A New Humanism: Part 26

Urban settings designed to articulate function, boundaries, and hierarchies can draw us into purposeful action

Continuing with the exploration of sensing space and mass, we welcome settings where the composition articulates functions, boundaries or hierarchies in ways that draw us into purposeful action.  We tend to align our own movements with the forms and rhythms that direct our movements toward a promising goal – avenues of trees, or vista-landmark-plaza sequences carved through a maze of landscape or cityscape – like the formal axis-and-landmark pattern Hausmann imposed on Paris, or the Rome planned by Sixtus V. And we follow the clarity of other magnetic fields-of-flows along Vienna’s Ringstrasse or the urban canals or Amsterdam.

And wherever we are, when we’re there, we tend to feel ourselves as a prime focal point. We welcome a well-placed, prominent fountain, a monument, places to sit, and a hierarchy of detail and scale – a composition that implies our own place to stand or linger and make our presence an integral part of the scene. Then the space(s) – the great streets, plazas and gardens – come to life for us as our responses organize and, in effect, “complete” an experience and anchor it in a memory.

These innate ways we sense and use space are the underlying sources of archetypes and are, of course, integrated into the mainstream of design vocabularies. At their best, many skillful designers have shown how well-paced sequences of sensations, actual or imagined in muscles, tendons, and joints, can be perceived as a kind of choreography. They work with the ambiguity and interplay of interlocking volumes, the density of connections, graded levels of shelter, acceleration or calm. And when we sense curving space and contours through the easy, flowing movements of the eyes or hands – the English gardeners’ “line of beauty” – we naturally tend to feel a visceral continuity of motion. When combined with smooth textures and soft surfaces, we tend to make associations with human movement and forms and benign enclosures. Or in a disciplined, analytical mental-set, they lay an innate/learned logic of plane and solid geometry over a place shape-by-shape. In other words, we can experience the pleasures of space configuration itself as a work of art, as step-by-step, vista-by vista we can be delighted by the “pleasure gardens” of virtually every culture, following rhythmic paths of color, form, water, courtyards or meadows with their controlled links to the earth and sky.

More from Metropolis

Space as narrative

Interwoven with the other senses, all of these space sensations feed our search for orientation, hierarchies, the “magnetic fields” of centers and boundaries, with their human stories – the information that tells what this place can do to or for me – and how I should act – in a “language” that’s as clear as words.

In this way we respond to dramatized stories designed for us – stirring progressions of religious rituals, or “pilgrimage” ways to and through today’s secular temples to prosperity where we are manipulated to act out our affluence and status in shopping and entertainment rituals, in grand hotels, or in the spectacular air and rail transportation terminals that lead us into the freedom and mastery of safe, fast, effortless motion – in a sense transcending the boundaries of space.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. The bold spatial vocabulary of the descending spiral, the “logic” of human flows in a gravitational field,frames the curator’s stories.

The point is that the spatial narrative is also organizing perceptions of light, color, texture, and all the senses around its three (or four) dimensional armature and animating the corresponding array of networks in a brain. In a sense, all of what we are responds to the changing faces/façades as we sight Rome’s Pantheon along a clear pathway through confining, crowded streets. Then, as we find the “order” and orientation of the Piazza, we enter into the compelling stories – the emphatic invitation of the axis, the columns’ strength, the symmetrical stability, then the transcendent dome’s superhuman triumph; and inside the surprising light from the sky – an eye looking toward the gods – the clarity and refuge of the welcoming “center” of a perfect circle and hemisphere, the rhythm of hierarchies and personalities along the walls, the unique hush of high space – and then, in an imagined representation of the cosmos, we recognize the pride and skill of our ancestors’ world-wide empire and of the succession of its two powerful world religions.

The Pantheon in Rome, an island of space with a “divine” light and form dedicated to the presence of the gods of two world religions.

Pushing out frontiers

Today, as our priorities shift and capabilities expand to match the ways we live, and we reach for more speed, efficiency, comfort, convenience and innovations, our intuitions are being re-educated with the insights and precision of new layers of science and measurement. 

Just as professions emerged to engineer the structures, materials, ambient light, sound and air of an environment, the spatial geometry of people at work and play, people on the move, people in public places, and people in crowds have been studied with a similar discipline. The human responses and behavior that add up to the operations of virtually every type of building or open space and the circulation routes that connect them have been translated into functional working data and implemented by experienced, genuine experts on design teams. And at the frontiers – at the intimate and superhuman scales – two fields of engineering have been filling out the ways space and touch sensations are linked to the experience of pleasure and mastery.


At small and in-close scales, scientists, along with the designers and manufacturers who apply their work, have learned how to measure and generally predict how a mind and body are likely to respond to their most immediate built surroundings – workplaces, equipment, and the furnishing of interior or outdoor places.  And their expanding discipline, “ergonomics” – in parallel with applied optics and sound – engineers the spatial fit between people and things.  Naturally, then, it’s a design discipline significant for the experience of virtually any place we design and build.

We all encounter places mindlessly – or accidentally – designed to induce the body chemistry of stress and fatigue: at one extreme are inept designs for seating, over- and under-sizing, awkward movements, misleading sightlines along with glare or distracting noise; at the other, the ease of a “functional fit” can produce a conscious, or lasting unconscious sense of self-sufficiency and well-being.  Either way, the resulting performance, safety or health factors can dominate the experience in and underlie any response to the places we design at any scale.

Like the other engineering disciplines, ergonomics has assembled findings from a range of experimental fields – in this case mechanical, electrical, industrial and information design, plus the “bio-mechanics” that link them back to human performance.  The engineering initially focused on basic anatomy and the demands of hardware – the machines – and throughout the built environments, detailed manuals were adopted for safe and efficient work-flow patterns with dimensions and contours based on personal convenience, comfort, speed, privacy, and crowding, all in relation to the demands of the work itself – from factory floor to computer screens. These “measures of man” and “human scale” studies have been exhaustively documented by creative furniture and industrial designers – Henry Dreyfuss, Niels Diffrient, Alvin Tilley – and have become the profession’s conventional wisdom.

But in our drive to continually expand and refine our ancient human partnership with “tools,” updated design criteria now routinely include deeper analysis of the people doing the work – our perception, reasoning, short term and working memory, stress reactions, social and cultural influences and, of course, participation in the design processes themself. In a sense we’ve added the decisive emotional content of an experience and a broader understanding of body-states that were often sidelined as mere “human factors” in the recent past.

Comfortable dimensions in crowded busy places – one simple page in the rich literature on ergonomics.

In other words, in the design of the furnished, equipped, fitted-out space, we have available a “fluent” language for designing more predictable responses. Naturally the successes and failures now permeate the habitat, and the professions, as always, keep learning more from the industry and the marketplace. As a result, we have developed another, often underused, precision tool of humanism that can be used to design the close-in experience of space as an integral part of the “culture” and strategy of our personal or corporate ventures.


At another frontier, we spend hours of our lives in built environments where we are pursuing opportunities and pleasures in machines at machine speeds – and encountering another scale of narratives, exploration and perils. Transportation infrastructure has become as powerful as geography – becomes, in effect, geography – in shaping settlements.  And plans we make for people using, or in conflict with vehicles, are an integral part of the infrastructure’s performance.  The design criteria being put in place, however, are the well-defended turf of specialized transportation planners, traffic engineers, and the industries that produce the hardware and the fuel, all guided by the current agendas of their stockholding, political and/or bureaucratic “clients.”  There is still no broad or value-balancing, open-market discipline.

Those professionals’ insights and standards, however, are mostly based on well-researched human capabilities. They have analyzed and measured ergonomic factors and the responses of the visual and spatial sensing systems as they relate to orientation, relative motion, expectations, reaction times, queuing, and clearances.  And they have often delivered clear, effective circulation networks, some logical information systems of signals and symbols, plus some workable – and some dangerous – geometric design. In addition, their modeling of urban movement systems – in a sense, a way of measuring cumulative propensities – can be used to predict, within limits of course, the performance of complex systems in the patterns of settlements we will build on the ground.

Although this fine-tuned humanism is a narrow one, it has produced another set of important precision tools for design, and we all can learn, improve and benefit from them.  That is the positive side. The negatives are the narrow specialization that seems a precondition and by-product of rigorous, politically-defensible studies, and over the longer term, the unquestioned authority of plans that have had to go through a formal governmental budget/adoption process.  Equally important, because of its public funding – massive, long-range, and “rational” – plus its emphatic, practical results, a transportation spin on human values and priorities has become a dominant force in shaping habitats. And the engineers have delivered – giving us all more speed and more efficient use of our personal time and effort – but often out of balance with other competing human priorities related to health, safety, and the overall quality of lives.

Because of infrastructure’s massive influence, an urgent role of a new humanism would be essentially catching up and restoring the balance through collaboration, integrating the important arts and sciences of the transportation field into a broader, wiser professional and political order.  As a start, the relevant engineering can readily become as regular and integral a part of architectural, landscape, and urban design education – and vocabularies – as, for example, basic structural engineering or horticulture are today. 

On a broader scale, alliances of enlightened governments, environmental scientists, developers, and professionals have occasionally been able to integrate bureaucratic and transportation values with the values of life on the land – what-it’s-like-to-be both in the travel segments and in the “origins-and-destinations.”  At a small-town scale New Urbanists, or at an urban scale Portland or Salt Lake City, and at a larger scale, New York’s parkways and Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon – where freeway travel has been given some of the same pleasures as touring “back roads” – show how that effort can be advanced and reveal the aesthetic qualities latent in a highway experience.

Freeway I80 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado – reestablishingthe aesthetic qualities latent in travel.

Other senses?

We may well have other sets of sense receptors making finer measurements or receiving other frequencies in the vibrations and radiation that continually wash over us. Other animals seem to incorporate magnetic fields and sunlight into their perceptions of space that we do not. Apparently sensing them was not as critical to our survival.

In addition, large populations centered in China believe we sense, and that our feelings and fortunes are profoundly influenced by, a “life force” called “qi” – and usually pronounced “chi.” And over centuries, the practice of “feng-shui” has developed a set of principles for channeling the flows of qi – positive and negative – in built environments. Many have to do with building sites – orientation, wind, water, and microclimates – that parallel western principles, but others, such as those relating to mirrors and blocking qi’s escape or entry points do not, and because of my western education are hard to accept.

Nonetheless, because of its widespread use, it makes sense to look in feng-shui for hypotheses that can be tested in ways that will satisfy those of us trained in a western traditional wisdom. The same applies to the ancient Hindu building tradition, “Vestu Veda.” It, too, deals with energy flows and specifies directional alignments and orientation of the functions of a home or temple. And it spells out ways to use the benefits of five “elements”: earth, water, air, fire, and space. Again, they are being actively studied, and it seems worthwhile to look deeper.

The important point here, though, is that we ourselves and our environments are so enormously complex and so under-explored, that the mainstream of a new humanism would be exploration itself – “opening all the doors” we can to learn the sciences and languages of built environments – and what’s happening “in-here” when we respond?

What our senses are not equipped to do

Finally, while we have an extraordinary fine-tuned detection system that evolved in ways that protect our wellbeing, it’s still limited. And in response, because we’re equipped to sense only narrow bands of sound and electromagnetic wavelengths, we have developed optical and acoustical sciences to broaden our abilities to see and hear.

But our senses of sight, touch, and smell are just as limited in their ability to sense a broad range of chemicals and bacteria in the air, water, and plants we live with. Although we’ve had millennia of life-or-death experimenting that identified poisons produced by the natural world, we’ve only had a short time to learn about and adapt to toxic substances produced by industrial labs and processes. Now in another example of what I mean by a new humanism – and the design professions working with the sciences and industry – we have been identifying and eliminating toxic properties in the construction materials and energy sources. It’s one more way for designers to control the full impact of the places we build on the people who are relying on us – doing what the unaided senses alone cannot do.

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This post concludes the two sections that describe experience: “The Mind That Encounters Architecture” and “The Body That Responds.”.The next five posts explore “The Languages of Humanism” and they start by positioning a new, broader humanism in the continuing revolution of Modernism. 

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 Pichlerwho drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.

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