October 23, 2013
A New Humanism: Part 35
The next environment, looking ahead
Whatever ways we may have been responding in the past to building environments “out-there,” we are inexorably changing “in-here.” As the overwhelming mass of information we are always confronting becomes concentrated, more and more, into dazzling, crowded streams of digital packages and virtual representations – and as we spend more time exploring and learning in those digital worlds – the ways we experience all environments will necessarily change. Networks in the brain and sensory systems – and even some gene functions – adjust to exploit whatever usable information engages the senses – programing us as much as we are programming them. And it seems likely that a result will be changed expectations about human experience and expanded humanist ideologies. That’s what’s happened in response to innovations in information technology for millennia. In any case, here are observations made, by a digital immigrant, in a sense, yesterday.
First, when information explosions like this one have happened before – starting with our first literacy and on through Gutenberg to wireless broadcast, the Internet and forms of implants – we have repeatedly jumped into the communication technologies that enhance speed, convenience, and scope with an acceptable level of reliability. And as our impatient predator’s brains craving information adapt to each new media environment, the breadth, texture, and rhythm of experience itself necessarily changes. Like any new human encounter across newly opened borders, we enter into new communities, learn from their wisdom, and hear captivating new stories – always looking for the pleasure of more – more connections, more information, more sensations per second, quicker judgments, a sense of more answers, more easily.
Yet we all know that a quick glance, short attention spans, and repeated first impressions tend to probe no deeper than stereotypes and produce popular proverbs like “a-little-bit-of-learning-is-a-dangerous-thing.” We’re rightly concerned about time being needed for rational thinking to kick-in, contradictions to get sorted out, memories to be searched, and aroused emotions to be resolved. We can readily miss out on the extended chains of reasoning and thoughtful conversations that have produced and consolidate much of our most reliable knowledge.
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At the same time, though, in a quick sequence of diverse well-scripted and orchestrated glances, we are often able to learn “enough” for our present purposes; and “just-good-enough” is the way evolution itself works. Equally important, though, the extraordinary creativity and ingenuity in today’s information technology and persuasion industries demonstrate, one more time, that basic, evolved human nature – our talent for inventing “tools” and education techniques – can readily adapt to and master repeated revolutions in an information – like any other — environment.
Charleston, SC, “South of Broad” – where the national prestige of the old — the excellence, fitness over generations, and beauty-for-its-own-sake – has lasted and prospered alongside waves of the new.
Courtesy Albrecht Pichler
We’ve proven that in the past, too. New media with their faster pace – like new forms of transportation – or new aesthetic dimensions in architectural style — have taken their place alongside the old because they still serve specific purposes better. They’ve just expanded human capabilities. And we have plenty of innate mind-body learning capacity that hasn’t been tapped out. Continual adaptation, after all, has been a fundamental survival strategy. And in the design fields – if perhaps not in diplomacy – it appears that by compressing routine tasks, we release resources both to nurture and enhance the creative imagination and the wisdom we gained in evolution – whether we use it well or not.
Second, when we have used technology for transcending human biology, each individual’s personal searches and, as a result, cultures have been profoundly re-shaped. And now, as we continue to enhance our senses with new receptors, try out artificial intelligence, experiment with implants, and reconfigure genetic codes themselves – all at an accelerating, Moore’s Law pace – we are creating new human-machine alliances that haven’t been seen before. Just as past alliances have proven an essential, competitive survival strategy, we’ll adopt and adapt to them. As in the past revolutions, too, we can expect the design/building professions to follow the sciences, reacting to the new kinds of interactions between the “enhanced” people – as we’ve done at all levels of technology. The specifics are still unknown, and unimaginable, of course, and that’s why a new humanism in design would focus on learning more about the arts and sciences of language and communication itself.
Third, we now have revolutionary techniques for exploration. And as the dimensions of global experience become as much virtual as physical, all of us are able to draw on unprecedented levels of reliable artistry and technical information more quickly, learn about more avant-gardes and discover more diverse places, feelings, and world views. In a sense we are taking one more step in building an organized, enormously enlarged, electronically accessible, “long-term memory” – including implicit memory – the same potential that in the past was a gift of literacy or mass printing or computer files – and it is already releasing a comparable creativity – when we use it for that purpose.
At the same time, though, masses of information stored in this expanded virtual memory are skewed by commerce. As the pervasive market-oriented promotion, filtering and editing by search engines tends to narrow and commodify the information we receive – focusing it down to business opportunities, our past behavior, or mindless attention-getting – its value is compromised. Uncountable new opportunities and ideas are opened up, yet today the economics of information is tending to ease us into individualized, but conventional channels of habit and, naturally, the producers’ market-useful stereotypes.
Here, then, is an important challenge for a new humanism. In its primary role – broadening the “narrow humanism of modernism” – it naturally welcomes all innovative, mind-opening, time-and energy-saving technologies. In the built environment, though, practicing professionals will be depending more and more on the universities – with their potential for independence from short-term business and political practice – a high ground not yet drowned out by the mass-market economy. That’s where we’ll discover ways to integrate the pleasures of the new, more expansive, quick, diverse techniques for learning and communication into a larger, longer view and broader values. More than ever, the tools of design we need to learn in school are not so much in the battle-of-styles and spectacle as in “deeper order of things” in nature and human nature.
A fourth observation is about “being there.” While the abundant, imaginative, and almost-perfect images of virtual places – able to race around the globe in an instant – can add to the excitement of expectations and later recollection to on-the-site experience, and although they can, like words, activate many of the same parts of a brain as real on-the-spot physical encounters, they are simply not the equivalent of being there in a built environment. We are isolated from whole sectors of reality – for better and for worse. We cannot capture, through a virtual filter, the full complexity of light and air, the visceral stirring of all the senses or the feedback from the body heat and clues of interacting people. We’re not using the full capacity of our fine-tuned detection systems. And limited by our own and others’ preconceptions, we can’t experience one-on-one the authenticity of a place.
While we have splendid visual images and vivid stories, there’s no virtual equivalent for being in a Vermont village – still a model for residential neighborhoods across the continent — experiencing with all of the senses the simple authenticity of “being there.”
Courtesy Albrecht Pichler
At the same time, though, we have opened up alternatives – more dramatic, safe, hassle-free, low-cost virtual experience with controlled sound, light, color plus with opportunities for expanded viewpoints, flexible time frames, and new learning – new dimensions and selective refinement – all sitting in front of a screen. Still, it seems a bit like falling in love with pixels.
In a sense, experiencing virtual reality is taking one more step “indoors,” and restoring our primal connection to the natural world becomes more and more another kind of heavily advertised but peripheral, controlled luxury. We’ve seen the impacts for years, and thanks to advancing building technologies we can choose to ease out of this on-going isolation by merging experience indoors and out. But on balance we’ve been using the sciences and engineering to destroy and replace, with simulations, the complex interlocking connections between us and our ecosystems. That’s a tough but important challenge for a new humanism in today’s distribution of economic power and mismanagement of resources.
Following another line of thought about “being there,” we are just beginning to understand what the developing “game” industries can do with their enormous resources. Like traditional books, film, theater, and other arts, they respond to our predisposition – our eagerness – to escape out of here-and-now into other worlds – into other stories. The difference, of course, is that games are introducing a faster paced, more challenging, and often more “perilous,” gripping level of interaction. The important point here, though, is that their designers are imagining, in a sense, new “ecosystems” – conventional organisms, us, interacting with new environments. Like the literary utopian visions before them, or Disney’s entertainment utopias, they will ultimately be tested in the marketplace, but the compelling, immersive environments they design may well open up new ranges of ideas for places we actually build in physical space.
We’ve already seen what imagined urban settlements created in the mindset of an “outsider” – an amateur in city planning – could do through a modest printed book alone. Ebenezer Howard’s 1902 Garden Cities of Tomorrow, and its concept of healthy satellite towns, has become part of the conventional wisdom and regular practice of urban policy-makers and professionals for the past century.
Its success grew from the breadth of the humanism in his ideology and the fresh, practical way they re-ordered the priorities that had built the 19th century industrial cities. Other books and urban diagrams by architect Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine and La Ville Radieuse, in the 1920s and 1930s, did the same. But every visionary idea has unintended consequences when translated into business ventures. In Howard’s case, it’s been the thoughtless destruction of natural environments; in Le Corbusier’s case the large scale replacement of historic city fabric – although not as complete as his proposal to replace central Paris – with towers and highways.
Now, as we gradually awaken to the unintended impacts of our optimistic, aggressive global industrialization, another generation of visionaries is posing new priorities to shape our settlements of the planet, from the Kriers’ tradition-based new urbanism to Vishaan Chakbrabarti’s more comprehensive and persuasive manifesto, A Country of Cities – of “towers, trains, and trees.” But this time, in order to better understand the consequences of these new sets of bold ideas – these utopias – before they are translated into construction plans, financial decisions, zoning laws, bulldozers. and concrete, we can have available the techniques to take a longer, broader view, backed up by the human and natural sciences that underlie a new, more reliable, inclusive humanism.
Finally, the massive and growing computer power that’s producing revolutionary tools to manage new levels of complexity and precision in every field is, of course, enhancing and empowering the practice of architecture and landscape and urban design. But that revolution has just begun, and, as noted, a new humanism has a long list of new assignments.
Most important, the technology can continue to enlarge the branch of knowledge that deals with what are sometimes called “the last few inches” of human perception – the physical sensory systems and the cognitive and reward networks in the brain – the subject matter of on-going research in evolution and neurosciences.
Experience in a built environment still depends the total person, the “me” that each of us brings to any encounter. Even in new digitally built worlds the full range of innate internal human “contexts” still shape who we are and the places we build. Or, put another way, in the electronic worlds we enter we are naturally doing what we’ve always done. We compete and cooperate, explore and trade, search for mates, build communities and, within them, alliances and hierarchies. We make order out of complexity as we express our personal and multiple identities and feed each other’s hunger for stories. We exchange ideas and discoveries, accelerating creativity. We display our achievements, leave a record of who we are, and search for transcendence over what we are.
Those patterns of predilections, values, and memory, those innate last few human inches are still the essential, underlying deeper order of things that shapes subjective experience. They’re where things are conceived – where we create purposes and visions, sense proportions and harmonies, and compose stories and languages that convey meaning. And we’re beginning to learn verifiable ways to trace out, measure, and predict the way all of that happens.
In other words, the tools we need to understand that “deeper order” – to learn how biology is linked to design – are being actively developed. Applying that knowledge in day-to-day practice is the ongoing task of what I call a new humanism, and there’s no end in sight.
Updating common sense
Finally, the humanism outlined here, while built on insights coming out of the sciences, is in no sense a kind of scientific determinism. Instead, it’s more about abandoning the art/science dichotomy as we are finally doing with the conventional separation of mind/body.
The sciences create new platforms of knowledge that keep enriching and revitalizing the arts of creative design – New York’s Brooklyn Bridge over the East River.
Courtesy Albrecht Pichler
The sciences create platforms of knowledge that enable creative design. And they are continually informing and enlarging the full range of the applied wisdom we live by – literature and the other arts, history, philosophy or religions – just as artists continue to add dimensions to the work of scientists. Naturally, we would only ask of the sciences information that their conceptual foundations and experimental methods have been designed to answer. The point is to put the best science available to work addressing the uncertainties inherent in design – updating flexible structures in a mind, made up of reliable facts, wisdom and intuitions – for day-to-day use by the practical/creative people who are determined to design a better habitat.
Equally important, what I have been interpreting as findings in the sciences, are offered not as true but as useful for now. Some naturally are still tentative or controversial, and more like reasonable hypotheses than answers. Plus brain research, on-going studies of ecology, and neuro- and molecular sciences, are continuing to create their own new paradigms and replace old metaphors. And as the applied sciences continually adapt to new information, what we believe today may someday be regarded as myth.
But a revived, rigorous humanism would keep us learning, reinvigorating our curiosity and the courage to explore. Then, as our most talented, visionary pioneers apply, out on the land, a more comprehensive understanding of human nature and the natural world – as they take another step forward in the Modern revolution – and as we see the new wide-open opportunities out on the cutting edge of design – a broader, deeper humanism will come to look, once again, like common sense.
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 Pichler, who 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.