or cities – through all our personal territories – we try to rise in social hierarchies above more mundane competitors by living in ways that tell stories of our wealth, knowledge, refinement or piety – and tend to continue until we’ve arrived at astonishing levels of excess. 

We spend recklessly to transcend gravity.  Roman, then Romanesque and then Gothic builders started us out on escalating paths to dematerialize structures with long spans, transparency, “divine” light, and the daring heights that intend to link us to heaven.  And Renaissance design vocabularies refined spirals stretching up toward infinity and those domes and ceiling art that brought heaven down to earth. Even with more secular motivations, the body and intellect are stimulated by the sense of release, indoors and out, by soaring spaces, or the long leap of a bridge, the thrusts of towers and mass, or the dances of swirling forms – or reaching “the summit.”

More from Metropolis

Following the same impulse, we compose landscapes where we feel released from an unruly world that we can’t control. It’s an impulse seen in the gardens of French chateaus, where the privileged court built the ultimate privilege – transcendence into another, more orderly, regulated world of perfected human geometry and arts – with no troubling reminders of the world they are exploiting.  Or in cities, to be released from the confinement and chaotic pace of life we crowd into natural worlds of parks reconnecting to another, freer order-of-things in fertile meadows and savannahs. And we escape limitations of disappointing day-to-day life by inhabiting the idealized worlds of romantic narratives of other ages and places – in a home or care-free resorts and theme parks. Or we may try to transcend our collaborative industrial destruction of the planet by living “off the grid” in harmony with a sustainable nature – or reaching still further, by inhabiting the utopia of virtual realities, old and new. 

Along those same lines, we take pleasure in the symbols of mastery, prosperity, and survival in very old built environments – cities, forests, and ruins – that seem to have transcended the passage of time – the decay, the entropy of aging that we know is in ourselves.  And wherever we look in the human past and present, we see a compulsion to build architecture and landscapes – monuments, memorials, pyramids, and burial “cities” – that signify ultimate transcendence of our genes over death itself.

But even while we’re still bound to the earth, at another level of human capability many people can experience in tangible places what feel like spiritual dimensions – experiences that seem to extend the everyday limits of our physical and intellectual reach. In an “inspiring” overlook/prospect a “contemplative” meditation garden or in the intensely focused “drama” of theaters and cathedrals or a desert monastery – working with sky, light, sound, scents, and sculpted space – places we design have been able to heighten insights into mysteries. When the setting can be made free from ambiguities and distractions many people talk about a transformation, escaping mundane, transient experience into another, superior level of consciousness, beyond any earthly human limits.

Looking ahead, we can expect aggressive explorations in the arts and escalating sciences of modernism – together with the lure of “the new” – to continue these kinds of searches into other worlds. And in an imagination everything seems possible. But, of course, it is not. Just as we have our innate human limits, we’re inseparable from the natural world where we evolved and its limits. As each of us continues to learn more, we continue re-educating our intuitions, just as we did through childhood. In effect, we are reordering the priorities we give to predilections, in this case to conserve resources for our families – for our genes, our presence that will survive into generations to come. The result, a growing sensitivity to the health of the planet and its ability to sustain our lives is refocusing and putting practical boundaries on our imaginations. And that is becoming an urgent, life-or-death facet of an emerging, broader, more forward looking humanism.

Body States

Encountering a built environment, or any environment, it’s the body that responds first. Triggered by the senses and moving faster than thought, body chemistry starts mobilizing the mind-body resources – the ones needed to deal with what we’ve sensed is the most urgent or most appealing task at hand. When a call comes for action, dozens of specialized hormones are prepared to rush into a bloodstream, and neurotransmitters send other chemical messengers from cell-to-cell. Together, they’re able to redistribute blood flows and change its pressure, adjust breathing and heart rates to provide more energy or less, tense or relax muscles, change skin conductivity and the functioning of the senses. And then, like a gut feeling, the messages sent from the body to the brain can go on to re-order priorities, to exaggerate or mute memories and to shape reasoning, moods, motivations and patterns of action.

We have all experienced a powerful, uncontrolled surge of anger or empathy, or the chemical highs and lows set off by medical or recreational mood-altering drugs. Both engage every aspect of the response systems – from the chills of direct, visceral sensations to levels of receptivity, belligerence or amusement. As a result, at any moment, starting from the first impression, it is combinations in the chemical mix – the “body state” – that is responding to the substance and significance of what we perceive. It permeates any emotional “mental set,” the contexts in here that give meaning to the expressive “languages” of places we build. It sets the tone, pace, and intensity of what-is-it-like-to-be-there.

There is still much to learn about the biology of emotions and the moods that outlast them. Each chemical/electrical mix can flood brain circuits in complex ways. Some have been widely popularized and exploited – like the rush of adrenaline that prepares a body to use energy at a high rate, or of testosterone that puts extra energy and a confident, aggressive spin on responses plus a sense of control that elevates risk-taking. And we’ve put to medical use the knowledge of neurotransmitters – like melatonin that patterns alertness over twenty-four hour body cycles, or the cortisol that underlies stress, or the feel-good rewards of serotonin and endorphins – or the insistence of dopamine-induced anxious anticipation that drives our searches – the craving that sends us off on a pursuit-of-happiness. Then there’s the “socializing” oxytocin that tends to lower our defensive thresholds and enables trust and attachment to people and to places. And many others – related to learning, attention, memory – come into play as they’re aroused by the senses and expectations, or over time, imagination and reflection.

The on-going revolution in the neurological sciences is still decoding age, gender and culture-specific differences. But the point here is that a body-state – putting on pressures that are largely out of conscious control – underlies the profiles of each person’s individual behavior at any moment – and ultimately, the whole-person responses to a built environment.

Designing for the chemistry

Much of our economy, much of culture itself, is about stimulating body states and fueling the thoughts that move us to action. And many built environments are designed to make that happen – in theatrical, ritual or celebration settings, of course, and in marketplaces and creative work environments around the globe. The immense resources that have been assembled in Las Vegas and Disneyworld alone demonstrate how sensitive designers can anticipate the momentum of emotions and motivations and then knit them together to stir inescapable chemical consequences.

The design professions, though, haven’t yet matched the skill of the entertainment and marketing disciplines – or charismatic political leaders. Again, in the words of our best design critic, Paul Goldberger, “The notion that scientific research might determine wise design decisions is only beginning to take hold…” Still, we all have available to us the same knowledge and techniques. And we have an enormous opportunity because we design both for “events” and for environments where lives are lived out hour-by-hour, year after year.

As a student, I was first struck by this idea at the simple “processional” along the pools and through the plaza that isolate Mies’s Park Avenue Seagram Building from the frantic, crowded street. It re-sets the chemistry for the pleasure – or anxiety – of experiencing the rational lucidity, calm, and detached self-confidence of the architecture – and the occupants. Then I realized that’s just what’s happening everyday in another key, of course, over on Fifth Avenue at St. Patrick’s Cathedral – and throughout the built environment.

Facing frantic, crowded Park Avenue, the Seagram Building Plaza resets the chemistryfor the pleasure – or anxiety – of encountering the detached, rational self-confidence of the architecture – and the occupants.

Even more simply and directly, places we design are intended to extend or enhance an experience with an intake of selected chemicals themselves – refreshing and refueling with fresh air, tastes and scents, sugars, alcohol, and caffeine. And we routinely plan settings for social contact as another form of changing the mix after concentrated, hormone-stoked work sessions – by designing places for casual meetings, business golf, a diplomatic reception or school recess.  

The important points here are, first, that nothing happening in a mind or body is independent for long. Everyone’s shifting body chemistry – their “internal weather” – is, in a sense, a malleable, moving context for what is actually experienced. It’s acting internally, but facial, verbal, and body languages are communicating what’s going on. And our surface expression, too – our posture, smile, frown or muscular tension – can, in turn, feed back inside ourselves to continue changing the chemical mix.

Equally important, the body chemistry that puts the power in early-warning systems and first impressions have degrees of staying power that can last over hours or days. Once activated, a body-state stays activated for minutes or hours. As a result, each of us brings to any experience a lingering moods and ideas that most likely were generated “off-site” in some other setting – primed often by intentions and expectations, marketing, social networking, design critics, the traffic on the trip to the destination, a sequence of rooms or views, or simply some long-standing personal obsessions. Little of this is under conscious control, and that is one more reason why a new humanism would focus on thinking-out more complete environments – designing not just places standing alone, but instead, “a-day-in-the-life-of…” a person there.

Out in the field

In a compact area in central Rome, if you bring up your body’s responses into conscious awareness you can feel your own “psychological framework” and body state at work. There, as Renaissance humanists started rebuilding the medieval city, their “architecture of humanism” created some of the world’s great places – Saint Peter’s, monastic churches, spectacular fountains, the Spanish Steps and on their landmark high ground, the Campidoglio.

Walking up the Capitoline Hill, you can still sense the commanding geography that made this citadel the ancient city’s sacred ground, the “presence” of Jupiter – and then later a prime Christian site and seat of the city’s secular government. In Michelangelo’s mind and hands the summit was re-conceived. Turning its back to the Forum’s ruins and the splendid but still medieval Santa Maria in Aracoli, he created a new “order,” a humanist’s theater for public life – a gathering place, welcoming but elevated, with clear boundaries and paths of movement, a combination of symmetrical facades and paving patterns enveloped by the dynamically shaped volume of space. Within that piazza are a graded hierarchy of scales and rhythms; stone structures that rest easily on the ground; a dramatized center marked not by an obelisk, but by the equestrian statue of the much-admired Emperor Marcus Aurelius – itself a heroic but clearly human symbol of imperial legends and enlightened world power. And unifying this hilltop refuge is the dominant axis between the tower of government that reaches into the sky and the long, framed prospect out over the energy of the living city below.

Michelangelo’s Campidoglio at Rome’s Center

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In the next series of four posts, I explore how the structure and interaction of our “five” senses shape experiences in a built environment.

This is the tweny first 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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