What are the most impersonal styles of architecture? Brutalism comes to mind; its signature feature of raw geometric forms intersecting and jutting out from bland cityscapes has always done little to invite civic engagement. This is especially ironic, given that so many Brutalist buildings are cultural or municipal in nature. The inaptly dubbed Rationalism is another example, as is Futurism, Postmodernism, Structural Expressionism, Deconstructivism, and, for that matter, almost any 20th century –ism that proffered itself as an avant-garde comingling of logic, functionality, and urban sensibility, precedent be damned. Clean, averse to nostalgia, and free of ornament. When Le Corbusier, that most polemical of modernists, was once asked to explain how he came to a particular design solution, he described “a juxtaposable system of construction according to an infinite number of combinations of plans.” Void of context, one could be forgiven for mistaking these words as ad copy for the latest version of AutoCAD, or just about any design software built to mitigate the consequence of human error.
Within the last 10 years or so, a noticeable pattern began to emerge among some of the industry’s best-known and profitable architecture practices: newly branded boilerplates and About Us pages emphasized the “human” element in design. Seemingly overnight, the “human experience” was spotlighted as something to be uplifted, elevated, enriched or optimized. The built environment and the habitable spaces within were now enhanced by their “human potential.” Design itself was now “humanized,” a product of empathy and the beneficiary of indomitable human spirit (or something).
So if, suddenly, circa-2010, the “human experience” was the new bottom line, then we should inquire: What hole existed beforehand that (some) architects felt compelled to fill?
In all fairness, such branding choices are neither endemic within the industry nor evidence of some philosophical sea change. But the recurring pattern is noteworthy. A mere sampling of the higher-profile firms boasts architecture’s ability to “transform all dimensions of the human experience,” “elevate the human experience through design,” and “unite people and elevate the human spirit,” to cite just a few. So, if suddenly, circa-2010, the “human experience” was the new bottom line, then we should ask: what hole existed beforehand that (some) architects felt compelled to fill?
Study of the causal relationship between architecture and human behavior is fairly well worn territory, having yielded all manner of theories, both optimistic and skeptical, on how the built environment frames and guides the human condition. Among the skeptics, Richard Buday concluded in a 2017 essay for Common Edge, “Architects have limited power to shape human behavior, such as workplaces that make employees more productive, schools that engage students, hospitals that heal, and urbanism that makes neighborhoods safer or environments sustainable.” Further, he lamented the fact that architects seldom seek the consult of psychologists and behavioral scientists during any phase of the design process. Indeed, when it comes to schools, hospitals, or any such project whose success is measured, in large part, by the user experience, the post-occupancy evaluation is the only comprehensive tool in the kit, and even that is used sparingly across the industry.
On the other end of this argument are the holdouts of architectural determinism. This theory purports that the built environment is the sole determinant of human behavior, which is as lofty (and misguided) a presupposition that ever existed within the canon. Literature associated with architectural determinism has historically leaned—too heavily at times—on the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis, the design and planning of which are often scapegoated as the very causes of the crime and disrepair that came to define the project, right up until its demolition in 1972. This simplistic conclusion that human behavior is a product of its environment is not only myopic but, in this instance, racist as well. Indeed, as Chad Freidrichs deftly demonstrated in his 2011 documentary, external factors stemming from white flight, chronic poverty, and negligence on the part of the St. Louis Housing Authority, were more the culprits in Pruitt-Igoe’s demise than anything related to Minoru Yamasaki’s design vision.
I’ve never met an architect who isn’t also a humanist, which is to say, preoccupied in some way with human agency. The architectural trade is by its nature focused on catering to, and in some cases emphasizing, the behaviors of human beings. Just how deeply some architects choose to explore the effects of, in the words of Robert Lamb Hart, “the mind that encounters architecture” and “the body that responds,” is an entirely different matter. Further, just what prejudices some architects may harbor when it comes to so-called human nature, and how that’s been tangibly translated through their work, is likely a matter not worth dissecting except in a few extraordinary cases. (I’m looking at you, Louis Kahn!)
This marketable fusion of the “human” element with the built environment looks and sounds a lot like some grasping for the last remnants of architectural determinism. While most trained architects today have a more learned understanding of the things that make for healthy environments than did previous generations, it’s a tough case to make that we’ve now arrived at a more enlightened era of architectural design.
We are several years if not decades into the post-ism era. For better or worse, as an example, many of the pivotal Brutalist or Postmodernist buildings of yore are now often stripped of their design merits in hindsight and clumped together as relics of one –ism or another. This isn’t architectural cancel-culture—it’s just lazy. Most –ism’s are used quite differently today when referencing contemporary work, not so much to academically categorize and aesthetically market something but more as to land a punch line, or, worse, preemptively dismiss a project by hiding behind pedantic jargon. In some instances, new hybrid –isms are cooked up on behalf of certain projects, I suppose to illustrate the silliness and futility of over-labeling things. This is a shame, because at the heart of many –isms (though not all) is an optimistic worldview.
Take Neo-Futurism, for instance, that stylistic bouillabaisse practiced by the likes of Henning Larsen, Zaha Hadid, and Santiago Calatrava, among others. Woven into the design of such works like The Wave or the Milwaukee Art Museum is a deliberate effort to achieve more meaningful and lasting engagement with the end user, even if the things in question are deemed ugly or extravagant at the outset. Whatever programming or material faults have come to characterize projects of a certain ilk, or whatever criteria we use to anoint or diminish the work of so-called “Starchitects,” there remain to this day active and tangible –isms that deserve our focused attention. Instead, large factions of the architectural community have evidently moved past any particular -ism because such practice is considered cold and calculating, academic or inhuman. Corbusian, if you will. All that’s left, it would seem, is to remind the general public that their human interests are at the heart of everything.
“Design is everything,” goes that famous quote from Paul Rand. This boldly holistic attitude was later expanded upon by the likes of self-described “radical optimist” Bruce Mau, who has long-touted the importance of focusing not on the world of design, but the “design of the world.” Many architects followed suit and have embraced this universal pursuit of—however cryptically—bettering the “human experience.” Whether taking their cues from the Architecture 2030 Challenge or organizations like the AIA or ULI, this vision has admittedly manifested itself in worthwhile ways. It has certainly brought needed focus and a critical eye toward efforts to make LEED and WELL buildings more commonplace, reduce embodied carbon, educate the public about sustainable urbanization, and much more in this arena. On the other hand, implicit in this language are hints of ideological purity, intentional or otherwise.
Such preoccupations with architecture’s supposed ability to drive, elevate, enhance, enrich, improve, mold, shape, transform, uplift—pick your synonym of choice—human behavior, the human condition, the human experience is not a false equivalency so much as it is a gross oversimplification. Living, working, learning, and healing are all natural states that, to varying degrees, require designed environments to be carried out, which is like saying one needs oxygen to breath. The human condition is malleable, and it cannot be shaped by the built environment any more than toxic work cultures can be blamed on open-office plans.
As far as –isms are concerned, naturally they are better used for aesthetic and historical reference purposes than as some ideological framework. It’s only when people confuse –isms with some rigid set of principles or dismiss them outright as arcane tools of academia that we arrive at the post-ism era, when design itself must encompass, well, everything! That’s just too tall an order. And an –ism, when used in earnest, can denote a clear design vision and better define the importance of civic engagement without presuming to dictate how those engagements and behaviors should play out.
The built environment is forever the beneficiary and victim of hindsight. That dichotomy exists because of how human beings interact over time with what humankind has physically manifested. Simple enough, right? In fact, it’s near impossible to find a time and place when the human experience wasn’t a central tenet of architecture. All the more reason why this newfound focus on making that experience better feels dismissive and cynical.
Featured image: Assembly Building, Chandigarh, via the Times of Isreal.