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.

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