A New Humanism: Part 7

Our search for orientation helps us conquer the unknown

Wrapped into our predilection to explore, and at times our most urgent immediate motivation, is the search for orientation – to know exactly where we are.  Again, what happens in a built environment parallels person-to-person encounters. We want to eliminate unknowns and get-our-bearings in relation to the mental maps that we have constructed over time. Being disoriented – being “lost” – triggers anxiety, fear, and ultimately panic. It is clearly a “peril”, and it can be costly. Though we lack the innate homing skills of other animals, we do have an evolved capability to learn how to navigate; it’s another way we “master” our environment and feel “in control”.

Maps and legibility

In his pioneering study, The Image of the City, professor Kevin Lynch analyzed mental maps created by many people to orient themselves in a city.  Although each individual’s map was necessarily unique, he found important overlaps – propensities – that he organized into clear, practical, usable ways that we use to make a city “legible”. Many of his insights and much of his vocabulary of  “imageability” and “way finding” have been adopted, built upon, and absorbed into the conventional wisdom of generations of designers because they can be successfully applied in practice – and not only in his field, urban design. It seems likely that he is describing patterns that come naturally and easily into most human minds – a specific genetic preparation for learning.

More from Metropolis

In any case, we all know that aids to navigation and clues to orientation are integral parts of built environments – whether conscious and intended or not. Lynch focused on the physical form of Boston, but his pattern of thinking also organizes the broader bands of perception that we habitually use in practice to find our way.

  • He identified five key elements that continually reappeared in mental maps – edges, paths, districts, nodes, and landmarks – and spelled out common themes that are perceived in each of them, primarily qualities of clarity, continuities, differentiation, and dominance, and the awareness of motion and time – plus, naturally, the recognition that all are then interpreted through filters of culture, personal skills, and associations.
  • In addition to distinctive spatial forms, sources and echoes of sounds, aromas or stench, temperatures, wind and light levels are all elements in the maps.
  • Sensing distinctive kinds of human presence and action, past, present, and anticipated – the social and cultural clues – can be even more powerful. The energy and excitement of crowds and commerce, a fear of strangers and violence, or the reassurance offered by records of long established human settlement, all tell stories of stability, danger or vitality that define a place – and whether we want to be there or, instead, find a path to escape or explore further.
  • Ultimately, of course, the underlying coordinates of a mental map are framed in the context of our own pressing motivations, accumulated memories, and the feelings locked into them.

Lynch also explores the use of “figure-and-ground” for orientation and mapping an urban place.  For years the design professions have used as an example the Nolli map of Rome – which shows the large open halls of churches as part of a public open space “figure” in a crowded city. And we routinely acknowledge their shifting interaction, designing streets, corridors and promenades as circulation “figures” themselves, or, alternatively, as “ground” for the doors and destinations along the way. Each view tells a different story, and each is used for navigation.

Mental mapping has always been recognized as an important design technique. We regularly “compose,” or “choreograph,” sequences of perceptions through the exterior and interior spaces we design. Façades tell visitors about invitations and prohibitions. Way-finding systems are designed and remembered in themed combinations of words, colors, textures, symbols, lines, and repetitive forms. At town planning scales, vistas and overlooks let us map distances and locate destinations; historic landmarks add the orientation of narrative, answering, in Lynch’s words, “what time is this place”. Nodes may be plazas or crossroads; edges map boundaries of function, status, and value.  And the information can be as nuanced as it is in signs of class distinctions in a home or workplace, or as blunt as a traffic engineer’s conventional vocabulary. But every day we are surrounded by, and dependent on finding coherent clues, resolving their conflicts and feeling oriented within the specific pattern of perceptions that we store in a long-term memory.


At the same time, the experience of controlled disorientation, like mastering the fear of peril, alerts the senses and can stir feelings of pleasure, excitement, and heightened anticipation. The effect is experienced most vividly in entertainment, hospitality, and religious venues where visitors are first disoriented – removed from their habitual, everyday bearings by darkness, disjointed approach routes, or novel compositions of light, sound, color, and forms – and then powerfully re-oriented by immersion in new, very different but coherent vocabularies of architecture and landscapes. We find this exploited at all scales – in churches, theaters or theme parks, in the brand-image settings of resorts, retail shops, and restaurants, or in the innovative architecture at the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao. That sequence of arousal and tension followed by feelings of discovery is actively sought out as one of the pleasures of the arts in built environments. It’s one of the pleasures of mystery – uncertainty – that fill the mind until suspense is followed by the relief – the thrill – when we solve a puzzle or spark an insight using our own imagination and skill.


"Disorientation and reorientation – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York”

At another level, deliberate, studied disorientation as a fundamental design strategy has appeared at times of rapid social or intellectual change.  The Mannerists in Renaissance Italy and a range of avant garde “shocks” of early Modernism are paralleled today by designers who have challenged conventional feelings of harmony and coherence with expressions of the dislocations, fragmentation, startling collisions, and brutality that they see in the culture around them. Again, this seems to be another survival-based motivation at work – an urge to see the contemporary world as it really is, expose hidden flaws and then to control – to master – the instability and unease by stating it clearly and finding a way forward into construction. Some of the built results are dead-ends, of course. In other cases – from Michelangelo to LeCorbusier – out of the shock of forceful dis-orientation-and re-orientation, extraordinary, literally transcendent, new connections, new patterns of thinking, are born.

Order and complexity

Back to Hildebrand, again. In a third section of his study he describes another source of architectural pleasure that he calls “complex order”.  We encounter it everywhere, because that’s how an evolved human mind has been prepared to work – seeking out the varied complex information of the world “out-there” and sorting it into patterns. We take pleasure in each step: first the excitement of arousing multiple, diverse sensations, then discovering individual elements of order – repetitions, rhythms, and variations on a theme – and then again when finding them resolved into a rich, coherent, whole – like a Bavarian baroque church or Monet’s Garden – all paralleling the unified complexity we sense in ourselves.

Again drawing on related research, Hildebrand points out that staying alive and prospering required – requires – sorting through overwhelming volumes and varieties of new, old, and conflicting information constantly being acquired by the aggressive senses. The brains most fit to survive were likely to be the ones captivated by the rich details but then able to organize all of the inputs quickly, clarify their usefulness, and simplify them into an order, one convincing enough to build confidence and accurate enough to produce effective action. The order may be found simply in a shared familiarity – or in dominant systems of movement, like the simple street geometry that organizes the wildly complex lights and colors of Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip – or in a personal motivation of the moment – when the complexity of Boston’s “cow-path” streets may frustrate one person, and be a charming, inspiring narrative of early American history and culture for another.

Categories and differences 

In the same way, he points out that we follow the impulse to impose order by “categorizing and differentiating” – by applying our innate skill to detect fine distinctions. We seem to want to find similarities and put like things together, simplified into differentiated species, typologies and fashions. Just as we would with friends and the strangers we encounter, in a built environment we sort out selected differences in faces/façades, gestures/body language, and ornament/styles into such categories as social status, tastes, and ideological positions of the owners and designers.

In practice, of course, the “categorizing” tends to become stereotyping, and a “spin” we put on the experience of a place that we soon take for granted. And it’s the nuanced “differentiation” that produces the Design Guidelines and Pattern Books that we use to announce and stabilize the personality of a new or old community. Like other kinds of order, they satisfy our urge for an organized, harmonious predictability about people and places – and reassurance that our own distinctive selves belong within the favored categories.

Hildebrand uses as examples of “complex order” places that have given a full measure of pleasures over generations – a village street scene, the structure and ornament of cathedrals, and the great memorable complexes of distinctive buildings, unified by complementary patterns of columns, arches, windows, doors, materials and details, as they enclose the Piazza San Marco in Venice or crown the Acropolis in Athens.  And up on that iconic rock, the fine-tuned human capacity to detect and feel the nuanced differences in the lines, dimensions, scale and proportions in the striking unity of the Parthenon underly the ways it has been singled out as a standard of architectural perfection generation after generation. He describes, too, a walk through designs of Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, and analyzes how satisfying organized complexity emerges out of ordered movement and the memory of succeeding spaces, with interlocking rhythms and repetition of themes and variations continually refreshing his responses.  


"Piazza San Marco in Venice and the pleasures of a splendid complex order”

The important point: we seem to be drawn to the vitality and possibilities in structured complexity – paralleling the life in our own bodies that we experience as a distinctive, coherent individuality. We want to understand a totality while still responding to the vigor, refinement, and messages in the details. Then, challenged by complexity, we differentiate and categorize to create a manageable retrievable “map” in our memory. The simplification is integral to any experience and every response.

Creative Skill

An open-ended creative imagination – the predilection and the skill – has carved out for our species a unique niche in any ecosystem that includes us. We are able to visualize – and take a primal pleasure in discovering – new forms, functions, and action that will re-configure an environment, adapting it to our ambitions and “personal projects”. Natural selection rewards useful innovation, of course, and its significance can be measured by the very high value we put on the prime creative moment: the “original” or the “earliest” or the “latest”.

Creating the conditions   

The history of the built environment is, naturally, a story of waves and ripples of innovation, and the literature on the arts and sciences describes at length the breeding grounds of creative ideas. In the design professions, in the terms I have been exploring, the relevant ideas are typically the product of setting up conditions – the right kind of relationships – that invite spontaneity from motivated, challenged, inspired, or simply mindful individuals and teams. First, that means leadership by people who combine a temperament skewed toward exploration, an ability to welcome and tolerate risk and ambiguity and the skill to draw out and manage the abundant, accumulated memories in diverse, collaborating minds. “Chance”, as Louis Pasteur observed, “favors the prepared mind.”

Second, it means multiplying the opportunity for new connections. At the simplest level, we follow a predisposition to learn and remember one thing in terms of another – through analogies, allusions, metaphors, and symbols. Each of them opens a rich vein of associations leading the mind out of immediate contexts and opening up new parallel lines of thought. Working on different project types can do the same; each “genre” sends a designer’s search into different patterns of human behavior and different parts of the brain – new questions steering a mind into new answers.

Third, always latent in a mind is the underlying lure of “the new”, energized by shocks of a new technology or collisions of ideas that rearrange conventional channels of thought and behavior.  Creative organizations have learned how to design places that set up the human-friction-that-makes-sparks – the structured meetings and the unexpected encounters – in updated variants of coffee houses, the village well, the office water cooler or a shared fire. The result: places where each mind is led through its familiar territory but “across borders” into new contexts and unaccustomed connections. Then, like evolutionary change itself, creative moments emerge essentially by chance. The instant, “obvious” intuitions that kept us focusing on what we already “know” dissolve; ideas re-mix and something emerges that was not there before.

“Sleeping on it,” the process that’s most productive seems to be sequences of periods when, first, the working memory is focused, obsessed, goal oriented, and continually challenged by dissent or failure, and then when those are followed by periods of relaxed “overnight” unconscious wanderings, unconfined by patterns charted through the rational, deliberate “days”. For some, the essential retreat is simply sleeping, when brain circuits are refreshed and memories consolidated; dreams, too, can stumble across radically unforeseen links. For others it’s solitude, in a “wilderness”, meditating on a bigger picture and primal intimate connections back into the world where we evolved. For still others it is the exposure to the massive memory of computers.  The point is that freed from inhibitions and our memories’ momentum, fresh, new or refined pathways incubate and then reconfigure brain networks. Then in an opened inquisitive mind, step by step or in flashes, novel insights emerge. In a sense, we reinvent our languages.

Because the design of built environments is a social and economic art – like entertainment – the most effective creativity sorts out which insights will work out-there in a maze of marketplaces, construction and cost-benefit terms – and on-the-spot functional, symbolic, and aesthetic performance. It’s more than just thinking-outside-the-box; there are multiple boxes. Useful creativity tends to be a discipline of thinking in terms of completed scenarios linking a team’s individual, specialized analyses and hunches into a coherent, workable story.

Lasting “styles,” and sometimes celebrity, are what happens when design teams get it right – when some fusion of human nature-and-nurture facing a challenging environment has produced what we tend to call creative genius. Then, as the new, liberating visions of a Brunelleschi, Wright, Le Corbusier, or Mies – or medieval Lombard stonemasons – open up new connections in our own brain networks, they create new “platforms” for thinking, and we build on each other, one-by-one, to shape and re-shape a culture.

The creative brain

Everyone is creative.  Back behind the responses that we see is a fundamental inventive power.  It sorts out, selects, and re-assembles our fragmented sensations and perceptions, so that what we actually experience and act on is both the world “out there” and its coherent subjective representation constructed “in here”. That’s why everyone’s reaction to, and memory of a place, people or events is different and why creativity is implicit in every experience that makes its way into the memory. 

In our imagination we all make mental images – our own scenarios – of what’s not present, looking past the way things are to the way we want them to be. Those impulses are always at work, and we take pleasure in expressing and implementing the original-to-us thoughts and feelings. While designers and their clients routinely compete through creative innovations – in new “features” or “brands” – at the same time the adventurous imaginations of our publics continually generate new ideas and anticipate consequences as well. Once a place we design engages them, their own creativity comes into play. In a concept articulated by art historian E.H. Gombrich, communication in the arts is a creative partnership between artist and viewers. In a built environment the viewers fill in their experience with stories that intertwine the place with their subjective presence, stature, ambitions, pleasures or doubts – their memories and “personal project”. Then, when backed up by an active let’s-get-on-with-it spontaneity, their creativity stirs up a surprising diversity of responses – ones that no one else could have imagined.

The next post will be about the “social animal”: The chemistry of person to person relationships; competing by cooperating in alliances, building villages and cities.

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This is the seventh 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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