The Socratic Method

Questioning Our Assumptions About Design

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    Is Architecture Humane Enough?

    Sean Joyner
    Aug 21, '16 6:45 PM EST

    It’s mid June of a hot summer in 2014 and as I sit at the intersection of Wilmington Ave and Grape St in Watts, Los Angeles I observe closely. I do my best to consume everything around me and while our assignment is to record the conditions of the site I find myself unbearingly preoccupied with the people walking up and down this street, going in and out of stores, riding their bikes, looking over their shoulders, I see a woman crying and screaming as she tells me and my colleague that she has just been robbed, but she doesn’t stop for help, instead she continues walking to wherever she was going.

    I spot a mother and her son, when she sees me sitting on the sidewalk with a sketchbook I can tell that she becomes suspicious and I see her subtly bring her son closer to her, I notice that her head shrinks down and her shoulders raise up toward her ears and her eyes squint just so slightly. My presence and the presence of the rest of my studio makes her uncomfortable and in this neighborhood it’s hard to trust people you don’t know. Soon I realize, as I watch her as she continues down the street, that she is afraid of everything around her. She constantly looks to her left and to her right to ensure that her and her son make it home safely.

    I spent that entire summer in Watts for a design-build studio at my University. The studio was focused on the beautification of the Wilmington Corridor in Watts. This was a place high in crime, poverty, and neglect. My studio, filled with young adults who were getting an education at a private university and most of whom did not grow up in a place like Watts were supposed to come in and make things a little better for this community.

    Who were we to determine what was best for a community that we weren’t even a part of? How could we come close to understanding what everyday life is like for the people that lived here.

    At this time in my education I had grown to have an invigorating passion for psychology and human behavior. I had read a ton of material on body language and how people interact with each other and the more I read the more I was confused with my education.

    In school we learn about architecture in a way that removes it from human context. The focus is all about theories of form and geometry, of materials and systems, of history and scholarship. The architectural curriculum contains not even one class about people, about how we think and behave, what drives us and moves us. There is no talk of sociology, psychology, biology, neurology. Not of our behavior or what history has to say about our relationship to our environment.

    This is extraordinarily perplexing to me. As architects we are trusted with creating a world for humanity to inhabit, but how can we do that if we don’t understand them. It’s obvious that the mother I spoke about earlier was fearful of the people in her environment. But what about her environment could make her feel safer? This question should precede any other design agenda. What if on her entire walk home there was no where for someone to hide? That would eliminate the uncertainty of what danger might lie in an alleyway or side of a shop. It’s an environmental change that meets an internal human need, in this case, safety.

    I do recognize that architecture could not entirely remove something as powerful as fear but what I’m saying is that our focus as designers should begin and be guided [almost entirely] by the people we are designing for. I spent my entire last year of college searching for material directly relating architecture to human psychology, sociology, and biology and while I was able to discover many interesting things I found myself disappointed with the overwhelming lack of literature on these dichotomies.

    There is a lot of stuff out there about topics like: phenomenology, psychology of color, philosophy, ergonomics, and countless other areas looking at people’s relationship to physical and perceivable phenomena. There is especially interesting progress being made in neuroscience and its relationship to architecture (check out The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture).

    Ultimately, I think, even more so than having scientific evidence, it’s having architectural education grounded in understanding the people we are supposed to build for. If foundational classes in psychology, human behavior, sociology, and neuroscience were a core part of the pedagogy at design schools I believe it would not only result in more thoughtful design outcomes but also empower designers to design on an even deeper level.

    So, what do you think? Should the study of  people be more of a core focus in architecture school? Have you had some of the same feelings? What have you read or learned in your career that has given you a better understanding of people’s relationship to the space around them?


    Im also very interested in any reading recommendations and feedback on the article in general. I haven't written in a while and I am always reading and looking for new things to discover!

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    • Thayer-D

      Should the study of  people be more of a core focus in architecture school?

      Yes, and it's wonderful that you not only noticed these things but thought about how you might be able to mitigate the conditions through design.  I wrote a paper entitled 'The Aesthetics of Humane Architecture' that I'd be happy to forward to you.  In it, I argue that beautiful architecture is humane architecture so it's interesting that you should have been engaged in a project concerning the beautification of Watts.  As to your question"

      "Who were we to determine what was best for a community that we weren’t even a part of?"

       That is the nut of it.  Therefore, the way you determine what's best is through what Kant called, our 'sensus communis', not what makes sense on a gut level, but 'the natural human sensitivity for other humans and the community' (wiki) and the bio-evolutionary aspects of our human nature that we all inherited.  I'd be happy to share it with you off line and be curious what you think.  Great stuff either-way and I wish you the best luck as it's an endlessly fascinating subject with plenty of room for disagreement. 

      Aug 22, 16 10:24 am  · 

      I'm suspicious whenever a "humane architecture" essay pops up, waiting patiently to get to the point where they set up the 'humanist' vs. 'architecture' sides typical in media. Oh, if we'd only understand "the people" more and get away from those architect bastards! Here it manifests in the typical education criticism, "they're only teaching architect-y stuff!" 

      Maybe your architecture school is teaching you the basic principles of scale, proportion, relationship between parts, and "how to creating living, breathing, dynamic spaces of varying character, capable of helping man forget something of his troubles." (Rudolph) Or maybe its up to you to figure out what human architecture means to you. FLW created very humane spaces, and he was a huge a-hole! 

      Aug 22, 16 1:03 pm  · 

      Maybe it's both.  To each their own, but as Maya Angelou says, 'We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”  Let's focus a bit o time on those aspects where we agree.

      Aug 22, 16 2:07 pm  · 

      LiMX, I'm suspicious whenever I hear people speculating the precedence of nonliving things over living things. FLW may have been an a-hole but he still created great spaces. Here I'm thinking about what should be foundational in architectural education. I'm not talking solely about my school but architectural education in general. Every professor that I've talked to agrees that there isn't a focus on people an most architectural pedagogy. 

      Also, I'm not sure where I said that "they're only teaching architect-y stuff!" But rather that there should be teaching on people we are designing for also. Outside of school everything in our design process is about the people first then the architecture. 

      In any case, the quote from Rudolph presents a compelling alternative to what I'm talking about here. In the future perhaps I'll write an article exploring the contrary. ;)

      thanks for the comment!

      Aug 23, 16 9:56 pm  · 

      Yes it is .. 

      Aug 24, 16 10:43 am  · 

      Is architecture humane enough? As if empathy and compassion are just a couple more boxes to check, before we get back to the real work of making a profit.

      The plain fact is that most architects have no interest in rocking the boat. They've got their tenuous foothold in the profit-making machine, and they're not going to jeopardize it by talking about things like social justice.Yes, there are outliers, people doing really great things in the service of others, but for the vast majority of people working in the field, maximizing developer's ROI is the primary focus.

      We suck. 

      Aug 29, 16 9:20 am  · 


      Aug 29, 16 9:28 am  · 

      MOAR PLZ!

      Oct 17, 16 6:20 am  · 

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