In a study he calls The Origins of Architectural Pleasure, architecture professor Grant Hildebrand analyzes how specific responses to architecture, including aesthetic experience, could well have originated in evolved behavior. The details of the research and reasoning he assembles seem to me a clear, persuasive foundation for a more rigorous, more effective humanism. He’s distilled the enormous complexity of a mind and body into concepts usable in day-to-day design, and that’s why my own explorations build on and in a sense grow out of his.
He starts with the idea that natural selection clearly favors those who have imagined, found, and then re-shaped an environment into a “good home.” And, as a result, natural selection has favored “an innate predilection to build in some ways and places rather than others,” adapted to the natural settings where a family would thrive. Drawing on the social sciences, literature, the arts, plus his own observations, he traces the value we place on these selected sites and architectural forms back to biology – to innate survival-based behaviors. Naturally, many of his insights are being applied in our day-to-day practice, though many are ignored or given a low priority, but whatever theory guides a design, he shows ways our publics are most likely to respond and why.
Specifically, Hildebrand points out that a safe, effective habitat must offer both a refuge, providing a microclimate, protection, and concealment – especially for the times when we are least watchful or most vulnerable – and a prospect, a look-out with views over well-lighted open spaces, the places that may offer opportunities – food and water, “provisioning,” exploring, trading – or reveal threats and approaching predators. The natural places that would offer both together – a cave, cliff dwellings, and edges-of-the-forest, with an overlook ahead, protection behind – and ready access to a generous, fertile, natural setting of climate, land, and water – seem like archetypes, found again and again. And he cites examples from a range of cultures over long spans of time – in Japan, throughout Europe, and today’s America.
“We built ourselves into the life of the desert” — Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale
Building ourselves into the life of the land. Hildebrand explores in more depth the design implications of “refuge and prospect,” but first I want to expand further on responses to the component of experience we tend to call “nature” – the interacting processes of climate, geology, hydrology, and biology that go on whether we intervene or not. Our relationship is inherently ambiguous. Surviving and prospering depends on understanding, mastering, and managing its impacts, and our human “dominion” over nature – our separation and superiority – is institutionalized in our biblical and classically based civilizations. Yet in practice, we are an inseparable part of any natural environment we invade, and whether driven by visions of quick exploitation or sustainability, private possession or the public domain, ultimately we rely on an intimate, nuanced collaboration.
Luca Nichetto, designer of the IMM Cologne’s 2013 “Das Haus” installation.
As you make plans for 2013, one of the must do’s is a visit to the IMM Cologne furniture fair. Why? It’s a great place to see strong furniture brands made in Germany. Austria, and Switzerland debuting innovative product releases. Earlier this year we saw the launch of Konstantin Grcic’s Pro chair for Flötotto that was a hit at the show.
Germany’s robust economy means that strong German furniture brands like Walter Knoll, Dauphin, and E15 continue to showcase innovative products (the fair organizers estimate that around 1,250 companies from more than 50 countries will be in attendance). And if you are on the look out for the next design wunderkind, the fair’s d3 Design Talents is among the best-curated exhibitions of young designers from around the world.
A rendering of “Das Haus” by Nichetto.
But the fair has other reasons that make it worth visiting. The LivingKitchen, which is held in odd-numbered years, is a great place to learn about the latest kitchen and bath trends. The famous engineering and precision of German luxury cars can also be found in the work of many of the country’s kitchen and bathroom manufacturers, including Miele, Hansgrohe, Gaggenau, Dornbracht, and Poggenpohl. With 160 exhibitors from 18 countries, you’ll be seeing popular kitchen trends that continue the idea of open plan kitchens, smart appliances, and the use of material combinations of ceramic, glass, stainless steel and wood.
The Torei tray tables by Nichetto for Cassina.
Later this month the 2012 Venice Architectural Biennale will come to a close, so perhaps now is a good time to reflect on this year’s theme of common ground.
I traveled to Venice in October to check out some of the exhibits, which represented everything from abstract intellectual concepts to concrete solutions for the most stubborn challenges in planning and design in the public realm. The following are a few of the highlights:
The Poland and Rumanian exhibits took a somewhat conceptual approach. In the Poland pavilion the idea of common ground is tied to our shared experience of sound. One enters the pavilion to hear brash reverberations of creaking walls and thumping footsteps. Soon we learn that these sounds are actually amplified projections of live events taking place in real time within and around the pavilion, reminding us of the wide range of sound elements that combine to create a common ground of auditory experience. The Romanian pavilion contains a dark room filled with dozens of back-lit pedestals, some containing objects of graphic art (postage stamps) and others of bureaucratic process (architectural and other technical stamps), calling attention to some of the common but functional dichotomies of the creative and applied realms of planning and design.
The most commonly held and influential idea about design is that it’s the art of bringing essentially unrelated parts into a “composition” or an “assembly”. The funny thing is, from a scientific point of view, this idea is entirely wrong. A much better idea about design is that it’s the transformation of one whole into another whole. Not only is this definition more accurate, it’s also crucial for achieving an adaptive design.
Let’s talk about the important implications of this distinction between assembly and transformation.
Why is it scientifically wrong to say that design is the “composition” of essentially unrelated elements? Because nothing that works as a complete system is really “essentially unrelated” — though the sciences used to operate more or less successfully from that abstract premise, and much of technology still does. By contrast, the sciences of the last century have taught us more and more about the essential inter-relatedness of the Universe, from the largest scales of the space-time continuum, to the push-pull world of the quantum. In the biological sciences, we’ve come to understand the multi-layered, historical interdependence of systems, especially evident in the web-like relationships of ecological systems. Wherever we look in nature, we find vast and intricate networks of connections.