A New Humanism: Part 29

We can build better, more cost-effective human habitats if we understand the relentless processes of ecosystems.

In Design with Nature, Ian McHarg, in a way parallel to Anne Spirn’s outlined in Part 28, and drawing on the work of natural scientists and his own creativity, has, in effect, shaped contemporary science and an ecological perspective into a coherent language of landscapes – a way to understand what the beaches, river valleys, or watersheds are telling us about themselves and their role in our lives – and our roles in theirs.

Through his teaching, energetic rhetoric and the publication of Design with Nature  in the 1960s, he introduced – he inspired – fundamental changes in professional practice.  After a stormy beginning they are now essentially taken for granted – fortunately a part of our professions’ conventional wisdom, and the more rigorously they are applied, the better our projects turn out for all of us.

He starts with a simple, sensible idea: we can build better, more cost-effective human habitats if we understand the relentless processes of ecosystems before interfering with them.  We have today the techniques to read their languages – the functional significance of each unique mix of climate, geology, water, biology and land use, and their confrontation with the changes introduced by human interventions. And McHarg has designed a “method” to learn the language of each dynamic interaction of forms and forces in order to organize them into “opportunities and constraints,” so that we can collaborate in ways that reduce costs and optimize benefits as we go about realizing our ambitions.  Once laid out it seems obvious – as obvious as learning the customs and language of a foreign culture before we even think of living or doing business there.

More from Metropolis

The “method” is especially and immediately useful because it is place-based and project-based.  It starts by identifying the value to a specific population of the full range of both natural and social processes at work in the unique place, since ecosystems and our own predilections include both. Then it evaluates and ranks the total combined costs and benefits of specific industrial exploitation or urbanization projects.

This kind of cost-benefit thinking and least-cost solutions – which is a way the mind works and a way evolution works – are, in outline form, normal routine exercises in the design of built environments.  But McHarg’s innovations are in the way he combines broader baseline inventories, comprehensive human-related impacts and above all the best contemporary sciences – natural and social sciences – to analyze consequences.  Then he links them together in a large view of man-in-nature – humans, acting both on and within ecosystems, designing with nature.

These insights are an important component of what I mean by a new humanism. McHarg took a fresh look at how the narrow priorities we give to our conflicting innate predilections – for speed, economy-of-means, community building, possession and power, refuges or open-ended movement – have led us to select and build disappointing, dysfunctional settlements. Then he applied combinations of up-dated knowledge to uncover the languages of our natural habitats, in a sense opening up more effective communication with the planet we’re changing.

Languages of architecture

As he tracks and analyzes the engaging story of contemporary styles and practices in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Charles Jencks outlines the nature of languages of the built environment generally, and what they can – and should – communicate.  Although, as he points out, “Post-Modern,” like any other style, continually takes on new forms, his overall perspective opens another direct path to better understanding human experience – applicable not just to architecture, of course, but to landscapes and urban places.

In Jencks’ words “architecture is a language perceived through codes” – through systems of signs, symbols, and metaphors, structured by a syntax and tied to meanings – and the “information” may come through any of the senses, through any “medium.”  In our verbal languages we tend to call the codes “native tongues” and “dialects” and, in a built environment, “styles.”

Subcultures and individuals naturally develop and share their own distinctive codes and meanings, which then become refined and powerful through repeated usage and feedback.  At the same time, each of us learns different codes and variations, often conflicting, because we’ve all had such different kinds of imprinting, training and experience. Naturally within any population – especially within mixed, cosmopolitan populations, past and present – there are necessarily a variety of “taste cultures” or “semiotic groups” who will read their own meanings into conventional symbols of “home” or status or other peoples’ values. As one example, Jencks points out a “dual nature” of architectural language: popular, the traditional codes made up of slow-changing, comfortable, familiar patterns – that become “clichés” – and the elite or avant-garde codes, of “neologisms…responding to quick changes in technology, art, and fashion” – in a sense architecture-for-architects. We live immersed in both. As a result, the architects who communicate successfully and in depth with more than one target audience “cross-code” their buildings. And coding, naturally, is fluid. As a community’s organizing social values and metaphors age, meanings of architectural signs and symbols, just like words, weaken and erode.  Then “styles,” in effect, compete and succeed one another.

Jencks’ critique of the coding, used in the “battling” traditional, modern, and post-modern styles, describes a way this works. The architects of early modernism, sensing the emergence of a “new” world, bypassed the traditional languages that had given form to preceding styles – styles that communicated both abstract ideas about a society and its structure, government or metaphysics – and also specific, distinctive, “regional,” values, history, and identity. They saw those traditional styles – the codes developed and handed down by successive generations of craftsmen and designers – as languages of worlds that no longer existed. As a result, in his view, while tradition-oriented designers – and also mainstream modernists who settled into their own circumscribed tradition – have tended to pursue coherent, settled, but lost harmonies, Post-modernism, he says, favors complexity – using a greater diversity of codes to communicate more messages with more vital content to more people.

Finally, although Jencks’ focus in this study tends to be on “conventional,” social and cultural meanings – those assigned by common usage in a subculture – rather than “natural” ones – where an initial coding is built into our common biology – still his perspective clarifies what I am calling a new humanism. As in all of his large body of work, he’s taking a fresh look at human nature, in this case through the necessarily conflicting semantic systems of our mixing, ad hoc, globalizing society – where in a sense, we’re often designing for “strangers” – people whose experience or training has structured “foreign” brain networks. And he applies a broader view of modernism’s human sciences, in this case semiotics – a language for talking about language – to the complex order of the places we live.

Christopher Alexander’s “timeless” Pattern 124, “Activity Pockets” – archetypal forms “deeply rooted in the nature of things…in human nature and human action.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

A Pattern Language

Christopher Alexander’s trilogy that includes The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language is another compelling study – ready for immediate use – of experiencing a built environment.  Each of us, he says, and each culture shapes its settlements by using a “language” that he describes as an interconnected, nested series of “solutions” to “problems” – problems that seem to occur over and over again as we build a habitat. He calls his solutions “patterns,” and he and his team explore 253 of them at scales from regions and towns to buildings, rooms, gardens, and their details – settlements, clusters, streets, sunlight, alcoves, gateways, materials – in a sense, a total built environment. Like Spirn and Jencks, he compares them to a verbal language with a flexible vocabulary, grammar and syntax, out of which designers can construct an infinite variety of their own personalized designs.

For my purposes here, he makes two important points.  First this language recognizes that an experience of the built environment – the way it feels, functions, and “speaks” – is cumulative and seamless, combining architecture, landscapes, and urban patterns.  It breaks out of professional categories and takes the points-of-view of our audiences, the people we are designing for.

Second, Alexander’s team has generated these patterns in what they call a “timeless way.”  Summarizing their words:  they go about designing truly satisfying, “alive” environments by releasing “the fundamental order which is native to us and, in a sense, reminding us of what we know already.”  It starts with an awareness of whether our surroundings “live,” or not, by recognizing how they make us feel when we are there – and then spontaneously designing “exactly what emerges from ourselves.”  Or, in my words, opening the mind to look behind conventional codified styles and uncovering their sources in the evolved predilections, values, and capabilities that evolution has built into us.

Alexander’s Pattern 117, “Sheltering Roofs” – archetypal shelter surrounding the living space.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

Alexander and his team dismiss today’s active stylistic languages as brutal, fragmented, and no longer shared. They are “not deeply rooted in the nature of things” (in ourselves or the natural environment) and cannot produce the communities, the connections to other people and nature that we want. Whether or not a designer who agrees would adopt all or any of the 253 patterns, or find a thousand more, Alexander’s body of work seems to me another way to start constructing an individual design ideology. And this kind of thinking – within the limits it sets for itself – that systematically links together the specifics of built environments with innate human responses, is, again, what I mean by a language of humanism.

*          *          *          *

In the next post I explore how priorities given to competing predilections have produced repeating classical, organic, and sacred variations of our shared “native tongue.”

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.

Recent Projects