Oct 2, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

A New Humanism: Part 33

A New Humanism: Part 33

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Tentative conclusions “…to do what we set out to do.”   The perspective I call “a new humanism” is a way to enlarge how we think about design, and to do that by learning more, much more, about nature and human nature – about the people we design for and the ecosystems we change. By continually re-educating our intuitions and “design sense” with bodies of reliable, available knowledge, we can open up new opportunities for the performance of everyone investing, elected, appointed or commissioned – and, most important, at all levels of talent and training, beyond a gifted elite. Then, as we design a habitat, we can produce and communicate, more predictably and more generously, the experiences we have envisioned. In other words, we can do more often what we set out to do for our patrons, publics, or our own personal pleasure. 

Ultimately, a new humanism is about updating the day-to-day practices of the design-construction world by expanding and applying the knowledge base that underlies the building arts, and to do that through extending open-ended explorations into the human and natural sciences. The design professions have already had quick, forceful responses to revolutionary advances in the “hard” sciences of building technology. And further, with equal creative force, we’ve responded to modernism’s turbulent intellectual currents and factions in the arts. But we have fallen behind our smart, aggressive business and engineering colleagues in understanding the people and the sites we design for.

As a result, narrow agendas – our own and others’ – are setting the standards for the living environments we actually build.  Some standards are high ones, some disappointing, but it’s been our design professions’ historic role to see the broader picture – to humanize modernism’s ongoing revolutions. I’ve been exploring how to do that by drawing on the work of smart scientists, perceptive teachers, and open-minded design professionals, and there’s a clear-cut way.

An outline of the ideas 

The preceding posts sketch out a humanism following trails that start in ecology, evolution, and neuroscience, and then connect human biology to the subjective experience of the visible, tangible presence of the places we build. 

The structure of the ideas is described in these words: I use the term “humanism” as an organizing concept to describe the collections and collisions of a person’s beliefs about human nature – and specifically about why we experience and respond to environments the way we do. It’s a perspective on what we design. Then by “new” I mean opening up – continually learning and enlarging – the ways we think about built environments, by catching-up with the mainstream of modern culture, the maturing of the applied human sciences.

By “human biology,” I mean the mind-and-body – our psychological/physiological systems – so interconnected that to analyze either inevitably involves both.

By “the mind” I mean what is happening in a brain. And it can be usefully conceived as two fluid, malleable minds, with no clear lines between: a conscious one, our awareness, and a vast non-conscious one where most of our perceptions and memories are processed. Together they are brought into action by messages from the interacting senses translated into changing body chemistry that selectively mobilizes the mind-body resources – steering emotions, reasoning, decisions and behavior.

By “experience” I mean the continuing subjective, indivisible, on-going mix of conscious and unconscious sensations, perceptions, ideas and feelings that dominate a moment, become interlaced with already flowing streams of thoughts and moods, and then are filed among interwoven memories – in effect, continually changing the brain’s networks and opening new channels over a lifetime.

And by “response” I mean what happens in a mind-body when “experience” encounters our motivations – our “personal project,” our goal of the moment – and we act.

The specific ideas that seem to me most useful in practice now are outlined briefly below. This is essentially a “checklist” because the science and scholarship they’re built on is young and moving fast.  And, in a sense, these ideas, like the sciences themselves, are not prescriptive but more of an agenda that can keep us looking for workable answers.

Our origins in ecology and evolution   

Because we evolved and live integrated into ecosystems, naturally we can only build the kind of habitats we aspire to by learning and adopting the inescapable perspective of ecology – the total interrelationship of organisms, including us, and our environments.  Because our human ambitions and creative imagination are a powerful force in any ecosystem we inhabit, ecology is, in a sense, a human as well as a natural science.

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