A New Humanism: Part 27

Of opportunities still latent in the continuing cultural evolution of modernism

This is the first of five posts that explore the “languages” of built environments. And it starts with ideas about how our generation can guide and realize the opportunities still latent in the continuing cultural revolutions of modernism.


When a design team works together, each of us – owners, operators, investors, lawyers, marketers, scientists, and designers – naturally brings to the table our own convictions about how our audiences or a natural setting will respond to the places we build. The convictions mature as a changing mix of experiences is consciously rationalized into more or less cohesive sets of beliefs, the ideologies that guide our designs – both the processes and the decisions. We call these beliefs our personal expertise, design-sense, intuitions, or simple logic. They may be open-ended and flexible or crystallized into the images and words of a design manifesto – classical, organic, traditional, modernist, structuralist in all their variations – and may be distilled into aphorisms like “Less is more” and “God is in the details.”  In any case, trust in them is part of each person’s identity, and they underlie the technical competence and expressive power or weakness of a team’s design vocabulary – the language of the places we each design and build.

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At the core of these ideologies are implicit collections and collisions of beliefs about human nature – about how and why we experience and respond to the places we’ve built the way we do. This is what I have been calling the humanism that underlies a design. In a sense it’s an ecological perspective because it’s about each of us interacting with our environments. The content and configuration of design ideologies are, naturally, shaped within the intellectual currents of a culture. And today we’re still immersed in the shock waves of modernism – early, late, post, and new – as it follows the typical path of young revolutions, becoming bolder and more radical as it grows. But we are only beginning to exploit and adapt to its repeated explosions of knowledge and ideas. And it’s within the context of this ongoing modern revolution that I see the potential for an expanded humanism to take shape.

The humanism in modernism

Over the past two hundred or more years, Western culture has been caught up in the excitement of spectacular, rapid, repeated release from biological limits. Naturally, we have given a high priority to the capabilities and values that led us into the exhilarating new levels of mastery – the individual independence and transcendence, at last, over in-born constraints into health, comfort, security, superhuman strength and speed, expanded social connections, insights about human minds and bodies, and startling new opportunities for wealth, “winning” and exploiting the ecosystems we inhabit as the top predator. 

These tangible, cascading successes of high-performance technology have naturally earned their underlying “hard” sciences and cost-effective engineering a top level of prestige. High-tech has become a metaphor for control and success, and precedence is given to the imperatives of the rational, quantifiable thinking that created it.  As a result its very effective but narrow set of human values and convictions simply sidelined the others. And the lure of participating in “modernity” has often conceptually separated “rational” from “human” values. Meanwhile, in the mainstream of professional education the “soft” sciences of “mere” emotion and pre-rational judgments have tended to be left to a student’s semi-educated intuition, uneven studies of history, or analogies with the other arts.

About fifty years ago, Sigfried Gideon, in Space Time and Architecture, along with others, challenged the erratic achievements and failures of early modern design, calling them the result of a “separation of thinking and feeling” – a fragmented humanism handicapped by confining walls between disciplines. That hasn’t changed much. The separation in the design fields is sustained by the inertia of training and conventional practices in law, investment and government. And even when refreshed by the lure of “the new” we cultivate innovative technologies and styles, they are essentially ones that celebrate our own professional specialty and the tool-making skill – not the experience “in-here” – that’s inherent in human nature.

The Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany – the architectural statement of a creative venture that set out to broaden the humanism in industrial modernism.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

As a result, even as we break through historic restraints and savor the new triumphs in transportation, long spans or the aesthetic achievements recognized in the Pritzker Prize, at the same time, still accumulating out on the land – designed in the languages of modernism – are miles, acres and cubic feet of familiar, deplored environments – disappointing, costly, confusing, desolate, and often dangerous. Today’s operative humanism-of-modernism is producing many fine monuments, but in the mainstream of the total habitat we’re building, it is still a crippled one.

Eddies in the stream

Some currents of modern culture, though, have always had eddies that mix the streams of thinking and feeling. Modern designers who never rejected the past – and a few others who once did – have looked back at earlier arts and habitats, try not to step back, but to make new uses of old insights, to produce what now feels more humane, “timeless,” “authentic,” and deeply, emotionally satisfying. Today, drawn by their allusions to stable societies, natural “beauty” or human scale, proportions and rhythms, we cover newly cleared land with romantic visions of a pre-industrial America and Europe – New England and the ante-bellum South, or England, Tuscany, Normandy and Provence – any place but here and now.

Although often dismissed as “nostalgia and sentiment” for some simpler, more orderly or exotic life, there is much to learn from the driving passions behind nostalgia and sentiment. And there is much to relearn about how human settlements function as they integrate growing, mixed populations and commerce, industry and new infrastructure, into their nourishing natural and historical settings. Beyond that, there’s still more to learn from their craftsmanship and the attractions of graceful, body-related space and forms, plus the “good manners” that underlie feelings of community. The awkward mixing of old and new forms that we see in cities and countrysides, and the mass of journalism and scholarship and popular activism that describes the unfortunate consequences – seen and unseen – are constant reminders of how much we have left behind. 

Graceful good manners at a high urban density at Louisburg Square on Boston’s Beacon Hall

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

For that reason, fundamental to the ideology I am calling a new humanism is a probe into the sources of centuries of past successes – into the origins of their “languages” that we find so appealing – and using those resources to help us grasp and guide the momentum of the modern revolution – using its sciences and technology to recast the successes in contemporary terms. In other words, studying their styles, old and new, as a way of studying ourselves.

The maturing, merging sciences of “thinking and feeling” 

The great strength of modern culture is only peripherally in the styles of built environments that it has produced – International, neo-traditional, or Post or New. Instead, its defining intellectual enterprise has been the maturing and application of all the sciences – the bodies of knowledge that we can trust because they are continually tested in the field.

In built environments, the results have so far been realized most fully in construction technology, of course.  Scientists and engineers are probing deeply into the underlying molecular and chemical structures of materials – from glass and metals to soils – as well as into operating systems, energy flows, and production methods – in other words the total product and process of construction.  As a result, we have a formidable body of credible, useful information, precise measurements of performance, new levels of predictability, plus functioning systems for putting construction sciences effectively to work in our day-to-day building arts.

The life sciences  

The less developed life sciences, though, the ones that can bridge human thinking and feeling, have only recently designed the tools to apply the same kind of explorations into deep interior structures and measurements in ourselves and in our natural habitats. The first of these is ecology, in its broad, literal sense, the study of the full range of an organism’s – including our own – interactions with an environment.  Because any built environment is a massive intervention in a natural setting, ecology is as much a human as an earth science; we are one of the primal forces that transform whatever ecosystem we inhabit. For that reason alone, this science, bridging across confining walls of professional disciplines, is an indispensable overview for understanding and designing the “fittest” habitats.

The other two are the studies of evolution that tell us what we are and why, and the escalating discoveries about psychology/physiology in neuroscience. Together they are exploring how an evolved mind and body work, and new practical research techniques are opening up daily new insights into genetics, the brain and body, social interaction, and a systematic understanding of emotional and spiritual-level experience.

Practical applications of these human sciences have already become commonplace in many fields. They’ve enriched the humanities and social sciences that designers draw on. And political campaigns, legal, medical, and engineering professions, entertainment and marketing businesses routinely exploit them – and us – as they practice their arts – reshaping minds and cultures globally with impressive competitive success.  Yet for many design professionals, the fast-growing bodies of knowledge and techniques offer a world of insights that we are simply not using – neither in education nor, as a result, in day-to-day practice.

In other words, now, within the turbulence of the modern movement, in our cultural moment, we’re facing the kind of immense new opportunities actually realized in practice by the engineers of Rome, the cathedral-building guilds, Michelangelo or Christopher Wren after the London fire, and hundreds of their contemporaries in landscape design and city-building. They applied the revolutions in learning – the scholarship and science, the integrated thinking-and-feeling – the humanism of their time – to the expressive vocabularies of their inspired ancestors.  And we have opportunities to do the same.  Drawing on the knowledge streaming out of today’s rapidly expanding life sciences and our profession’s own creative intellectual activism, we can cultivate our own and equal fluency in the languages of environments we build.

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In the next post, I look at the role of those languages – the mix of verbal and visceral communication in a built environment – or in words attributed to dancer Isadora Duncan, “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

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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