Architecture, like every human endeavor, is influenced by the pervading world view at the time. Since the Enlightenment, humanism has been the predominant philosophy shaping western architecture. Robert Lamb Hart’s A New Look at Humanism in Architecture, Landscapes and Urban Design is a fresh examination of humanism and its impact on the built environment.
At first glance, this is a daunting book; definitely not a light read. Lamb endeavors to tie together several core humanistic concepts into an “agenda that can keep us looking for workable answers.”
No small task.
Hart’s construct of humanism differs from the humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment; while still rooted in rationalism, the “new humanist perspective” he outlines is grounded in science, both hypothetical and experimental. The book is organized into six major sections:
- Origins explores the role of our evolutionary make up in how we experience the built environment
- The Mind uncovers our intellectual grasp of architecture; the recognition of order, patterns, analogies, and symbols in our buildings
- The Body examines our physical responses, including rhythms and sensory systems
- Languages describes both the language we use to talk about design and the “language” in which architecture and the design arts “speaks” to us
- Aesthetic Experiences looks to the range of feelings we have our mind and body interact
- In his Conclusion, Hart suggests that the education of design professional must include an understanding of the role of humanism in the design process. He specifically challenges the digital revolution that isolates us from physical reality.
Liberally spread throughout are illustrations by Albrecht Pichler, whose hand drawings lend warmth and focuses the author’s discussion into concrete examples.
Whether Hart has produced a manifesto on the order of Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture or Corbusier’s Towards A New Architecture will be for current and future practitioners to determine. But he certainly offers a perspective, while not new, that is in danger of being lost.
Quoting Louis Sullivan, Hart asks the reader to consider how humanism must influence design: “You must cultivate attention—the art of seeing and the art of learning.” For the reader determined enough to stick with the volume, there is much food for thought here. Whether today’s young architects will cultivate their attention on the philosophical and scientific humanism underpinning modern architecture only the future can tell.
review by George Calys