A New Humanism: Part 5

Architectural pleasure and evolved human behavior

In a study he calls The Origins of Architectural Pleasure, architecture professor Grant Hildebrand analyzes how specific responses to architecture, including aesthetic experience, could well have originated in evolved behavior. The details of the research and reasoning he assembles seem to me a clear, persuasive foundation for a more rigorous, more effective humanism.  He’s distilled the enormous complexity of a mind and body into concepts usable in day-to-day design, and that’s why my own explorations build on and in a sense grow out of his.


He starts with the idea that natural selection clearly favors those who have imagined, found, and then re-shaped an environment into a “good home.”  And, as a result, natural selection has favored “an innate predilection to build in some ways and places rather than others,” adapted to the natural settings where a family would thrive.  Drawing on the social sciences, literature, the arts, plus his own observations, he traces the value we place on these selected sites and architectural forms back to biology – to innate survival-based behaviors.  Naturally, many of his insights are being applied in our day-to-day practice, though many are ignored or given a low priority, but whatever theory guides a design, he shows ways our publics are most likely to respond and why.

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Specifically, Hildebrand points out that a safe, effective habitat must offer both a refuge, providing a microclimate, protection, and concealment – especially for the times when we are least watchful or most vulnerable – and a prospect, a look-out with views over well-lighted open spaces, the places that may offer opportunities – food and water, “provisioning,” exploring, trading – or reveal threats and approaching predators.  The natural places that would offer both together – a cave, cliff dwellings, and edges-of-the-forest, with an overlook ahead, protection behind – and ready access to a generous, fertile, natural setting of climate, land, and water – seem like archetypes, found again and again.  And he cites examples from a range of cultures over long spans of time – in Japan, throughout Europe, and today’s America.  

Building ourselves into the life of the land.  Hildebrand explores in more depth the design implications of “refuge and prospect,” but first I want to expand further on responses to the component of experience we tend to call “nature” – the interacting processes of climate, geology, hydrology, and biology that go on whether we intervene or not.  Our relationship is inherently ambiguous.  Surviving and prospering depends on understanding, mastering, and managing its impacts, and our human “dominion” over nature – our separation and superiority – is institutionalized in our biblical and classically based civilizations.  Yet in practice, we are an inseparable part of any natural environment we invade, and whether driven by visions of quick exploitation or sustainability, private possession or the public domain, ultimately we rely on an intimate, nuanced collaboration.

Built environments derive their essential forms from the structure of their natural settings, their geography, orientation to the sun, of course, but also to water flows and topographic forms – a valley, ridges, and their sight lines – or to the living qualities of plants and animals. The connections may be in intimate cloistered courtyards, or as at Versailles and central Paris, along a bold axis intended to symbolize a king’s absolute power extended across a nation and by implication across Europe and then over nature itself.  Even in massively built-up cities, it’s still London’s Thames, Rome’s hills, or Denver’s “front range” as much as streets, districts, and addresses that frame a working mental image of the place.  And even when nature’s forms are less compelling, we have oriented construction over millions of American acres to the whole planet’s surveyed, astronomical axes.


Versailles — the king's absolute power reaching across France and, by implication, Europe and the natural world

Hildebrand traces out as one example “…the ubiquitous choice, among those who could choose,” of a home in an extensive natural setting, especially “dwellings on prominences above water amidst parkland.”  And all around us we see fortunes invested in a large, gated, ocean side or hilltop castles or estates.  Nearly every accessible body of fresh or salt water is lined with houses or parks.  Within a built-up city, it’s a penthouse or the garden squares of London and Savannah, or New York’s Central Park and riverfronts, with their connections to the dramatized presence of the earth and sky.  We actively and often habitually seek out these kinds of natural places and scenes as a reward – as a badge and a privilege of high status – a propensity spectacularly on display in the enormous prestige placed on a home on the Costa Smeralda, the French Riviera, or Hawaii’s Kona Coast.

As another example, he cites the iconic landmark designs of Frank Lloyd Wright.  His home and studio at Taliesin East is immersed in a fertile Wisconsin landscape on the “shining brow” of a hill, and at Taliesin West, in Wright’s words: “We built ourselves into the life of the desert.”  And he has, knitting together buildings and “nature” with materials, orientation, sun, shadows, sight lines, and contours – linked together like fresh ideas flowing across the desert land.

At even more restricted levels of an ability to “choose,” the tokens of fields, forests, vistas and water are still alive in the global suburban ideal, a country villa or tree lined streets with landscaped gardens around a free-standing house.  In more crowded or threatening environments, and with differing access to resources, just as often, probably more often, families have built fenced or walled compounds with interior gardens.  And in a city, living with unpredictable strangers, “prospect” may also be modest – a refreshing, connection to nature within private courtyards or an upper floor balcony overlooking the action on the street, where the threats and opportunities are.

In each case, wherever we are, over and over we spontaneously express a desire to place ourselves within a natural world. We use substitutes for being there, from poetry and landscape painting to architecture that brings a controlled outdoors in, or with vaulting that mimics the structure of trees, and refined, glowing natural materials or ornament, from Corinthian capitals and rococo garlands to Gaudi’s exuberant, undulating rock walls.  And even where our drive for mastery of our natural world has produced acres of paved-over, urbanized, alienated-from-nature places, we still see again and again an impulse – a compulsion – to live with daylight, fountains, plants, indoors and out, to favor parkways over highways, camouflage machine-related infrastructure with trees or flowers, disguise our geometric invasions with plantings and then irrigate everywhere. These symbols of rural virtues give a reassurance that, even amid lifeless, desolate, polluted places, we do live, after all, in a community set in a benign, productive natural habitat.  In the same way we tend to value the idea of a nearly “unspoiled” nature–a large park or preserve that invites exploration.  It feels good.  We do it just for the pleasure – the refreshment – of it, and that “pleasure” is, again, a signal that says we’ve won our way into a healthy setting where we can be secure and prosper.


The interior "forest" in St. Georges Chapel at Windsor Castle, UK

In the marketplace.  These impulses, these predilections and values, can be read and measured today in the language of real estate marketing – “real estate,” in this context, being other words for “human habitat.”  In that language, value and pleasure are routinely evoked first in a vocabulary of overall orientation – what kind of natural setting is this, and how am I going to connect with it?  New greenfields residential communities in North America are named “farms” in the north, “plantations” in the south, and “ranches” in the west – or more recently “preserves.”  And typically using a historical or personal name adds the sense of success and productivity proven here over generations. 

In other words, at the heart of most families major investment decision is the promise of a sustaining natural habitat and a way of life that evolved, survived, and prospered in it.  The promise is, of course, about an imagined, romanticized “nature,” but the value is in a feeling of affiliation and control, of possessing and belonging on the land.  And everywhere, even in built-up cities and half-town-half-country suburbs, names of the remaining – or even obliterated – natural features usually dominate the positioning language – riverside, heights, valley, forest, park, shores.  Today, in virtually all these settlements views and frontage on “prospects” of the land and water, are the most valued of all: in the mountains and on the coasts, the conventional wisdom is “we sell windows.”

The total place.  Hildebrand has drawn on persuasive research – for example in hospitals – that has shown how interweaving nature through a built-up habitat “can have a measurable effect on mental and physical well being.”  And the “interwoven” metaphor seems to me a useful one.  Although we like to separate elements of a habitat into manageable design and construction professions, they are experienced by our publics as a “whole,” both simultaneously and in sequences.  Architecture, landscapes, urban scenes, interiors, and graphics each intensifies or disrupts – primes us for – the experience of the others.  Depending on pressing interests of the moment – or our education – a person may focus attention on any one of them, but we are instantly, constantly responding unconsciously to the total place that our senses discover.

In this connection, in our pre-industrial past, a unified house-garden-natural setting continuum – a “total” scene found in England’s Cotswolds, rural Normandy or Tuscany – emerged out of the local materials, the scale of human and animal labor, and a society and economy that exploited them.  Now, after mellowing over time, they have become places of pilgrimage – and imitation – valued for harmony – a comfortable sense of public life, buildings, and natural processes belonging and working together.  And crowds of industrialized populations, willing to ignore the onerous, brutal social and economic implications of these “beautiful” places, have crossed oceans to be immersed in the expressions of a unified man-and-nature.  And we have tried to mass reproduce – or at least we advertise – that ambience to attract thousands of home buyers today.

Spiritual connections.  Each of us, naturally through our own personal and cultural “lens,” is continually observing, and internally responding to a surrounding natural world.  And consciously, but more often unconsciously, we tend to feel an innate affinity – in biologist E.O. Wilson’s word, “biophilia” – and impulses to link into its vitality – to weave it into the stories of our lives and habitats.  At one level we tend to compose romantic, idealized visions of nature – from the longed-for landscapes of the Psalms to our own gardens designed for meditation, consolation, fantasy, and “inspiring” vistas.  But at another, when we’re searching for practical ways to exploit natural resources and to mitigate threats – when we’re struggling to manage them – and then inevitably confront the limits of our skill and knowledge, we tend to fill the void with imagination.  Out at the edges of our understanding, generations of human minds have envisioned natural forces and the earth in terms of a larger world of intangible spirits or deities.  Faced with the sense that we are at the mercy of forces outside of ourselves and our control, we build and dedicate places for reverence and rituals that further the pleasure of sensing survival and prosperity of belonging to something larger and timeless through a spiritual connection.

In The Earth, The Temple, and The Gods, Vincent Scully spells out how, at the origins of our own civilization, Greek culture showed what this could mean in practice.  Regarding the natural world as an embodiment of the presence of their gods, their temples and cities were integrated into the expressive presence of landmark mountains, hills, trees, the sea, and the sky.  And today, even in ruins whose origins we only partially understand, those places can be deeply moving, an obsession of scholars and a source of pleasure stemming from sensing ourselves within a divine natural order. 

Return into nature.  When a pursuit of the pleasures of urban life has broken close links to a natural world, and when our tokens and symbolic connections are no longer refreshing, most urban and suburban families make their second largest investment of time and money in re-creation – in a sense becoming “whole” again. And most of that is spent in the out-of-doors of a country place, beach house, camping, a resort, vacation or scenic tours. 

For those with fewer choices, responsive governments expect to provide the natural settings.  They opened up to the public royal deer parks or brought in the Olmsteads to build a natural “emerald necklace” through their city.  There, the simple, fertile, open spaces, water, and a disorienting seclusion offer a retreat from disorder, alienation, crowding, and the confining rules that often compromise the pleasures of urbanity.  And it is done by re-introducing a humanized, controlled fragment of the natural world.  In other words, here is a family-friendly setting where we can relax and refresh because we feel deeply that this is where we are adapted to live long and well. And the cities called “beautiful” – Bruges, San Francisco, Venice, Paris – are also ones where the natural world is a pervasive, insistent part of what-it-is-like-to-be-there.

Central Park

Central Park in New York — an urban savannah

The savannah.  The persistence of a savannah-like natural environment as a model for the ideal human landscape has been widely documented.  When we settle in and lay out landscapes, they have tended to be the kind of pastoral settings where humans first evolved – fertile rolling grasslands with scattered groves of trees and adjoining woodlands, diverse fruit-producing plants, and ample water.  This is the kind of landscape likely to have a high concentration of protein-rich food, plus enough open sight lines to provide orientation or early warning and invite exploration. 

Naturally, in choosing the place to actually settle, we have focused first on finding places that favor the current hunting or agricultural or industrial technology.  But when surplus resources enable more choice, we still try to transform deserts, plains, maquis or cleared forests – and “industrial parks” – into savannah landscapes.  And we have even legislated them, as the shared, preferred fantasy of nature in home sites and street scenes.  The reason is likely to be found in a predilection, but their reappearance over and over again may well be, in part, a kind of cultural momentum – not as a “tribal memory,” but because they are found so widely, they are the ones most likely to be imprinted in young minds.

Nature into culture.  The African savannah was not, of course, the only scene of evolution.  As groups of homo-sapiens migrated into Europe, Asia and on eastward, they encountered dramatically different environments.  Adaptation naturally favored the competitive success of different physiology and following predilections more suited to the on-site food sources and survival.  A cold ocean worked like a savannah for the Inuit.

Then unique cultures naturally followed.  This idea has received a lot of attention. When human interventions invaded natural landscapes, the gifts-of-the-gods that made settlements prosper – water, food, soils and minerals, geography, climate – naturally shaped the formation of both cultures and personalities.  And our “experiences” today are still influenced by the origins and successions of the beliefs, sciences, social structures, and urban visions that were shaped in part by living in large “natural facts” like the isolated valleys and sheltered waters of Greece, the rivers and crossroads of Mesopotamia, the “call of the sea” on islands and coasts, and the open geography of the Indo-European steppe or the American frontier.  In other words, the study of human culture and personalities – some would say “national character” – is inevitably a study of natural settings, as well.

Today we’re adding another layer, another kind of formative nature/culture linkage.  Our “large natural facts” are the superhuman scale of our own modern industrial drive to overpower “disorderly”, “inefficient” natural forces, with bold, risky, rapid, careless exploitation – obliterating origins with radically mechanized, homogenized, enormously costly landscapes and settlements.  And, as a result, more and more of us are rethinking the conflicts among predilections and heading toward another, probably fundamental, cultural change: a growing understanding of the creative potential in regional diversity and the survival value in sustainability of the planet’s limited natural resources.  This kind of unfolding ecological thinking is slowly changing our “cultural lens,” and is already a form of what I mean by a new broader humanism.

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This is the fifth of a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called A New Humanism: in architecture, landscapes, and urban design. They’re about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do. Next, Hildebrand spells out “refuge and prospect” in practice, plus the powerful impulse to explore, challenge and take risks.

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.

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