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Harry Francis Mallgrave: Let’s begin every project with the design of a garden

Harry Francis Mallgrave is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Illinois Institute of Technology and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.  He received his PhD in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and has enjoyed a career as a scholar, translator, editor, and architect. He has published more than a dozen books on architectural history and theory, including three considering the relevance of the new humanistic and biological models for the practice of design. His most recent book, Building Paradise: Episodes in Paradisiacal Thinking, is currently in press with Routledge Publications. Drawing upon a theme first raised by Alvar Aalto, it offers both a selected history of the idea of paradise as well as a ‘garden ethic’ for the ecological practice of design.

Michal Matlon: Nikos Salingaros said that most of what is usually called architectural theory is not really a theory, since it holds no predictive value about the impact of the built environment on people. Would you agree that’s the case? And with the increasing introduction of scientific research as an input into the decision making of architects today, do we need to change the definition of architectural theory as such?

Harry Francis Mallgrave: The divide of architecture into practice and theory has its origin in Vitruvius, who opened the first of his ten books by defining architecture as a “scientia” (science in its Roman meaning of a skilled trade), consisting of “fabrica et rationcinatione.”

The predicate form of the first of these terms is faber, which means “to make,” with the connotation of a craft or the making of a building. Rationalization or reasoning explains why something is done in a particular way. Claude Perrault, in his translation of Vitruvius in 1673, chose the words pratique and theorie to capture their meanings, and these words have since become enshrined in the architect’s vocabulary. 

Science, as it has evolved over the last several centuries, has different prerequisites for proffering a “theory,” as Salingaros has noted, and then we have the problem of the blind alley down which architectural “theory” led us in the closing decades of the twentieth century with its conceited infatuations. One can also equate these events as the ‘death of theory’ and I, in an act of respect for the deceased, have for several years now refrained from using the word theory.

The underlying problem, however, is more than semantic. The blight of glass towers that have overtaken our global cities today — and no one will deny that their proliferation has indeed become malignant — is cultural failure, but it is also a professional failure of designers to keep up with the times, as it were.

When optical studies and new color theories were proffered in the first few decades of the twentieth century, artists and architects jumped at the chance to explore virgin terrain. Over the last thirty or forty years we have learned more about ourselves and our biological and cultural dimensions than we have in all of human history before us, yet most architectural programs have scarcely taken notice. The global city today is little different from urban centers of the 1950s and 1960s, with the sole distinction being that the Seagram Building has now been put through the ringer of digital programs to give it the ‘creative’ aura of twists and crinkles.

Our glass boxes, hard environments, offer not the slightest gesture to human dignity or the quality of life, yet the profession at large seems powerless to challenge present materials or building practices.

These gray and mirrored markers pollute our skylines, snarl vehicular traffic, intensify wind gusts, create heat sinks, and bring emptiness to the sidewalks below. And, as the recent pandemic portends, they will likely never again achieve full occupancy in a society going ever more virtual. Our glass boxes — hard environments — offer not the slightest gesture to human dignity or the quality of life, yet the profession at large seems powerless to challenge present materials or building practices. 

Our corporate elites meet each year in Davos and other locales to place their bets on new technologies and so-called smart cities, yet there is one important question that no one has ever thought to ask. Is it not time to consider what our present building practices, materials, and creeds — all predicated on the outmoded aesthetic standards of a century ago — contribute to our current ecological, climate, and social problems? Technology has limits in what it can bring to the quality of life. 

To oversimplify the issue, there are two ways to think about architectural design. One is to focus on the ‘aesthetics’ of a building; the other, a more ethical task, is to focus on the human organism whose life and happiness, not to mention existential meaning, is interwoven with the environment in which one is raised — either with an act of nourishing or with the indifference to languish. The idea of theory, in this sense, has become irrelevant to the discussion.

Michal: If a university professor somewhere in the world reads this interview and they will leave with the idea of introducing environmental psychology or neuroscience into their curriculum, what would, in your opinion, be the first step to make? How to fulfil this need with so few people actually working in this field as of now?

Harry: Of course, you are touching upon the problem of reforming design education. When I started my architectural schooling in the 1960s, there were courses mandated in the social sciences, and with them I was also able to pursue my own interest in philosophy. More generally, everyone read Edward Hall, Robert Sommer, and Oscar Newman. 

Everyone knew of the van Eycks’ trip to the Dogan villages of Mali and Kahn’s sketches of Egypt and Greece. All such gestures, however, fell victim to the populist lure of postmodernism, and by the time that software programming came to usurp ever larger chunks of design curricula in the 1990s, coursework within the humanities had all but disappeared, the skeleton in the closet. The reconstruction of the architect’s education to make it more relevant is not an easy problem to solve.

Singapore mandates an intense use of greenery in new developments. Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

I recently had this conversation with the neuroscientist Sergei Gepshtein at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies (“The Interface of two Cultures,” Intertwining 4), and I think it is safe to say that we both struggled with the issue. The word ‘biology,’ in itself seems to frighten many designers, but perhaps we can approach the issues in play from a different perspective. 

We, as designers, have to make the case that the abstract ‘occupant’ of past design thinking is in fact a flesh-and-blood human being with moods, multimodal perceptual faculties, and a soup of visceral and opiate receptors. Most of all, however, we are endowed with paradisiacal aspirations for bliss, peace, and meaningful social interactions. 

Perhaps we should begin by accepting the idea that the task of design does not lie with fabricating a building but with the larger cultural environment and how well it is fitted to or in tune with human needs and desires. The goal of academic education should be to instill or mediate these anthropological and ecological perspectives.

This will have to be a battle fought along various fronts. A basic course or two in human biology or environmental psychology would be a good start, but, for any significant change of viewpoint to manifest, the design studio itself has to have a new orientation or approach. One idea that is gaining traction in a few programs is that of an ‘integrated’ design studio, one in which students are required to undertake substantial research related to specific design projects. 

So far, these studios have tended to focus on specialized building projects, but imagine what would happen if they were crafted toward more general design pursuits, such as rethinking human scale within an urban environment or whether we (as Frank Lloyd Wright, Melvin Webber, and Kevin Lynch once suggested) in fact still need the idea of a business ‘downtown.’ 

It might be a good time to rethink if we need the skyscraper-filled business downtown. Photo by Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash

I am not talking about the historic or social fabric of a city, but whether we really need the blight of office towers to conduct our businesses. In a telling way, the successful and censorious high-tech companies in recent years have shied away from towers and toward the idea of the ‘campus,’ but then defeated this concept by hiring ‘starchitects’ to make them artistically significant—that is, an adolescent-inspired workplaces. They missed entirely the idea of a campus, and worse. 

Tech executives in California, for instance, have recently lobbied the current Administration in Washington to build an underground railway from San Francisco to Silicon Valley so that they can travel from their city mansions to the office without ever having to see the sun rise on the stalled freeways. The one-proud city of San Francisco has meanwhile plunged into a downward social spiral of inequality, and tens of thousands of homeless people sleep each night on the sidewalks, in parks, or under the freeways.

I don’t mean to sidestep your question, but the problems here, it seems to me, are larger than we are willing to admit. Why are design studios predicated on preserving the status quo instead of critically challenging the current mode of practice? Is everyone now too politically ‘woke’ to wake up to the reality of our lives? Why can we not seriously reflect on how we live, on the quality of our habitats? 

Let me give you a counter example. Singapore, a city of high-rises, a decade ago enacted an ordinance known as LUSH (Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises), which requires that a developer provide areas of green landscapes equal to the area of land under development. Since its implementation, it has led to a remarkable transformation on the city with its green landscapes, planted terraces, and garden rooftops.

Natalia Olszewska: Professor Ann Glover stated that the 19th century was an age of engineering, the 20th was the age of chemistry and physics, and the 21st century will be an age of biology. In your book, ‘From Object to Experience’ you write that the design profession has to move beyond 20th-century epistemologies and adopt a way of thinking in line with the newly gained knowledge about ourselves. Do you mean biology and neuroscience, or other disciplines? Is a need for adoption of this knowledge by the architectural profession just a matter of Zeitgeist?

Harry: The twenty-first century has already defined itself with its biological breakthroughs, as the rapid development of the Covid vaccine clearly demonstrates. The sequencing of the human genome is having equally dramatic results in other areas as well. Yet I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that we should be making design “scientific” or positivistic in its approach. 

Claude Monet House in Giverny, France. Photo by Fabio Tura on Unsplash

The knowledge that science is now providing about our relationship with the built environment is there for the architect and planner to reflect upon and translate into suitable design terms. This knowledge is what will lead the goal of design away from the building object and toward how one experiences the living environment. It will indeed place a greater emphasis on that mysterious concept that goes by the name of ‘beauty,’ because we now know that it too has an underlying biological basis.

I prefer to stress less the sciences themselves and more the way the humanities have been informed and restructured by this new knowledge. I am much drawn to the new models of embodiment and enactivism because they, with their new perspectives, take us to heart of what it means to be an architect or planner. Only a few short years ago, architecture was deemed to be a visual art approached through the semiotic processes of conceptualization (postmodernism, deconstruction).

We now know that this understanding of design was exceedingly narrow in its framework, not to mention rather frivolous in its premises. We experience the world (and I include here the biological firing of neural circuits also known as ‘ideas’) through highly structured dynamic systems integrated with each other on multiple levels. 

The understanding of these mutually embedded, cross-modal systems–together with the new models of embodied simulation—bring a dramatically new perspective to design. One does not need a degree in neuroscience to understand their significance. Quite simply, we engage and understand the world around us through experience and the activation of our own biological systems. 

If we hear a piano being played, the area of our secondary motor cortex relating to the movement of fingers (together with a few other areas) becomes active, as if we were playing the piano. The gist of this insight is that form and space in design are not neutral events, as the theorists of modernism believed. We perceive the space around our bodies with different neural patterns than the space beyond. We are highly sensitive to the form, weight, and texture of different materials. 

Would you prefer to sit in the shadow of a thirty-story Manhattan tower or under a Giant Sequoia in a redwood forest? One experiment has even demonstrated that we are sensitive to the force of brush stroke on a canvas. If this is true for the lines of a two-dimensional painting, then how much more do we internalize the three-dimensional field of buildings and cities, which offer a multisensory continuum of visual, haptic, auditory, olfactory, and spatial sensations?

Alvar Aalto once noted that the only purpose of design was to create a paradise on earth, even if one can only contribute a small increase in human happiness.

Our new understanding of mood or emotion once again turns older models on their heads. If for many centuries Western societies have viewed emotion as some mysterious force swelling up inside us and often contaminating or blurring our cognitive acts of reasoning, we can no longer do so today. 

Mood pervades cognition through and through and it is the vital force that drives or impels the human organism throughout its engagement with the world. It is not by coincidence that the idea of ‘atmosphere’ began to drift back into architectural thinking around the turn of this century, just as this new understanding of mood began to be known. 

Writers and painters have long used the atmosphere as a creative strategy, but why has it taken designers so long to understand that every room has a mood and every city an atmosphere? Could it be that designers have for too long been stymied in their creativity by self-imposed and antiquated design theories? 

Natalia: John Calhoun studied the effects of population density on rats’ behaviour back in the 1960s. He described an effect called ‘behavioural sink’, which is a collapse in behaviour that can result from overcrowding. Social congestion in cities has never been on such a scale as today. 

As you write, schizophrenia and alcoholism are generally higher within urban settings. Ambient noise levels, poor air, placelessness – you mention research suggesting that all of them might be affecting the human immune system, making humans more prone to certain cancers and coronary problems, mental health issues. 

These are the consequences of post-war urban expansion and economic growth. Is this information considered when planning cities and spaces? What urban strategies should we employ in the 21st century?

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Harry: It is insanity to see cities, as we have witnessed in recent years, mushroom to twenty or thirty million people. It is not just for the logistical issues of food, adequate shelter, and employment, but the inhumanity that is inherent to them. Building upon Calhoun’s work, we now have an abundance of evidence across multiple fronts that human health and happiness are highly conditioned by the environments and densities in which we live. 

There was an interesting study a few years ago in which college students, on separate occasions, were given sixty-minute walks in nature and in a city. The positive result of this study was that after contact with nature the students enjoyed “significantly” enhanced cognitive performance. The unspoken downside of this study is that urban populations, with little or no contact with greenery, live in a perpetual condition of cognitive dementia.

I have recently completed a book titled Building Paradise: Episodes in Paradisiacal Thinking. In chapters, it takes on the issue of urban planning in a somewhat different way by pivoting on the distinction between the ideas of utopia and paradise, often deemed to be a similar impulse. They are in fact quite the opposite. 

Historically—from Plato to Thomas More to Karl Marx—utopians seek to impose an ideological or ethical superstructure on others to alter human behavior or otherwise compensate for human shortcomings. Le Corbusier did so obsessively with his maddening urban designs. Yet nearly all these utopian schemes were proposed without the slightest awareness of how the nature of the physical environment works or cultivates human health or happiness. 

It is only in the dystopian literature of the twentieth century—the novels of Zamyatin (a masterpiece), Huxley, and Orwell—that the importance of physical environments is discussed, but not kindly toward the emerging canons of functionalist modernism. 

Claude Monet House in Giverny, France. Photo by Veronica Reverse on Unsplash

The sixty-story towers of Huxley’s Brave New World are Corbusian in their style; the only new buildings in Orwell’s derelict London are the impersonal concrete monuments of Big Brother. Zamyatin’s glass city depicts a world in which everyone’s smallest gesture is always on view for others to view. It is a totalitarian society with less need for a police corps to keep people in line, similar to the way the social-media companies are evolving today.

The paradisiacal instinct, by vivid contrast, springs from within oneself—that is, within the human desire for peace of mind, happiness, and social propriety. The garden (the root meaning of the Greek word paradeisos) can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically. 

If one were to imagine an ideal design studio today, a good beginning might be to begin every project with the design of a garden, and only when well advanced in its imagined beauty, would students begin to think about the design of the building within the context of the garden. Of course, every place cannot be a garden, but it is through such thinking that the metaphorical aspect of the word ‘paradise’ comes into play, here in the guise of a ‘garden ethic.’ 

For too many decades now, we have viewed design largely as a structural, material, technological, and economic exercise dressed each new season with a Milanese runway gown. The garden ethic, by contrast, works organically from below and emanates from the human spirit. It is a festering desire to find contentment. Alvar Aalto once noted that the “only purpose” of design was to create a paradise on earth, even if one can only contribute a “small increase” in human happiness. 

It is now time for us to ponder the role that an ecologically responsive, beautiful, well-crafted, and poetically conceived environment (set within a garden) can play in satisfying the paradisiacal instinct. Culturally, the garden ethic is nothing less than the nurturing of the human spirit—perhaps best represented by Raphael’s Vatican mural of Parnassus.

Michal: Can you name a building, which in your opinion is well-designed, that is, it incorporates some of the principles that we are talking about?

Harry: This is a very easy question to answer: Claude Monet’s house and garden at Giverny. Can you think of a more paradisiacal place to live?

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