A New Humanism: Part 28

Communicating with each other through the spaces we build

“Language” with its “meaning” is an inherent property we discover in any environment because it is inherent in us. We crave communication, and we evolved with an innate capacity for creating, learning, and using languages – structured symbols – to convey ideas, feelings and meanings with impressive nuance and persuasive skill.  And we simply expect to communicate with each other through the places we build. We expect the forms themselves to mean something.

Although languages are fluid, and there are limited objective relationships between forms and their messages, we still say we “express ourselves” in built environments and, in turn, places “speak” to us about the people who built them. We are continually “reading” environments to find clues for orientation, making connections or gaining a competitive edge.  And “voices from the past” in historic places can evoke living memories and motivations both to preserve, often at great expense, habitats our ancestors created just as we live by their customs.

More from Metropolis

The old city in Istanbul – the on-going story of the crossroads where Christian Europe meets Asia and Islam at the Bosporus.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

The communication that in fact takes place engages the whole mind/body through two kinds of interacting channels. In a sense, an experience first is “lived.”  As in any encounter with a person or event, the immediate, direct, sensory perceptions, the pre-verbal, visceral responses to the physical space, facades, color, light, sound or touch – tend to be fast and reliable. We’re using primitive brain structures that pre-date verbal languages, and the experience feels like a direct communication between a designer and the rest of us.

Then, those perceptions are “understood” as a mind sorts through the first responses and mobilizes more resources. Words and other verbally expressed abstractions come into play, and our responses coalesce into the order – the story – that inspires the confidence to judge and to act. Some refer to this combination as “formal” plus “external” references, and others, as the “wisdom of the heart” and “wisdom of the head.”


“…pre-verbal. Visceral responses” to Lawrence Halprin’s fluent landscape language at Portland’s Ira Keller fountain.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler


The most moving experiences of built, or other environments are, we say “beyond words,” and “the arts speak for themselves.” In remarks attributed to dancer Isadora Duncan, “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

Yet in practice the experience of the places we design is enhanced, clarified or reshaped when verbal or intellectual information, one still based on sensory perceptions but coming from other regions of the brain, is added to the immediate visceral “what it’s like to be there.”  And once verbal tags, especially names that add a human dimension, are attached to a place, they trigger their own responses; we say what we feel but also feel what we have said. In a sense then, a built environment’s “facial” expressions, “body” language, gestures and coherence are its basic rhetoric, and then our verbal language capability, in effect, shines a light of words and concepts over them. A design “means” to us both what it is and what is says.

The verbal and pre-verbal messages are inseparable, of course, and while one person may be more of a verbalizer than visualizer, we’re most likely to realize the full potential of almost any experience when words are skillfully paired with, and lead the mind beyond the direct, concrete, responses into the ideology or reasoned theories of a cultivated intellect. That, of course, is the power in religious rituals and the entertaining, performing arts like opera and cinema – or marketing – where words and ideas interwoven with music, light and sound, movement and space, reward all of our searching senses, and then, out of them, we construct the significance – to us.

Further, like an analogy, once words or names are linked to a place, the connection tends to have a long life. They are often the anchors in a memory. And in practice, a total response can be preempted by a single phrase – a science-based one like “exotic invasives” and “rare and endangered,” or a political, religious or literary reference like “birthplace of….” or “hallowed ground.”  Some designers would say those are not core “architectural and landscape” design issues. They can be, however, at the core of our publics’ experience. They’re still part of the contexts out-there and in-here that interact to frame meanings in a built environment.

Finally, most built environments enter the world as the words and numbers of clients’ missions, building programs, budgets and business plans. The reason, of course, is that verbal and mathematical languages – precise, wide-ranging, flexible, adaptable, familiar and pervasive –often communicate information more efficiently, articulate unifying patterns, and spell out their significance in high-lighted detail. But their apparent precision can be misleading, too; they can never be the full message. Words, like numbers, are a constricted channel for communication and we still want the picture-that’s-worth-a-thousand-words. Verbal language can only be a description of Duncan’s physical dance.

The pleasure of fluency

In the remainder of this post and in the next, I have singled out sets of ideas, spelled out by four exceptional people, about how the combined mind-body languages of the built environment work in practice. The ones selected seem to me to draw on an understanding of open-ended, multivalent communication and the complexity of nature and human nature in action. Naturally, the ideas overlap and may conflict, but they are still rich, flexible templates – in a sense, language lessons – that show how individual designers and our audiences can cultivate the pleasure of fluency. Each is one more useful step forward through the revolutions of modernism.

In a thoughtful study called The Language of Landscape, Anne Whiston Spirn describes a kind of thinking about architecture, landscapes, and urban places that I am calling a new humanism. She points out, “The language of landscape is our native language…Landscapes were the first human texts, read before the invention of other signs and symbols…[simply as] by-products of living.”  Learning about the operations of a natural environment – and what I’ve called a “geo-metry of ecology” – and our own potential roles in it, held the key to human survival and prospering, as it still does, and our minds and bodies evolved in the cross connections. 

Likewise, she sees landscapes whole – nature and culture at all scales – the way we actually experience them, and as settings that “fulfill functions and express meanings,” – overflowing with messages both “pragmatic and poetic” – metaphorical, metaphysical, and immediately useful encompassing both thinking and feeling, in a sense, both left and right sectors of a brain.

The landscapes at New York’s Central Park – nature-and-culture at all scales – overflowing with language both “pragmatic and poetic.”

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

Then she traces out how the compositions of landscapes tell stories, in “local dialects” that open up their deep contexts – stories about a people and the ways their values and their drive for prosperity shape, and are in turn, shaped by the natural systems at work around them.  In other words, they tell stories about societies and economies, beliefs and ideas – ideologies – in physical forms. She describes, too, how landscapes are experienced as “poetry, literature, and theater,” evoking the emotions and insights that are pleasures found in the arts. And, as a result, they show each of us how we could fit landscapes into our own personal narrative – and how we can fit ourselves and our searches into the dynamic ecological systems of a place – or not. 

In other words, combining scholarship and sensitivity, she describes her own professional development, her “personal project,” and she has shown how, in her words, “the basic elements of nature and human nature” – natural processes and human intentions together – can interact to produce a supple, lively, expressive language, generous and open-ended, one that can be readily learned and applied in design practices today.  For me, this study adds up to a clear, eloquent template any one of us could use to organize and then communicate fluently in our own personal language of humanism.

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Next, three more sets of ideas about fluent languages of humanism in built environments from Ian McHarg, Charles Jencks, and Christopher Alexander. 

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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