Saturday, April 30, 2016

It’s about the Magic


The real magic of the human condition is that humans share a reality we don’t realize we share – until provided by way of an experience designed to evoke it.  A very early example is the campfire that provided light, warmth, cooking, and safety, the original heart of the home, the hearth—as well as the heat and light that anchored the earliest settlements. 

The first effects of controlled illumination were visible in the faces warmed and colored by firelight, along with the sharing of food, drink, and stories of the hunt, the journey, the battle, and fear and danger overcome.  250,000 years later, romance is still fueled by the hearth and candlelight, just as the outdoor grill and its aromas serve to recall and rekindle the rewards of the hunt, the original human teamwork project.  The gift of fire was the gift of reassurance, social cohesion in bonding, and confidence that we could fend off dark and cold, hunger and loneliness, with our creative crafting of the natural world.

Perfect places

This magic of the campfire has been extended in places so ingeniously designed that, like the fireside, they evoke behaviors perfect to their purposes, as if on autopilot.  No signage is needed, as in sacred spaces, because the purpose of the place is perfectly clear in itself, making intuitive sense.  The most successful places ever built pull this off seemingly without effort.  What their designers did was to understand instinctively, without doing the math, exactly how people behave, where, and why.  Find ways to build in this intuitive knowledge as a conscious act, and the public will visit, and more important, re-visit—the whole secret to public spaces that succeed to survive, prevail, and even turn a profit.

Magic on purpose

But this magic doesn’t just happen, it must be learned at a Hogwarts Academy, that hard place where magic must be earned by the exacting act of learning and absorption, then applied.  Intuition can take you so far, because it comes from the same brain as knowledge.  But there is a science of design as it fits human needs and wants, and that is the work of cultural analysis in centering human-based building.

Familiar spaces are those we know so well, from our homes to the White House, from the office to the zoo, department store to gift shop, as object lessons of problem-solving at its most pragmatic.  But the process of coming up with solutions to place-making problems can’t be explained by the “magic” touted by Disney Company.  We know how to behave in a castle – even a “real fake” one in Disneyland, or in the glitter of a casino, or the awesome majesty of a cathedral, or again, the civil sanctity of the Oval Office (where the most sophisticated guest can choke up on a planned speech). 

Why?  Because each of these places evokes a set of behaviors within each visitor—an inner character and core script close to theatrical.  The ability to cue this acting is the outcome of clear design parameters that set the stage.

This blog will describe various stage sets.  But it will do something more: lay out the parameters of our common cultural equipment that make these stages work, starting in the mind with perception.

For example, how do we know, at any moment, where we are, and what we are supposed to do there?  The answer depends on some heavy brainwork: work that takes in the sensory world, compares it to inner templates of meaning and motivation, and makes almost instant decisions about the appropriate script.   There is a whole rationale for this instant recognition, the built-in rulebook by which people understand and act within the spaces we all know – as well as new ones (hint: we treat the new as an extension of the old by sensing and filing its perceptual cues in the old folders). 

How it works: Rules for human-based design

Once these rules and rubrics are out in the open to demonstrate the dynamics of space use and wayfinding, the task of designing places that work can be an informed one.  Not through some arcane process that defies explanation, but as a deliberate decision sequence that illustrates the logic of thinking and feeling as inspired by design. We should be the sorcerer, not the sorcerer’s apprentice, practicing magic by design.  The better the marriage, the less dependent it needs to be on the magic of romance and more on the harder logic of relationship maintenance and negotiation.


Such decisions include: How much space for how many people?  What colors should dominate for this purpose?  Lighting, furnishings—what styles are best suited to the behavioral theme?  What historic or geographical themes offer the most effective outcomes?  Music, programming, drama, icons and symbols, and “talis” array (the touchstone takeaway objects and images) are all synthesized into creation or re-creation of spaces to promote the purpose. Designers make these decisions intuitively all the time.  But what I’m raising here is a bigger question: how do all these aspects interface with the visitor mind? 

This is the human/design interface.  What is already in this person’s mind?” What template will they use to identify this place when they see it? What emotions are attached to that template/algorithm?  How do we manage those emotions? In what context will the observer be observing- where will they “stand” contextually – solo, with a group, what sort of group – intimate? Strangers? Colleagues? Other?

Much of the rulebook of contemporary retail was worked out by Henry Selfridge from the turn of the last century in his London emporium.  He operated by shrewd instinct to create retailing traditions out of his head that are now industry templates.  He also had his store designers to consult.  But what works can be copied, explained, and replicated for future success.


And what is the purpose of any given space?  This is a question more often assumed than analyzed; we think we know this intuitively.  We do—when we see it.  But before we do, someone must know what they are doing in order to create place out of space.  Disney’s original statement about what was in his head was nothing anyone else could relate to: (Iwerks and Kenworthy in Hench, The Art of the Show, p. 2) “…a small amusement park…designed to appeal to both children and adults….something of a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic.” No wonder, under this rudimentary business plan, that so few people were able to understand his start-up vision by this hazy outline.  What Disney was inventing was a new kind of public space, attuned to an audience he loved and respected—an experience environment.

What Disney and his team designed was far more, but it had to be experienced to be believed and understood a generation later – nearly twenty years after Disneyland—by the handful of architectural critics and practitioners who were, despite their formal training, able to transcend that barrier to grasp what was in Walt’s mind. The first Imagineers weren’t architects, and the initial appreciation for themeing came from the ranks of people trained outside architecture, in animation, filmmaking, theater and interior design, and urban planning.

With the creation of the first park, Disney achieved an institution beyond the user-friendly public space now so widely praised and emulated. In fact, he produced something far greater, a template for the building-scape of our cities and suburbs ever since.  This early innovation deliberately followed a sequence of related thematic stories for a walkthrough environment, a series of crafted experiences to be lived and re-lived in totally immersive 3D; a living movie in which the visitor is the lead actor.

Just as theme parks embody “the art of the show,” we use the wider term “thematics” to encompass the entire built environment and all that visitors “perform” or experience therein.  This domain includes the humanscape of buildings, transportation (from land vehicles to ships and skyways), suburb and waystation, malls, assisted living communities, from major cities to edge cities to villages and small towns; oil rigs, castles, hospitals, airports, warehouses, and golf courses – every node imaginable. 

Everything people do within and about these designed worlds is included—working, socializing, buying, selling, browsing, walking, riding, boating, flying, hiking, and biking; learning, adventuring, meeting up, gardening and growing, sporting, worshipping, fair-going, recovering, being born,  grieving, and dying—from birth to funeral, our lives happen within spaces designed for the grand scope of human talent and potential. The gamut runs from hospitals where we now are both born and die, to theme parks that showcase our deepest and dearest motivations.   

Human-based design

The age when designers could dictate their own terms is closing down.  The humanscape is becoming a flatter ecology.  The visitor, user, or guest always did shape place to their own ends.  It is now far more clear that in order to compete in the mass public arena, the audience and their aspirations and perceptions of things has moved up to take the helm of the design agenda.

Architecture and building can no longer operate within the “pure” control of the architect and builder alone; they have to engage with the instincts, tastes, and talents of those who will use the space with their own agendas drawn from the broader cultural mandate.  Rarely are these the same as the private creativity of those who conceive and create these places for their own personal ends as monuments to their own talent.  It has to be about the user as the client, with the architect as a rapt artisan who serves at the client’s pleasure.

The best places are custom-designed for the innate genius of the human brain, body, and behaviors—to fit the cultural (shared belief) program, after Universal Design has been satisfied. This means there are actually two style sheets for place design:  first, what all humans share, and second, the cultural “set” that distinguishes one group from another—northern and southern, French and British and Arab and Asian, male and female, younger and older, upper, middle and lower class.

These categories each come with a unique value system that requires different stylings to promote and underwrite them.  “Family” is code for child, class, and cost, most often in a category by itself that excludes adult, and especially teen, themes (Las Vegas being geared to these two). Both New Orleans and Las Vegas have gone through branding experiments pitching their images to the family market. These failed because people have a mental file folder for both places labeled “hedonism, adults only, and 18 and older.”  These are special “forbidden zones,” escape valves from the righteous and careful ethic of civil society geared to order.  Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has explained the gap in his quip “There is no such thing as fun for the whole family,” because, as our age-stage development chart shows, adults, adolescents, and children have widely segmented priorities.  Many times these are at odds. 

While this is a very general schematic, it outlines the categories key to audience-based decision making in design.  Twenty-five years’ experience in guiding our clients’ focus on what is most critical to their audiences will be clarifying to every designer who needs to create the public space that targets every type of experience.  

We are too often called in to troubleshoot when the issues causing problems could have been addressed, avoided, or solved far earlier in the design process—at the fuzzy front end.  Human dynamics introduced earlier, rather than later, always yield cost and time-saving, up-front economies that go far to prevent the expensive bill for damages to operations and reputation otherwise doomed to happen on the ground.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Mind of Design


“Yes, an architect’s primary responsibility is to shape form.  But there is social meaning inherent in every structure, in every form, in every place, and in every situation, and it does architecture no good to suggest that the act of form-making is separate and distinct from the uses to which a form will be put.”

                                       --Shigeru Ban, Pritzker Prize recipient, 2014

The designed environment consists in every kind of structure, but most are conventional, based on standard patterns that work and have worked for hundreds of years.  At the opposite end of the scale are those experimental artworks, like Buckminster Fuller’s spherical dymaxian house, monuments to creativity – some of which work, some don’t, most erected for looks (like sculpture) rather than designed for function.

Move over to the other side of the equation. The human beings who use the designed environment, from kitchens to Olympic stadiums. These two energies, design and user, can sometimes meet in the middle – but often this meeting is awkward, ill-planned, or off-base, requiring alterations in the design and / or, more often, workarounds by the user.  This is why people are constantly trying to manage their environments – with mixed results.

But if environments, from auto shops to automats, were consciously conceived and executed for the ways of the social brain and the human body, the foundations of a far better world—with less stress, higher productivity, creativity, better quality of life, and far less conflict between where we have to live and what we need to do and our ambitions for how we’d prefer to spend our time, money, and energy. 

This upgraded scenario includes transportation (cars and planes, the bane of modern life), moving to the places we live and work, shop, meet, and learn.

It turns out that we’re old-fashioned - we would usually rather be within walking distance for everything we do.  And on from these sub-prime environments into our prized leisure retreats for recreation and restoration at hotels, resorts, vacation clubs, and theme parks. These places are desirable largely because their design (with lots of walking, as on the golf links) so closely fits the way we enjoy eating, resting, playing, and recharging—mostly in contrast to where we must do these things but don’t especially like to.  

The best places operate on autopilot, meaning that the design is so attuned to what people already want to do that the dynamics between the way the place is built and the way it is experienced set up a self-motivating engine, a virtual cycle, of design and use.  All great design works this way.


At this point a word about autonomy and its place within the mind of design.  Our brains enjoy a certain autonomy of thought; we can imagine, and dream, and daydream, and we do all these things consistently; they inform our lives in the important unfocused scanning of the possibilities of each day and also in reforming and making sense of the past.  However, our brains are also raised on culture, the social brain, so we act and make decisions by social primate thinking.  The way in which we use space is based on a set of rules that follow this social, or shared cultural, agenda.  Context use and perception follows group thinking. 

Context rules

Our normal behavior unfolds in context, and within all of them, follows rules that are often centuries old, based on the basics of age, gender, and group dynamics.

What we do every day is not individually conceived or executed but highly themed to fit each node.  That is the reason we “know” what to do instantly within the built environment—car, concert hall, bookstore, child-care center, art gallery or garage sale.

In all these places (more than in our own homes, where we do enjoy greater but never total latitude), autonomy is minimized as the social agenda asserts itself.  At root, design is about culture - our shared reality - and not about individuals.

Individuals can command a custom-designed home, but since people use domestic space in very similar ways, aside from materials or site, there isn’t that much point—besides vanity--to the exercise of customization. As many a residential architects can attest, every home has a standardized packing list: heat, light, plumbing, ventilation, energy—all keyed to the human machine: our common brain, body, and behavior, as expressed in culture.

Like our unique ability at creating culture through the art of language, we also shape our lives by creating the very spaces that promote living to our cultural ambitions.  We have been obsessed by the art of place-making for thousands of years; that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.  The nice thing about deep history is that it contains broad clues to ongoing constants that continue to rule the way we do things and our motivations for doing them.  The past therefore indicates how the future is going to unfold.

Symbolic language of space

Our lives as human beings began 200,000 to 300,000 years ago in prehistory with the emergence of language—but also with our ability to abstract spatial relationships, starting with the protected space of the home plot and the physical integrity of the body.  Parallel with language, dedication of various spaces for specified uses created a symbolic environment to suit our emerging abilities and desires.  Place-making allows the world outside to merge with the images and ideas inside our heads, and to provide for our needs and projected needs beyond the immediate present.

Place design presents an earlier way to preserve and transmit knowledge in three dimensions across the generations, before the later achievement of written language.  What is preserved of ancient civilizations, allowing us to know them, is through their sculpting of spaces that have survived the centuries.

It was this received knowledge reserve applied in design that implanted the behaviors made possible by the separation of major life themes—in spaces designed for cooking, resting, working, bathing, socializing and entertaining.  We made the places—then the places made us.

The homes of ancient Egypt show us some of the first themeing of home spaces devoted to specialized behaviors, like rooms devoted just to leisure (the equivalent of the modern media room), adapting the environment to emerging wants as well as ongoing basic needs. 

This collective insight into the advantages of designed space is built into our cultural heritage, at least 200,000 years strong, continuing today as the longest-running invention of humankind.  It is the key to our sovereignty over the earth and our command of time and change, adapting our living spaces to new environments under shifting conditions of climate, habitation, politics.

The earliest signs of design have been discovered in the heartland of human origins – Africa - as fire, jewelry, clothing, art, tools, furnishings, and weapons, marking the ascent of homo sapiens.  Today we are still evolving the ideal design for the things that surround us, for an excellent reason: so that their workings can best support and reflect our collective cultural visions of the ideal life and the ideal self.  

As social primates, we need to move through the built world in formulated ways; which is why design needs to follow a unified field theory of use.  Cultural analysis, based on the fundamentals for a theory of human dynamics, lays the groundwork for such a discipline.  Human-centered planning and building is moving to become the focus of many design disciplines. Place-making may be the most important, because it centers and mobilizes all other human activity.

Theme park, automotive, recreational, church, and dormitory design – just to name a few - all share a basic requirement:  adapting to the human factors always activated by the script of a given place.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Human Toolbar: Resilience


“It’s not that I’m so smart.  It’s just that I stay with problems longer.” 

-- Albert Einstein

“Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance.  It is the capacity to rebound after a disturbance or interruption.”

-- Resilience Design Institute, 2016

There is some very good news about talent and native ability.  It applies directly to students just entering college.  On the other hand, it’s a work order that’s open-ended--across your lifetime.  Welcome to your new best secret weapon:  Resilience.

Talent, ability, and achievement receive plenty of attention and reward.  And these do mark the high points on the heroic chart—especially for athletics, the arts, science and technology, business innovation, and academics.  Success is visible, dramatic, and high-profile.  One of the things human beings most love witnessing is virtuoso performance of any kind.

But the backstory to talent and great performance (virtuosity) is far more complex, and largely invisible. A lifetime of thinking and practice is at the root of achievement, tens of thousands of hours of work behind the scenes of every “effortless” career.  This ability to withstand, be tough, and show ego strength on a consistent basis is the essence of success--better even than brains, in fact. Many people, but probably not a majority, have developed these skills in various concentrations.

Motivational factors matter more than cognitive ability for student performance.  Mindsets and self-regulation drive motivation.  Intelligent persistence pays off over brilliance—innate ability.  While brilliance is facile, even glamorous, trudging through a field of reading, writing, experiments, and ever more thinking about it all—it takes serious tenacity to achieve the long-range, big goals like college, professional school, a book, a relationship, a career.  Perseverance is essential to the realization of every creative idea.  As Carol Dweck proposes in her high-concept book Mindset, we are all in the process of becoming—virtually no one ever has it made.    

Resilience is increasingly recognized not as a personal trait but a learned skill for frustration tolerance and living with stress.  How we respond to stress of all kinds is at the core of rebounding from negative thoughts and behavior.  New research in brain science can train people to build and strengthen connections that avoid the fear and disappointment circuits that are so easily self-reinforcing and can take over.  Southwick and Charney's book Resilience is an excellent overview of research done and now in progress. 

Resilience is probably the core human skill set because it allowed us to evolve as far as we have as highly social (and therefore also highly conflicted) animals.  Resilience is individual and keyed to our personal stress limits and the rewards needed to stay engaged.  Several factors seem to be involved for successful resilience practitioners:  facing down fear (getting out of denial); strong social networks with people who "have our back"; regular exercise to defuse our heavy mental and emotional loads; and mindfulness, including meditation.  Dennis Charney says, “There’s not one prescription that works…You have to find what works for you” (Time, June 1, 2015, p. 40).  But the core story here is the human genius for converting pain into growth.

We are researching this promising area for colleges looking for ways to coach students at all levels to survive the rigors of academic achievement.  Such coaching can counter the gamut of school hazards from freshman dropouts to low or slow graduation rates, even extending to Ph.D. dropouts--all expensive derailments of time, self-esteem, and fees.

The dynamics of human evolution, and the history of civilization (the “career of culture”) depend less on invention and innovation and far more on practice over time to create culture.  As humans we are constantly “practicing” the art of our humanity – a complex and formidable mix of intuition, rules, brainpower, sociability, and imagination.  This collective endeavor as culture-building calls for these, of course.  But also fortitude against discouragement, demotivation, and pessimism: the source of solo and collective depression (and the worldwide disengagement in the workplace now widely reported and discussed).

In the 1950s, Emmy Werner’s study of 700 vulnerable children in Kauai found that good survival of poor family conditions came from tight-knit community, stable role models, and a strong belief in one’s abilities to solve problems.  The researchers discovered that around a third had the resilience quality.  Other studies focus on Special Forces, victims of floods, fires, tsunamis, prisons of war, and survivors of other such horrific tragedies.  “It seems to us that there is enormous untapped capacity of the human brain,” notes Charney.  How we respond to stress is the heart of resilience: the ability to turn off the stress response and return to a useful emotional baseline.  This talent to return to normal can combat the ravages of disappointment, fear, rejection, loneliness, failure, and anxiety and guilt about the future and past.  Frustration tolerance, which can be learned and practiced, turns off our natural fear circuit, which otherwise leads to the repeat cycle of depression and hopelessness. 

Scientists are looking closely at the psychology of courage and perseverance—and engagement in general--in the form of resilience, which is being considered over innate ability as the key trait needed for lasting growth and learning.

Sustained focus over time is difficult for the human brain.  Across the extended time frames of a college education, a graduate or professional degree, and careers, continued focus is especially challenging.  And with our prolonged age span into the 80s and 90s, resilience will become even more in demand to face illness and infirmity, financial downtowns, and finding purpose ranging out beyond work and family responsibilities and the vitality of youth.

Even beyond mental and physical gifts, resilience confers the necessary toughness and ego strength to keep moving in the face of obstacles and setbacks, including our own built-in aversion across the range of natural discomfort, disappointment, and the disorientation of uncertainty.  It might be our first and last secret weapon. Best of all, it’s not something you are born with, it’s something you can learn.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Winning Design

Winning Design

Why does place design, even award-winning design, not always deliver good outcomes? 

Sometimes architectural or system-wide innovation can only be piecemeal, not unified. A well-known example is Los Angeles. No unified design theory can practically be applied, and no naturally agreeable solution emerges from the hundreds debated for the city’s sprawl and variability. Even the airport, LAX, cannot arrive at a completely integrated redesign.  Only Disneyland in Anaheim -- as Ray Bradbury famously pointed out -- is the greater metro area’s “natural” center.  

Portland, Oregon, on the other hand, has to be strictly regulated to keep its “best walking city” Walkscore status. The city must struggle directly against the car-based tendency to urban sprawl that keeps commuting time and costs so high in the rest of the country.  The Mercer study -- a ranking of quality of life across world cities -- positions “good infrastructure” as a leading indicator. Public space—in the US, at least--is constantly embroiled in a contest between the needs of the driver and those of the pedestrian; deciding which will win out as a serious design issue.

Other collateral damages:  places that don’t work or actually spawn crime, waste, boredom, stress (the result of other people as well as a bad environment) and hazards as the price for ignoring human factors in the design equation: useless parks, noisy, crowded, dangerous public transport lounges, waiting rooms uncomfortable to wait in, slow post office lines, scary parking garages, half-empty state capital city centers – I’m looking at you, Baton Rouge--and deserted public squares.  Dani Pipano, founder of Gate 1 discount travel, stresses that safety and security are his first priority when he searches out new and interesting world venues for his tours. Comfort and attractions come in a distant second because without them, there is simply no possibility of a desirable user experience.    

Incremental disenchantment

Less successful places suffer from “incremental disenchantment.”  They just don’t work the way people expect, and the more they are experienced, the more they disappoint.  A micro-example: Americans are trained from birth that traffic moves on the right side of the road. This carries over to how we walk through space. We tend to hug the right side of the aisle in supermarkets as we also hug the right side of a public staircase. As a result, when we approach a public building with double doors, we expect the entry to be the one on the right.

We don’t think about this until we find ourselves in a place where this is not the rule – start up a public staircase in Japan and you will quickly learn to move to the left to avoid everyone coming straight at you on their way down. We understand that things are different in another culture, but they get truly weird when it happens in our own.

Near our home is a chain store with the strangest entryway – it’s your basic double glass door with “Entrance” and “Exit” clearly marked--except, due to an anomaly in the building design, the entrance door is on the left, with the exit on the right.  Even more confusing is a railing installed between the doors to further separate them.  So when you try to enter the right (wrong) side, you then have to back away from the building to step around the railing, compounding the first problem: setting directions that violate the expected right-in, left-out rule.  People are constantly held up, diverted, confused, and annoyed by this odd entry.

People do not like being publicly embarrassed, and visibly fumbling with an action as simple as a store entrance is a public embarrassment. Despite being a branch of a major chain on a heavily trafficked street, the store is the least busy of all its neighborhood branches. There is no way of measuring how many customers simply walked away after being negatively conditioned by this awkward and counter-intuitive experience.

A switched-up entry seems a small problem.  But for the designer of greater spaces, bad design experience (“How many visitors does your design keep away?”) is a hard lesson to learn,  since all that can be measured is the admissions tally. Visitation numbers don’t include visitors who never appear.  And asking the visitors who do show up about their experience—at museums, for example--does not include the responses of the busloads of “under-served” schoolchildren (or as we like to call them, the “uninterested”).  Nor the interested seniors kept away by the sheer noise of those busloads echoing the marble halls.

Even designers who usually get it right can fail if they start with the wrong premise. Disney’s California Adventure was a good idea gone astray – not because of the rationalized answer “Why would anyone go to a park about California when they are in the real California?” – but because the Disney Imagineers did not build the same California people hold dear in their minds.

There is, in fact, a virtual California that lives in the minds of people worldwide based on generations of movies and television programs. You can conjure it all up yourself without any prompting. It’s the California of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Spanish colonial California of Zorro, the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, Rosie the Riveter and swing music, redwood forests, beach parties, and surf music. That’s the California people would pay to see because it’s the one they dream about but and can’t find now in the real thing.

Unfortunately, you can’t build a dream on a discount budget--what management at the time tried to do. They cut corners, they wanted “synergy” with their other brands, ESPN, and ABC, that had nothing to do with California in the visitor  mind. They built an amusement pier because they wanted to use cheaper off-the-shelf carnival rides rather than design the sort of unique attraction experiences Disney is noted for. The result: It wasn’t California, and it wasn’t Disney.

A quick aside: at the time the park opened to a less-than-stellar reception, we asked our late colleague, Senior Imagineer and Disney legend John Hench, what he thought of the place. He just shrugged and said, “It worked better as a parking lot.”  Which is the whole point of designing for the mind of the user – while the parking lot met their expectations, California Adventure did not.    

And this brings up a key point about designing for the mind of the user. There is reality and there is hyperreality and you are building for the latter.  While it is historically true that California had amusement piers – and still does, in the minds of everyone outside California (the entire rest of the world) amusement piers are “owned” by the East Coast as Coney Island and Atlantic City.

Design and purpose

We need to begin at the beginning of cultural time, starting with Jericho, the first recognizable city from the Neolithic age in 10,000 BC with its Temple to the Moon.  Every place ever built was created for a purpose.  And the foundation of every place ever built, from the mud and brick of the first known civilization, Sumer, is set on and around a single platform: the human brain. 

Pylons and plaster are simply the materials necessary to create any structure in 3D, where they can be experienced by the body through behavior along the lines sparked by the mind and imagination of the native builder or professional architect in real space and time.  Oxford recalls England’s 11th-century origins in its gothic revival landscape and the Renaissance in its Venetian bridges. The Yale campus in New Haven, or the Princeton campus in New Jersey are virtual British elite settings – Downton Abbey for academics.  These places, besides their own local functions, connect us cognitively and emotionally to other times, places, people, and ways of life and the life of the mind. The imperial Romans themed their villas to look like Greece, just as the English themed theirs to recall Rome.

But plenty of structures within the built landscape are just sheds to keep off the rain, wind, and sun, or even vaults with locks to keep the stuff inside from moving or disappearing, commercial or residential.  These are buildings with neither heart nor art.  Meanwhile, the best environments are those we love to live with and within.  The better bedrooms, studios, patios, even basements, along with more public offices, concert halls, and airports.  Far beyond acting as essential shelter, they make hundreds of other functions possible, even easy, as a kind of technology to extend our potential and prowess.

Such artful structures allow us to do more than work, study, practice, produce, dine, converse, sleep, and dream; they energize our plans, remind us of our past, and transport us into the future by igniting the imagination through an act of immersive collective memory. 

At the apex of these human pursuits enabled by well-designed places is the American theme park, invented over sixty years ago.  Or perhaps we should say re-invented. Its precursors were many, from every era and continent: the Cardo – the ancient Roman marketplace whose footprint is still visible in modern mall design; the market towns of Europe and colonial America, royal parks and zoos, promenades and pleasure palaces like the fabled Summer Palace of the Qing dynasty in Beijing in 1750. The follies and ruins of Pompeii made -- and still make -- the ancient world real and tangible to the modern.

Taken as a unified whole, good place design creates the right conditions for something to occur or develop, by priming the minds inside those buildings to think, make decisions, and act in one direction rather than others.
The best places of all echo those that live first in the mind. Just as governments prime economies by  controlling spending and money supply, place design with its structures, connecting avenues, aisles, hallways, or walkways can either promote or hamper the growth and exchange of ideas in those places we live, shop, work, and play.

Unfortunately, we value good design for the same reason we value a precious gem – for its rarity.  It shouldn’t be that hard, and yet poor place design is the rule rather than the exception. There is no single reason for this, but one of the key ones is the lack of understanding of how the end-users actually think about space as the move through it.

The next time there is a major building project near you, look at the architect’s model and concept drawings and notice how the people are placed – perhaps a half-dozen figures in a grand plaza – widely spaced and doing nothing in particular except strolling through. We call it architecture porn – the fevered dreams of the designer lovingly rendered as detailed drawings starring the buildings, with people thrown in as an afterthought for scale.

The best, most-loved, places echo those that first live in the human mind. That’s design principle Number One.