Following an “introduction” in parts 1 and 2 were a series of posts exploring the evolutionary “origins” of our responses to built environments and then, more specifically, “The Mind that Encounters Architecture.” This next series explores what happens in “the body that responds.”
In their innovative study, Body, Memory, and Architecture, architects Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore spell out how the experience of architecture originates as a body’s responses – how architecture is, in a sense, a “body-centered” art. They distill our enormously complex human nature into convincing insights, and the ways they trace out their significance make their insights immediately available to apply in practice. The basic ideas, once they have been stated, may seem simple and obvious–fact, they have been exploited brilliantly by artists, designers, and critics. Yet the power of the insights to steer designs into more satisfying, humane environments – from grand monuments to livable communities – is more often mysteriously neglected.
This is a mystery to me because generations of educators and students have had readily available Geoffrey Scott’s extraordinary The Architecture of Humanism. The first of many popular editions was published in 1914.
The Architecture of Humanism
In clear and persuasive language, Scott describes the pleasure, the “delight,” we can take in the art of architecture – the line, mass, space, and coherence of the form itself – as we transcribe the compositions of physical contours “into terms of ourselves and ourselves into terms of architecture.”
“The whole of architecture is,” Scott says “invested by us with human movement and human moods, given clarity and value by our intellect.” And he summarizes this way: “The humanist instinct looks in the world for physical conditions that are related to our own. For movements which are like those we enjoy, for resistances that resemble those that can support us, for a setting where we should be neither lost nor thwarted. It looks, therefore, for certain masses, lines and spaces, and tends to create them and recognize their fitness when created. And, by our instinctive imitation of what we see, their seeming fitness becomes our real delight.” This, he says, is “the natural [spontaneous] way of receiving and interpreting what we see… This is the humanism of architecture.”
He describes how, without conscious effort, we follow lines of paths and sculptural gestures, tracing out with moving eyes their orientation, extension, and interpenetration until resolved. And, within our bodies, we sense the movement as an eloquent line “speaks to us.” And mass, its contours and dimensions in light and shade, is sensed – like a human body – in terms of its unity, stability, and proportions, and at the same time its pressing weight, balance, and support, as if they were forces we feel acting on ourselves. Likewise, the configuration of spaces are sensed in terms of the body’s potential movement or repose – open-ended or enclosed and secure – with the resulting clarity and pleasure, or contradiction and confusion. (more…)
Experiencing architecture, landscapes, and urban places is inescapable and as integral to the pleasures and frustrations of life as our encounters with people – or with the natural world or ideas. And as we respond at conscious, but more often unconscious levels – spontaneously, instantaneously, and in reflection years later – the environments we’ve built shape everyone’s moods, thoughts, emotions and the ways we move and act.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water
But what we feel or think is only triggered by the places we’ve built “out-there.” “Experience” takes shape when a mix of sensations flows into our inner worlds, already restless with memories, associations, trains-of-thought, and motivations of the moment, in other words when they encounter our evolved mind and body – who we are “in-here.”
The people who regulate, design, and build the places that add up to our habitat know this, or at least talk about it, and many are working with sophisticated, well-tested technologies, knowledge and ideas. 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.
The Milan furniture fair held each spring is, indisputably, the place to get acquainted with the latest innovations in materials, shapes, and cutting edge concepts that the best industrial designers and furniture manufacturers have to offer. It’s a setting where established design stars shine, while new ones look for inspiration. But this year a new event brought attention an aspect of design that highlighted the personal experience, the personal exchange–be it as a generational dialogue, manufacturing, or the creative spark.
Photo by Stefano Locci
Milanosiautoproducedesign (MISIAD) is the brainchild of Alessandro Mendini and a group of his peers. Together, they aimed “to promote excellence in self-produced design and small-scale productions.” This inaugural exhibition was intended to document design that is self-produced in Milan. Curated by Mendini himself, the show occupied the open spaces of the historic “Fabbirca del Vappre” and featured over 200 entries by designers like Gaetano Pesce, Jacopo Foggini, Andrea Branzi, Gaetano Pesce, Fabio Noviembre, Italo Rota, Stefano Giovannoni, Ghigos Ideas, and many others.
In line with a democratic curatorial approach, each designer was given the exact same area (1 meter x 1.5 meter) in which to showcase his creation and make a statement on the theme. Layout order was arranged alphabetically, by name.
Photo by Atelier Mendini
It hit me really hard about a year ago when I walked out of Changi Airport in Singapore: that particular combination of cloying orchids, dried fish, durian, drains and that peculiar acrid-yet-sweet smell of wet tarmac after the monsoon rain, all carried on a humid tropical breeze right up my nostrils to that most primal and limbic part of our brain: the olfactory system. The part of the body that is said to hold memory.
This memory was overwhelming. I was home.