Oct 16, 201301:46 PMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

A New Humanism: Part 34

A New Humanism: Part 34

The Katsura Palace Gardens in Kyoto – the aesthetic rewards of mindfulness.

Courtesy Albrecht Pichler

(page 1 of 2)

The advancing knowledge of nature and human nature, though often ignored, already has, of course, profound influences on design. By themselves, no one of the ideas here is “new.”  Ecology in some form is being taught as a framework for design, and the sciences of responsible stewardship and sustainability are being rapidly folded into building technology and development economics.  Cost-benefit calculations are becoming “humanized,” too – more collaborative, comprehensive, and transparent – and the emotional content of so-called hard-headed rational decisions is more and more acknowledged. 

But to-do-what-we-set-out-to-do, we still need the perspective of a broader, more comprehensive humanism to permeate the mainstream of professional training, continually keep it up to date. We need to apply in practice the growing understanding of ecosystems and of the people who will respond to the places we spend our lives designing. What is it really like for them to be there? In a sense, after deconstruction has exposed the ideologies underlying design decisions, this is what we are left with – the nature and human nature that created the ideologies in the first place.

A broader spectrum   

Merging this perspective into professional education would not be a big step to take, and there are operating models to follow. Continually updated studies of ecology and the origins of human behavior can be found at all levels of university education, and it’s not the brain operations themselves that need to be learned, but their manifestations in human experience. Many of the insights are already integral to training in medicine, business, law, engineering, and public administration. And they are essential elements in the education for entertainment, marketing, and campaigns of all kinds.

Mainstream design education already includes learning about the roles of culture, “personal projects,” and the natural sciences. They’re typically integral parts of the courses in history, theory, construction, and design. They are broadened by expert guest faculty; enlivened by foreign travel; and applied in studios where the separate channels of learning are interwoven into creative self-expression. And that’s a structure that could readily integrate the applied human sciences as well. The recent integration of complex and daunting sustainability concepts and techniques into design studio projects shows how rapidly and seamlessly a motivated school can start to open up a new perspective and body of knowledge that is driving a revolutionary cultural change.

Designing a truly sustainable way to live on the planet means entering into a new design paradigm. This perspective of a New Humanism, though, is not a new paradigm. Instead, it’s another of the basic design tools that belongs in a school’s curriculum – just like a close study of culture, history, and theory or communities, applied building technology or design technologies like parametrics. But the important point is that these subjects are still just traces of the past – of others’ thinking and action from the distant and immediate past.

While a continually up-dated “past” is the necessary platform for any future round of creativity, schools that aspire to encourage diversity and creativity, and to liberate students to challenge the status quo – or just to understand the status quo – can do that better by teaching the underlying sources of innovation – the human mind-body that, in interactions with ecosystems, imagined and reasoned out of the rich curriculum that is taught today.

It’s that kind of knowledge that we’ll all need as a technical companion to guide the radically changing built environment we’re facing. It just seems common sense that understanding, in depth, the people we’re designing for – and the natural settings we’re reconstructing – will give us the best chance to build on the land more practical, livable, workable, affordable architecture, landscapes and urban habitats.

Rebalancing 

This new humanism idea, then, is about balancing today’s emphasis on teaching the realities “out-there” with the realities of the responses “in-here,” the impression as well as the expression – the “receiving” as well as the “sending” half of communication. The resources are readily available, and useful basic knowledge – though fragmented and sometimes still educated guesses by smart researchers – is being documented, translated into usable form, and equally important, the research is being paralleled by experiments with forms of collaborative teamwork. Both designers and scientists are working on ways that can draw each of us out of our habitual circumscribed patterns of thought, to turn our focus out onto our interfaces with each field. Some are learning the others’ “languages,” some are working on shared databases and in the case of the still forming neurosciences, initiating a new combined academic field. And again, the educational format is a familiar one, parallel to the ways many architects and landscape architects have learned to work with engineers and natural scientists on complete, functioning environments.

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