A New Humanism: Part 34

Bringing the human mind-body interactions with ecosystems into the educational mainstream

The advancing knowledge of nature and human nature, though often ignored, already has, of course, profound influences on design. By themselves, no one of the ideas here is “new.”  Ecology in some form is being taught as a framework for design, and the sciences of responsible stewardship and sustainability are being rapidly folded into building technology and development economics.  Cost-benefit calculations are becoming “humanized,” too – more collaborative, comprehensive, and transparent – and the emotional content of so-called hard-headed rational decisions is more and more acknowledged. 

But to-do-what-we-set-out-to-do, we still need the perspective of a broader, more comprehensive humanism to permeate the mainstream of professional training, continually keep it up to date. We need to apply in practice the growing understanding of ecosystems and of the people who will respond to the places we spend our lives designing. What is it really like for them to be there? In a sense, after deconstruction has exposed the ideologies underlying design decisions, this is what we are left with – the nature and human nature that created the ideologies in the first place.

A broader spectrum   

More from Metropolis

Merging this perspective into professional education would not be a big step to take, and there are operating models to follow. Continually updated studies of ecology and the origins of human behavior can be found at all levels of university education, and it’s not the brain operations themselves that need to be learned, but their manifestations in human experience. Many of the insights are already integral to training in medicine, business, law, engineering, and public administration. And they are essential elements in the education for entertainment, marketing, and campaigns of all kinds.

Mainstream design education already includes learning about the roles of culture, “personal projects,” and the natural sciences. They’re typically integral parts of the courses in history, theory, construction, and design. They are broadened by expert guest faculty; enlivened by foreign travel; and applied in studios where the separate channels of learning are interwoven into creative self-expression. And that’s a structure that could readily integrate the applied human sciences as well. The recent integration of complex and daunting sustainability concepts and techniques into design studio projects shows how rapidly and seamlessly a motivated school can start to open up a new perspective and body of knowledge that is driving a revolutionary cultural change.

Designing a truly sustainable way to live on the planet means entering into a new design paradigm. This perspective of a New Humanism, though, is not a new paradigm. Instead, it’s another of the basic design tools that belongs in a school’s curriculum – just like a close study of culture, history, and theory or communities, applied building technology or design technologies like parametrics. But the important point is that these subjects are still just traces of the past – of others’ thinking and action from the distant and immediate past.

While a continually up-dated “past” is the necessary platform for any future round of creativity, schools that aspire to encourage diversity and creativity, and to liberate students to challenge the status quo – or just to understand the status quo – can do that better by teaching the underlying sources of innovation – the human mind-body that, in interactions with ecosystems, imagined and reasoned out of the rich curriculum that is taught today.

It’s that kind of knowledge that we’ll all need as a technical companion to guide the radically changing built environment we’re facing. It just seems common sense that understanding, in depth, the people we’re designing for – and the natural settings we’re reconstructing – will give us the best chance to build on the land more practical, livable, workable, affordable architecture, landscapes and urban habitats.


This new humanism idea, then, is about balancing today’s emphasis on teaching the realities “out-there” with the realities of the responses “in-here,” the impression as well as the expression – the “receiving” as well as the “sending” half of communication. The resources are readily available, and useful basic knowledge – though fragmented and sometimes still educated guesses by smart researchers – is being documented, translated into usable form, and equally important, the research is being paralleled by experiments with forms of collaborative teamwork. Both designers and scientists are working on ways that can draw each of us out of our habitual circumscribed patterns of thought, to turn our focus out onto our interfaces with each field. Some are learning the others’ “languages,” some are working on shared databases and in the case of the still forming neurosciences, initiating a new combined academic field. And again, the educational format is a familiar one, parallel to the ways many architects and landscape architects have learned to work with engineers and natural scientists on complete, functioning environments.



An education in a broader humanism would naturally begin with sharpening self-awarenesscultivating a science-based “mindfulness” as a design tool. It would create an organizing framework for fitting together thousands of fragmented insights and passions, and do it in ways that can be applied with an inner confidence – in a sense as updated intuitions. By learning to conscientiously observe more about how our own minds and bodies work, discovering how they shape our designs in practice – and why – we can clarify personal and cultural biases and also peel back layers of indoctrination in battling styles, old beliefs, self-promotion and other delusions, down to the underlying human impulses. 

In a sense, self-awareness is a way to see clearly the overlapping contexts “in-here” – the internal contexts that give the meanings to the languages we read. As they’re outlined here, most basic is an awareness of our innate predilections – predispositions – and the priorities we’ve given them, then come the bias of our intentions and expectations, our unique personal training and memories, visceral first impressions, the rich backgrounds of our “personal projects” and stories, the “lens” of our culture, and underlying them all, a body state.  We can only understand experience if we are alert to the ways that all those contexts giving meaning are “alive” in ourselves and in our audiences. Equally valuable, a science-based self-awareness could enable students and young designers to evaluate the specific ideological contexts implicit in a school’s, or a challenging designer’s worldview.

The important point, of course, is an old one. Ultimately self-knowledge – an educated awareness of sources of your own thinking, feelings, and experience – is the best teacher. In a sense, it’s a kind of emotional as well as cognitive intelligence, learned by asking why we ourselves respond viscerally or verbally the way we do.  It’s one more achievement that would enable more of us to operate closer to the level of our wisest, most creative colleagues, past and present. And it’s the sophistication we’ll need when we create our next environment.

Into the building mainstream  

This would be a bigger step. Because a new, broader humanism in design would try to penetrate further back into the design of regulations, large scale infrastructure, and transportation – in other words into the decisions that are building cities and regions — where experience of built environments begins every day. It would open up another level of education, one that ultimately is about teamwork – our impulse and ability to forge alliances. We know that any one of us in any field can be only partially trained for the task of building the habitat – that collaboration, conflict, and negotiation are inherent in creative design – and as a result, the people who shape the big scale frameworks for any settlement – the people who control power – are the ones who can understand and organize the expertise and the “personal projects” of a full range of teammates – the mix of investors, businesses, citizens, politicians, bureaucracies, scientists, and the other professionals – and amateurs – all at work on their own missions. And that, in turn, means understanding the other’s priorities, learning their languages and recognizing how our own design professions’ languages, our “lenses” and priorities of the moment, can be just as limiting as we find theirs to be.

Again, essentially all of this information is available in most universities, and valuable programs have been set up in some architecture-landscape-planning schools – with developers and public officials who are out on the political and economic battlefields – to teach the broader interdisciplinary teamwork that gets things built. But in our self-centered professional pride and niches, we can lose sight of the important point: most of the people interacting in the habitat-building effort see themselves at the center and consider the rest of us to be on the periphery. All have their own beliefs about human nature, too – their own humanism. And the ones able to learn to appreciate the hierarchies in others’ values and see-through-their-eyes are the ones who can become, if that’s their aspiration, team leaders and the master builders we’ve talked about for so long. Without that understanding architectural, landscape, and urban designers are just one move introverted “interest group” not leading, but competing to be heard.

In the next, and final installment of this series, we will look ahead to the next environment.



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