Hart’s humanist architecture

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The Lincoln Memorial – The dignity humanity, and success of a man framed in classical virtue, reminding us of how much we’ve forgotten about building monuments. [Sketches by Albrecht Pichler]

Robert Lamb Hart has sent me A New Look at Humanism in Architecture, Landscape and Urban Design. Essentially, his book seeks to use modern science to bring a new humanist sensibility to the architecture of our age. Hart does not – so far as I can tell – necessarily want to bring back the more intrinsically humanist classical architecture that modernism has replaced; he wants designers to use the growing fields of science about us to help make buildings more sensitive to our feelings – as traditional buildings already are. He concedes that modernist buildings and settings have not done the trick.

Since I have books lined up (and it is hard break away from my fourth circumnavigation of Patrick O’Brian’s 21-volume, Austenesque novel of the Napoleonic Age), I decided to invite Bob to post his own essay here on my Architecture Here and There blog about his book, published last year by Meadowlark Publishing. Here is what he has to say:


What Is It Like to Be There?

By Robert Lamb Hart

Architecture Here and There has been a defender of traditional architecture and an eloquent critic of a mainstream “modernism” styles where creative ideas are more often about the striking image, originality at all costs, demonstration of a theory, thirst for celebrity, or a quick fix – instead of an understanding of “what it is like to be there” for the rest of us.

The criticism typically attacks “modern” with powerful, head-on rhetoric, but I think there may be a more effective way: I call it  “a new look at humanism.” It’s a probe into the sources of centuries of past architectural successes – into the human origins of their “languages” that we find so appealing – and using that knowledge to help us grasp and guide the momentum of the ongoing revolution we call modern culture.

The humanism in modernism

Over the past two hundred-plus years, our modern industrial culture has been caught up in the excitement of rapid, repeated release from biological human limits. We have naturally given a high priority to the capabilities, values, and machinery that have led us into these exhilarating new levels of mastery – transcendence, at last, over our in-born constraints. We’re reaching new levels of health, comfort, security, strength, speed, expanded social connections – and startling new opportunities for amassing wealth, “winning,” and exploiting the ecosystems we inhabit as the top predator.

It’s been intoxicating, and these tangible, cascading successes of high-performance technology have earned the underlying hard sciences and  engineering a high level of prestige. The finely built, effective machines reflect back to us our exceptional human capabilities. “High-tech” has become a metaphor for control and success, and precedence is given to the imperatives of the rational, quantifiable thinking that propels it. As a result, its powerful but inherently narrow set of values and convictions has simply sidelined others, and many have responded by creating places that feel to them machine-designed and machine-made, celebrating the human mastery that made “all this” possible.

Yet, look around. Over and over again the results on the ground, the places that are actually built and lived in – the clear, tangible expression of our society – after a first flash of marketing and excitement, prove disappointing. And they’re doubly disappointing when we realize that, for all the efficiency talk, what we’re building is not remotely sustainable over any time horizon.

The modern revolution

As a practical matter, though, the “modern revolution” is seen only incidentally in the styles and fashions of built environments that it has produced – the  International Style and the sequence of Modernisms or Constructionisms. Its defining enterprise has been the maturing and application of the empirical, experimental sciences and the passion for probing below the visible, tangible surface of things.

So far, in our built environments the most productive results have been realized – often brilliantly – in construction technology. Scientists and engineers are probing deeply into the underlying, internal molecular and chemical structures of materials – from glass and metals to synthetics – as well as into operating systems, energy flows, and production methods. As a result, we have a formidable body of credible, useful information, precise measurements of performance, new levels of predictability, and a solid foundation for innovation and for exploiting construction sciences to open up more opportunities in the arts of day-to-day building.

The life sciences, though, the ones that explore how you or I actually experience the places being built for us, have only recently been systematically applied in our  design professions.

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Louisburg Square on Beacon Hill in Boston – Human emotion and wisdom embodied in a traditional neighborhood and architecture, prospering in the heart of a busy center city for generations.

What’s going on in a mind and body?

When I use the term “humanism,” I mean a way of thinking that will integrate into design practice continually updated insights into the ways human minds and bodies actually experience and then respond to the places we build.

The foundations come from studies of human evolution – a way to understand motivations, meanings, and spiritual qualities in experiencing architecture.  Second are studies of ecology in its broad, literal sense, the study of an organism’s (including our own) interactions with its environment – with not just architecture but the lands, villages and urban places we develop.

A third group is the escalating discoveries in the cognitive and neurosciences, the intricate links of a mind and body, and the nature of perception. A fourth is the role of the mind in creating stories and metaphors that lead us to read, judge, and describe built environments with the same vocabulary and same concepts that we use to describe people – surely one of the sources of falling in love with traditional architecture.

And at the core of experience are emotions. Every experience, every rational, hard-headed thought has emotional contexts. Their power comes from their speed, faster than conscious thought, and from their links to changing whole-body chemistry.

Practical applications, research, and insights into this “inner life” – and its exploitation – have already become commonplace in other fields. Political campaigns, the legal, medical, and many engineering professions, and, above all, the entertainment and marketing businesses routinely exploit the human sciences – and us – as they practice their arts, reshaping minds and cultures globally with impressive competitive success.

Design professionals.

Yet many design professionals simply have not updated their understanding of people – of the human beings who will live out their lives in the places we’re trusted to build for them. As a result, the trajectory of human wisdom that has been embodied in traditional architecture has been interrupted. Dazzled by modern industrial success and its narrow values, many have lost track of the full richness of human nature and the architecture that it has created over continents and centuries.

That’s why I wrote A New Look at Humanism – in Architecture, Landscapes, and Urban Design.  The book expands on the ideas outlined here in the belief that when we learn more about ourselves and how we interact with out environments, we’ll see emerge a new commitment to architectures of humanism, as they existed in the past.

Equally important, while the book is built on a strong academic foundation, it’s written in the language of professional offices and their client meetings – the places where our future is actually being designed.

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The Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas – Inspired by the Gothic La Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Built with essentially all natural materials with no structural element larger than two men could carry through the woods.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Art and design, Book/Film Reviews, Books and Culture, Landscape Architecture, Preservation, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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