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Humanist  Architecture

on creating  places
that enhance wellbeing and fullness of life.




Arie Peled  B.Arch.,Ph.D.

 

 
Be it a street, a group of people, a room or a valley, our encounter with the world is lived as an encounter with a  place. Place after place. Place within place.

This moment in this place in which you are now is a unique event in the enfolding of the world and of your life. It is an existential quantum of both. Once lived, it can not be re-lived, changed, rectified or mended. If you do not fully live this moment in this place, you can not rectify this loss by fully living other places at other times. Whatever is lost here and now, is lost for ever.

Part of this existential quantum are the spatial conditions that prevail in it, to which we colloquially refer as "physical surroundings" and for which I propose spatial presence, a term derived from our lived encounter with places . The molding of this presence is the subject of such professions as architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture. 

In our daily life we tend to keep these relationships in the background of our awareness, but in order to live a full life we have to fully live, in addition to other more critical relationships, those the spatial presence of places offers us.

Humanist architecture attempts to design places that enhance the fullness of life and wellbeing of their dwellers. It also helps the latter become aware of the spatial conditions that may enhance their fullness of life and wellbeing.

There is a long tradition among designers of places - architects, interior designers and landscape architects, as well as among laymen that, to quote the Roman architect Vitruvius, a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas — it must be solid, useful and beautiful.
To rephrase this dictum in contemporary terms, places are to be appraised according to their usefulness, their beauty and their ability to represent appropriate signs and symbols.
But, as we shall see in the following four cases, these qualities do not ensure that places that have these qualities will enrich the lives of their dwellers nor enhance their well-being. Neither does the socio - economic status of the place or its dwellers.

 
 
 
Case one: windows that restrict spatial choice.
 
While places both protect us and limit our spatial options to whatever is available in them, openings enable us to detach ourselves from the place in which we are and move to or have sensory access to other places.
Openings offer us spatial choice and freedom. When we relate to them immediately, naively, without presuppositions and ulterior motives they meet us as facilitators of choice - an entity that enables us to exercise spatial choice, that enables us to actually or virtually access or leave a place. Openings existentially enrich our lives by enhancing our freedom. They offer a choice between being totally spatially immersed "here" and being able to move to or be in the presence of "there" – a place or places in which you may have been and where you may yet be.

 
As known to anyone who has had to spend some time in a windowless room, there is no way to compensate for the absence of an opening. After varying length of time, dwellers will feel trapped, as if prohibited to talk or leave the place. No other place component can substitute a window - neither artificial ventilation and lighting nor a wide TV screen that provides real time view of outside surroundings or a fake window overlooking a fake landscape. The inhabitants of the room will experience a loss of freedom in spite of all these and even if the artificial conditions are far better than those a window may have provided.
René Magritte, whose paintings often depict "the hidden life of things", expresses the role of windows as facilitators of choice in " La lunette d'approche" in which he depicts a half open window overlooking a pastoral landscape that at a closer look turns out to be an image glued to the window panes, while through the open gap total darkness is revealed. The observer is overwhelmed by an existential feeling of "no exit".
 
                      
 

The designer of a window that will enrich your life and add to its fullness has to celebrate the window's facilitation of choice, as well as create a balance between the options of disengagement provided by the window and the overall inclusion provided by the place in which it takes part.

I encountered the following undulating window at Millhouse airport while waiting for my plane in a small café near the embarkation gates.
It was made of glass bricks and in spite of being aesthetically pleasing, functionally satisfactory and properly representing the terminal as a prestigious place, did not act as a facilitator of choice. Neither did it offer options of disengagement that would provide a suitable balance to the building's holding.
Like an eye covered by a cataract, it was not a facilitator but an obstructer of choice.

 

It could have provided a view of what was going on outside, some relief from the introverted and controlled environment of the airport. It was however made of glass bricks. From where I set it was opaque. Only when I got closer, blurred images of what seemed to be cars became discernable. Instead of being transparent and enabling me and others to be in the presence of other places, thus providing a degree of relief from the tension and confinement of waiting, the glass bricks added to my frustration being constrained to sit and wait.
Glass bricks are perceived symbolically as aristocratic entities - crystalline, precious and cool, but in a direct, naïve, pre-reflective encounter they are an opaque, if translucent, barrier that denies me part of my existential choice.
The ability of such an opening to offer choice is almost non-existent and it is unable to existentially enrich our lives. Had the designer of the place responded to its potential as facilitator of choice, he or she could have shaped it as a prestigious, superbly manufactured window that celebrates and elaborates the facilitation of choice rather than creating an object that represents and signifies prestige and perfection. In the the embrace of place page the creation of such a window that celebrates and elaborates the facilitation of choice, is described.

The following are some other examples of windows that are elaborated, captivating objects that existentially impoverish us by not elaborating the enabling of choice:

This window designed by architect Frank Gehry for the Bilbao Gughenheim museum, does not elaborate or celebrate the option of choosing between being inside the cavernous places of the   museum, and the bank of the river flowing outside - a choice imbued with rich, almost poetic connotations. Rather, Gehry has chosen to celebrate the window as object, creating a voluptuous dance of glass and metal - the Bilbao Guggenheim dantza, in which surfaces twist into each other and the angular movements of thin shiny metal rods cuts into the their transparent mass.

   

The windows in Daniel Libeskind's buildings are unconventional slits in their envelopes and take part in creating an exciting and disturbing tension between the building object and the openings that cut into it. However, they not only fail to elaborate and celebrate their potential as enablers of choice, but hamper it altogether, denying the dwellers of these places part of their existential freedom.

The windows of L'Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris designed by architect Jean Nouvel are another example of this inability of windows that are predominantly intended as signs and symbols to act as enablers of choice.

The south side of L'Institut, "the wall of irises", consists of high-tech photo-sensitive mechanical diaphragms designed to control the levels of light penetrating the building. Nouvel's stated intention was that this lattice should serve as a reminder of the mashrabiah – a traditional architectural component of Islamic culture, to the dissemination of which the building is dedicated.

The traditional mashrabiah consisted of a lattice made of wood or stone that enabled women in traditional Muslim societies to enjoy a cool breeze and have a view of public spaces without being exposed to the scrutiny of strangers. Hence, it both fulfilled its role as facilitator of choice and played a socially liberating role for women restricted to their homes. It empowered them and enriched their lives.

 

Nouvel’s mechanical diaphragms, by contrast, restrict views of outside places, thus sharply curtailing the spatial freedom of choice available to any who visit the Institute, impoverishing their lives rather than enriching them. As signs and symbols these metal irises offer a powerful and effective reminder of traditional Muslim culture, but in the situational context of modern Paris they existentially achieve restriction instead of choice - the opposite of the traditional mashrabiah.
 

Another way to design a window that impoverishes us existentially is to relate to it as a mechanism:

A window with sliding panes is easy to assemble and to waterproof the seams between window and wall, but it can never be fully opened. One pane is always closed and the view through it is blurred, hence reducing the spatial choice that could have been made available by the window.

 



Case two: The spatial coerciveness of buildings.

 The most common case of a place existentially impoverishing its dwellers is the building as a type of place. Whatever their shape and wherever located, buildings are to various degrees, inherently coercive and limiting. As a type of place it is a relic of the coerciveness and centralization of patriarchal societies and of the perpetual state of siege by wild life, elements and invaders in which these societies lived. The coerciveness of buildings is generated by the spatial control they impose on their dwellers through several spatial conditions that buildings create:

* Buildings impose their intermediacy on their dwellers by surrounding them with walls, floors and roofs that, while protecting them and making their lives more comfortable, also deny them free access to earth, sky and vegetation. This combination of protection and control occurs in all buildings, culminating in Buckminster Fuller's proposal to cover Manhattan with a geodetic dome that will provide total climatic control (and spatially transforming it into the largest prison in the world).

* Buildings impose formal order and standardization on their components, thus making present, wherever you are within them, the will and coordinating acts of a central agent - their owner or designer.

Formal order is imposed even in such places as gardens and parks despite their inherent potential of relieving the coerciveness of the manmade by the presence of natural entities that have at least a partial autonomy.

* Buildings control their dwellers by their complex spatial organization, which makes orientation dependent on sign posts and verbal directives. 

                               

* Buildings control their dwellers by linking all their internal places into a continuous spatial system, hence reinforcing the dominance of the place as a whole on its parts and dwellers.


* The erect phallic presence of buildings enhances their detachment from their surroundin place and their domination over it.

                                                     

The spatial control imposed by buildings impoverishes our lives and has become unnecessary under the social and technological conditions of what Elvin Toffler has called, "third wave" societies that emerge in developed countries.

This impoverishing effect of buildings is exacerbated by the fact that in these societies the immediate, sensual contact with the world is diminished. We communicate by electronic means. Means of production are indirect – the click of a mouse, the depression of a key. There is less manual use of tools, less direct contact with materials. Both at home and in public places much of the world encountered is a virtual one. We are continually exposed to artificial sounds and sights. As a result, our spiritual and physical creative ability is damaged.

Contemporary designers tend however to create symbolic representations of Hi-Tech technology and their clients to go along with it. They do not attempt to shape places that will enhance the sense of well being of members of these societies and their ability to live fuller lives. Instead, they make these places represent and signify Hi-Tech power and technological sophistication, unaware of, or ignoring, the debilitating effect that artificial and virtual surroundings have on their dwellers.
The immediacy of our encounter with earth, vegetation, sky, and the cycles of hours and seasons is diminished by the clear-cut separation between that which is built and that which is natural. This immediacy is however necessary to provide a crucial balance for the over-exposure of Hi-Tech societies to that which is artificial and virtual. Paradoxically however, the same cutting edge technology that enables the erection and maintenance of complex building systems also enables a new direct exposure to nature and the elements, as we witness for example in windsurfing equipment and ultra-light planes.

To reduce the debilitating effects of over-exposure to the virtual and artificial we have to provide places in which we live in the continuous, unmediated exposure to earth, vegetation and the changing of hours and seasons. Hi-Tech societies do not need sophisticated hi-tech surroundings, but natural unsophisticated ones.

 

In the to dwell in gardens web page we will introduce an alternative human place: The enclosed garden, which can enhance the ability of members of Hi-Tech societies to live a fuller life.

The enclosed garden surrounds a plot of land with a boundary that is impenetrable to any actual and visual access that is unacceptable to its dwellers. Part of the domain is sheltered; part of it is kept as unaltered as possible. An “air curtain (a fan-powered device used for separating two spaces from each other) keeps inside climatic conditions separate from those outside when the latter are unacceptable to the dwellers.

                     
                      

 As to the human settlement, a high-tech society does not need dense urban surroundings, but, to quote Prof. Peter Jacobs, “….new models of Arcadia ….. Where the conservation of nature occurs outside parks…and where cultures are protected within them.”

We should preserve and recreate local topography and vegetation to accommodate a new type of human habitat – the nature conservation settlement where people live in private and public enclosed gardens, and streets and squares accommodate an integrated mixture of traffic, pedestrians and vegetation, parking and natural ground. In the second part of the to dwell in gardens web page the creation of such conditions is described.

 

 

 Case three: a couple's home.

An additional way, in which a place impoverishes the lives of individuals, couples or groups that stay in it, is by not relating to their relationships with the world as a whole and/or their interpersonal relationships.

Each Place beers you within its boundaries and internal space like a mother holding you in her arms and on her lap – the embrace of place.
It offers you and others within it, a degree of holding/protection and a certain amount of options of disengagement/freedom.


The embrace is tight, when the mother is holding the infant close to her bosom; breast feeds it, and prevents it from any movement or change of posture.
The embrace of the place is tight, when it is hot, small, enclosed and dim. when it makes any movement or change of posture difficult and is flooded with objects, sounds, scents, warm colors and soft textures.

 

The embrace is loose, when the mother loosens her hold, lets her infant keep some distance from her body and stay in her lap without any restriction to its movements and posture.

The embrace of the place is loose when it is large, cold, open to its surroundings, well lighted and empty. Its colors will be light and cold, its textures hard and smooth. Movement and changes of posture are unrestricted

At times the mother's and the place's embraces are balanced and provide both a degree of holding/protection and one of disengagement/freedom.

Each individual, couple or group have their own uniquely appropriate way in which a place may embrace them so as to enhance their well-being and add to the fullness of their lives. When designing a place one should strive to create spatial conditions that will generate such an embrace.

Some of us have an intuitive awareness of the unique way in which a place embraces in a way that is right for us. Some intuitively create places that embrace them well. Others experience lack and uneasiness in the places in which they live, without being aware that this loss of fullness and joy of life is due to the way these places embrace them. To therapeutically deal with this existential impoverishment we introduce the [I-place] cunselling procedure in the  [I-place] counseling page.

The procedure enables individuals, couple, families and representative members of staff and customers of a company to become aware of the spatial relationships offered by a place in which they stay and of the unique spatial configurations that will enhance their well-being and add to the fullness of their lives. The counselling procedure employs techniques developed by Dr. Peled that enable participants to express their relationships with a place without the overt intervention of the interviewer.
Even when we ultimately intend to explore the spatial conditions that are right for a couple, a family or a company, we have to first explore the [I-place] relationships of each of their members.
For example, a couple, who just bought a home in a community village, felt uneasy in their new home, although by all conventional standards it was a highly desirable property.

They approached us for advice on how to redesign it to fit their needs. They went through an [I-place] process, to be described in the  [I-place]counseling page, during which the nature of the home that is right for them was explicated. The [I-place] counseling explicates a dweller's relationships with a place and how to shape it so that it may enhance her or his well-being and fullness of life. During the [I-place] procedure it became apparent that the right place for him is one that provides a sense of being spatially immersed in his home, of safety and of being supported. For her however, the home should provide spatial freedom and options of disengagement.
The designer of their home did not create spatial conditions that would enable this couple to enact their respective spatial relationships, but instead created a spatial configuration that symbolically represents family unity - a continuous region of space that surrounds the family gathering center at the dinner area and homogenously opens up the building to the garden around it.
In order to create spatial conditions that were right for each of the spouse and that would enhance their ability to stay together as a couple we proposed a number of changes that would convert their home into a place that enables his home and her homes to co-exist side by side:
We cancelled the home's centralized organization around the dining area, and instead created two semi-separate areas, alongside each other. To cater for her needs, we opened the right-hand side of the house onto an extended garden with a separate entrance leading to her physiotherapy clinic.

For him, we set up a number of small walled gardens on the left side of the house, allowing his studio to open out onto one of them. Thus, he will be able to carry his music teaching in a secluded location without detaching himself from the body of the home, and thanks to acoustically insulated sliding doors, without disturbing his family.

Had the designer of the couple's home directed his or her imagination towards the authentic relationships that each of the spouses have with the home place, he or she would have created a set of places that offer variations of immersion and disengagement that are right for each of the spouses. Such an expression of their differences would have enhanced the couple's well being and fullness of life as well as their chances of staying together. It would have enhanced their actual, rather than their symbolic togetherness.

 

 

The [I-place] dialogue.


The existential impoverishment experienced by dwellers in the cases described above is due to the way these places were addressed by their designers. Instead of opening up dialogically to the spatial presence of the place they were about to shape, instead of relating to the place in an unmediated, naïve, sensory, whole, pre-reflective way, the imagination of the designers became detached and addressed these places as objects to be observed and manipulated, as signs, symbols and mechanisms.
At every moment of our lives we encounter the world as a place. Be it a valley, a room, a group of people or a street, our encounter with the world is lived as an encounter with a place. Place after place. Place within place.

To let the spatial presence of places play such a role in your life, you have to open up to each place as a being to which you relate, in the philosopher Martin Buber's terms, as [you]. 

                                          
 

According to Buber, we relate to the world in two ways - [I-you] and [I-it]. He pointed out the radical differences between these two alternative and complimentary modes of encountering the world and its beings.
When relating to the other - man, object, plant, animal, as [you], one opens up to the other's vibrant expressive presence in itself, with no ulterior intentions and considerations.
When relating to the other as [it] one adopts a detached, at times alienated position, as observer and manipulator. The other is related to as a means to an end, to be manipulated, observed and used.
These two modes also occur in our encounter with the spatial presence of places as wholes, and with each of their components, i.e., windows, floors, curtains, etc.
When you open up to a place and its components as [you], you open up to it in a way that is pre-reflective, unmediated and naïve. The place is than encountered as the body of a quasi experiencing being in its own right that co-shares the world with you. The whole of you opens up to the whole of the place, or the whole of each of its components. You are receptive to its presence as it lends itself, here and now, to your touch and glance, with no intermediacy and ulterior intentions.
We will refer to the creation of a place that draws on such a dialogic encounter, as humanist architecture.
As [you], a place and each of its components become part of the fabric of our lives. We are involved, take responsibility. It is a mode of encounter that has an impact on all our [I-you] relationships in the place.
When directing ourselves to a place and each of its components as [it], we often relate to the spatial presence of a place in a functional, aesthetic or symbolic way: How is it constructed? How much does it cost? Is it beautiful? What does it represent? It becomes subjects of our scrutiny and manipulation, a means to an end which lies beyond it - to be observed, manipulated, used, documented and analyzed.
When creators of places choose to exclusively address a place or a component of a place as [it], they shape them as sign, symbol or mechanism. They isolate it, as many contemporary architects do, from the continuum of our lived world and displace it to the realm of the virtual world of signs and symbols, of language and art. When addressing a place as [it] the designer's imagination ignores the complex situational context of the place's spatial presence and consequently diminishes its potential for enriching lives and enhancing well-being. The place is then able to enrich our lives only in its capacity as an item in the virtual world of signs and symbols, as a painting or a sculpture would.
However, if the place is to add to our joy of life and enrich us existentially, we have to open up to it and design it as more than just a provider of comfort and aesthetic pleasure, an object to be built and maintained or an entity that represents and symbolizes values, events, cosmic forces, etc. We have to open up to it as [you] and to its spatial presence as the body of a quasi-experiencing being, which is present over there and all around us. It's immediate and vividly expressive presence that of an entity that, embraces, intimidates, nurtures, reassures, rejects, etc.
When in our construing and designing of places and their components, the [I-it] mode becomes predominant and the [I-you] mode ignored or repressed, we become experientially impoverished.



The humanist approach to the creation of places addresses  the spatial presence of places therapeutically in order to enhance the well-being of their dwellers and the fullness of their lives.

The Humanist Architecture Center, described in
the Center
page, was established in order to apply this approach to architectural design, counseling and courses.

                                                  The goal of Humanist Architecture is 
                                                                to listen to people
                                                                         and 
                                                               to listen to places 
                                               in order to create spatial conditions
                                                              that enrich lives 
                                                        and enhance well-being

 
Head of the Center, Arie Peled B.Arch., Ph.D., is an architect that specializes in the study of dialogic relationships with the spatial presence of places. After completing his doctoral studies in architectural psychology at University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, he was invited to join the Faculty of Architecture at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

Dr. Peled took early retirement in 2003 to establish the Humanist Architecture Center at which his humanist therapeutic approach to the spatial presence of places is applied in architectural design, counselling and teaching. He lectures on humanist architecture in Israel and abroad.


                             

   Contact us:

The Humanist Architecture Center
27 Hasharon st  Haifa 35012 Israel
972 54 7 640 281
arpeled @ gmail.com