A role of a new look at humanism is to challenge conventional technical and operating standards at the core of a team’s design criteria and open them to a broader, coordinated vision of “what it’s like to be there.”
—Robert Lamb Hart, 2015
We have transcribed ourselves into terms of architecture … We transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves … the language of Humanism … speaks by mass, space, line, coherence … It makes them echo to the body’s music … And the mind that is responsive to that harmony, it leads enchantingly among the measures of a dance in stone.
—Geoffrey Scott, 1914
Back in the utopian dreamland of my architecture school, there were two dueling camps of design faculty: the pragmatic “humanists” teaching great buildings through human experiential qualities, and the intellectual “artists” flying the banner of historic and aesthetic composition. The truth, of course, is that any masterwork scores high marks in both. But within that simplified debate sits the great question: What makes a bad, good or great edifice? And even if, against all odds, one found some precipitous ledge of thought that could hold the weight of a credible answer, how can outstanding architecture be consistently achieved, and from what perennial (i.e., teachable) principles is it derived? One could fill a bookshelf with architects’ collected theories over the centuries. Yet no one from Vitruvius to Venturi — despite deep scholarship and critical observation — has succeeded. It might be, to the chagrin of professors everywhere, that like the elusive Zen kōan, its nature is impossible to grasp with rational thought. But it is this beguiling quality of architectural design — artistic exploration tempered by the gravitas of construction — that entices neophytes into its fold year after year.
That said, there are reliable characteristics of good architectural composition that stand the test of time. They can be transformed to reveal new possibilities, but only if subject to continuous critique and review. Into this distinguished literary space Robert Lamb Hart has fearlessly entered his own contribution, A New Look at Humanism in Architecture, Landscapes and Urban Design, referencing in title and content Geoffrey Scott’s classic 1914 publication, The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste.
Hart’s book — a collection of ordered essays — is a wide-ranging perambulation through nearly every conceivable aspect of building or “place” design. Yet there is, as the title suggests, a consistent underlying theme of holistic “humanist” design. Architecture, he posits, is only meaningful when experienced by the complete human organism, from cell to psyche to “interbeing” with planet earth. Using new scientific information on how we as Homo sapiens are part of greater ecologies, Hart revisits the concept of “humanism” in architecture and design. Picking up where Scott left off — architecture’s true language can only be accessed through the body’s kinesthesia — Hart suggests a greatly enlarged definition. Humanism today means acknowledging our inextricable “inter-being” within a global ecology far larger than ourselves, relinquishing our previously destructive and narcissistic role as collective boss of the planet.
Hart’s perspective is closely aligned with the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, in which the human body and its surroundings are considered one and the same; thus, the center of knowledge cannot be within human consciousness, as was historically assumed. In addition, Hart has many fellow architects who have traveled this route in writing and practice — Dimitris Pikionis in Greece, Juhani Pallasmaa in Finland, and the great Danish educator Steen Eiler Rasmussen, to name a few.
Although somewhat undistilled — Hart includes well over a hundred themes and variations — the level of discourse and reflection he presents has never been more needed in architecture. Today, there is a remarkable dearth of serious architectural debate, either in print, in lecture halls or online. This is reflected in so many contemporary buildings that, devoid of any substantive content, are focused on pure sculptural form, suitable for imagery but experientially destitute.
This book is both ambitious and timely. Passionately written and tempered by years of practice, it stands nearly alone in what should be a larger, continuous field of discussion and reevaluation of design principles in light of today’s rapid transformations in technology, science and world culture. We can only hope that Hart’s extensive contribution will challenge the rest of us to action.