Empathy as the Path Beyond Terminator Thinking in Architecture

...there can be no reason to assume that, while Nature uses methods of infinite subtlety in her chemistry and control mechanisms, her structural approach should be a crude one.

--J.E. Gordon

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In an interview, Jean Gang mentioned the book Animal Architecture as notable in her office's design process. Because I admire her work, I shelled out $29 plus tax and shipping, and waited for a window of enlightenment to arrive in the mail.

What arrived made me laugh.

The book contains beautiful, crisp photography of various structures created by animals, from weaver bird nests to African termite mounds and common corals. The accompanying captions are descriptive. And that's it.

My first thought was that this book would be useful to someone who had never stepped outside of a city, never eaten a steak off a bone, never had a pet or gone to a park, or even watched the Nature Channel on TV.

Was I so unusual to have collected fallen bird nests and old wasp nests for my kids? To have a small collection of beach corals, animal bones and seed pods that were far more curious than anything in the book? To have watched Marlin Perkins "Wild Kingdom" on TV when it was free and came through the air? 

While the book's photographs were lovely, none were revelatory. I have a vertebra from an bison that still boggles my mind. It looks like a Star Wars spaceship. I also have a fish vertebrate that looks like a toilet designed by Bugatti. Were they the inspiration for each? No idea. Maybe? Possibly. Too great of a coincidence, so probably.

That we need a book to look at natural forms is funny enough. That we need one to inspire architectural forms is even funnier. Can't we go outside for free, if we want to be reminded where architectural forms came from? And why do we want to reintegrate natural forms in our architecture? Isn't a Nautilus Shell House a stoned-hippie dream, cute and clever, but, erm, not mainstream?

This.

Animal Architecture is Terminator Thinking.

Terminator Thinking in architecture is the use of natural forms as a clothing over the distilled, denatured structures that humans have designed. Make it look like nature, use those forms. But we know it's not natural. We know that under those forms is the hand of man. it's all too clean and perfect to be natural. Terminator design a good step towards the Architecture of Empathy, but hopefully not the last step.

 

It's a Rousseauean mythology, that the history of human design is the progressive distillation or theoretical refinement of natural forms. The tree becomes the column, the branch the beam, the forest canopy the pitched roof.

Driving this adaptation is the desire to transcend the natural. It wasn't ever easier, or stronger, to build a house with a perfectly round columns. A reasonably straight tree trunk would do just as well, and with less effort. We rather don't want that column reminding us of nature. We want its association with its origin to be as distant as possible, to express the hand of man to a comparatively greater degree (and god through that hand). For the organic nature of life is imperfect, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and promises, eventually, decay and death. We don't want that. We want to side with god, against nature, and dwell in perfection, predictability, certainty and eternal life.

When the tree trunk becomes a perfectly round and straight column; when the crooked branch becomes a a square-profile straight beam; when the woven canopy of leaves is distilled into two flat planes of a 12/12 roof, we take a step away from our organic nature, and one step closer to our intellectual nature. Each gesture toward perfection in the buildings we inhabit reflects back onto us -- with them we can feel more perfect, less a sack of skin, guts and blood that belches, farts, shits, and decays, and more of a pure mind, a pure eye, that perceives, enjoys, experiences, thinks, and is changeless. We learn to love the efficiencies of straight lines, we discover economies and organizations that are no longer personal, or unique. And in them we find great power--that of civilization-- and a terrible kind of beauty in the solitude of denying our own natures for something ephemeral and somehow better--the promise of eternity.

So the stone pyramid is an eternal house for the perfect human spirit. No different in kind from the stone column is the purified tree that does not decay.

So the glass, steel and concrete temples of the Modernist -- the purity of their lines, uniformity of their unnatural materials (none have recognizable counterparts in nature), offers our greatest dissociation from our natural origins.

Consider the pinnacle of desire for housing in the modern world -- the luxury skyscraper's penthouse apartment. Where is there a place for dirt on its gleaming polished granite floor? We strive to live literally far from the dirt below on the earth's surface. Tell me there's a rustic Adirondack-style hutch on an upper floor of 111W57 in Manhattan. Just try.

Thomas Pynchon plays with the lovely idea that the rocket is our definitive statement of transcendence. Through human engineering we will break free from gravity itself, and thereby death. Our New-Gilded-Age Billionaires are all rocketing themselves, and us with them, to a future as far as possible from the homely dirt of earth.

But Shelley's wisdom:

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The graffiti artist's observations about Ozymandias' fate are a truth simple enough -- We will not transcend. Even stone decays. Rockets come crashing back to earth in a parabolic arc that is the rainbow of gravity. We will always only strive to transcend, never achieve it, and our human lives will simply participate in this strange process.

But Hopkins' wisdom:

Glory be to God for dappled things

It is a wisdom so quiet as to be nearly imperceptible in art and architecture. We celebrate Duchamp for a readymade urinal. But who do we celebrate for holding up a maple leaf? What is more readymade than that? It is not beautiful because it is so common, and was not created by the hand of man, so we cannot marvel at its inception, the hand of God is forever unknowable.

What is more beautiful than the subtle intricacies and amazing structures produced by the natural world? The book Animal Architecture is a gesture towards this. Natural forms are only valuable when we can put them to use, to study before we design a skyscraper. And thereby the book is a strange counter-example that only seems to prove the rule -- of Terminator Thinking.

In the original movie The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a robot with human skin. He is super powerful underneath, due to his computer-designed mechanical structure, but on the surface he shows skin and sweat, the design product of the mysterious natural world, or hand of god.

Revisiting the definition, Terminator Thinking in architecture is the use of natural forms to cloak distilled, denatured structures. It looks likes something inspired by nature, but speaks to the abstractions of the human mind.

Art Nouveau is the prime example. Its architecture takes a perfectly symmetrical rectangular doorway, and gives it a curve, a molding of a plant stem or tree branch. Jean Gang's wavy, organic skyscrapers are much the same thinking. These structures have hearts of straight lines, planes, trigonometry, calculus, perfect symmetries, and only the adornment of the natural world.

To call it Terminator Thinking is strongly critical, and yet I love many works of Art Nouveau. I find Jean Gang's designs delightful. I wish more of our cities decorated their steel superstructures with natural forms. My criticism aims to spur us onto the next step, the Architecture of Empathy.

First Steps: Distill and refine nature's forms. Parthenon. Star Wars space ship. Modernism.

Second Steps: Dress the refined forms with an artifice that recalls nature and reminds us of our complete humanity. Art Nouveau.

Third Steps: Design emotionally, for the whole human, body and mind, by means of empathy.

 

This third route is hard to envision. While empathy is a common human emotion, and surely been a part of many good design decisions, we have really never approached design as a relationship instead of a solution.

An architect friend once tried to inspire me with a question that she felt is the very heart of architecture

What burning questions do you solve in form?

This solution-oriented, artist-based approach to architecture brings us Terminator design, but not much more.

Flip all on its head: consider the solution as nearly irrelevant, and the process as everything. 

Neutra's client checklist helped him know what his clients wanted. Many of his clients were delighted with his glass-steel homes that blended indoors and outdoors. Frankly, I think I could find living in one of his homes delightful. This was an empathetic approach. For Neutra, the process involved the client (and also some burning question he had, of course).

Take out the artist's vision, and what do we get?

Empathy in design has brought us such things as flat and level table tops, jar lids that fit into the palm of one hand, and kick spaces under cabinets. All of these things require an understanding of humanity, and not necessarily any artistic license.

The Architecture of Empathy would integrate the goals of beauty and usefulness in ways the previous approaches have not. It would do this by stopping the distilling trajectory, the endless purifying of form and concept, the endless distancing from the natural order to define ourselves as better than and beyond the natural. The usefulness in the designs would accept us for who and what we are today, not what we aspire to be. The beauty in them would not aspire to pure forms, but revel in its dappled nature.

The architecture of empathy would inspire a hearty meal with friends, not bulimia and shame. Its buildings would in fact feel like old friends, and not palaces that intimidate us by suggesting they're already more perfect and prettier than we'll ever be (that design approach is perfectly appropriate for monuments and houses of worship, where we go temporarily to think beyond ourselves).

If all previous architecture had designed for and towards the ideals in humans, all we wanted to be but not necessarily what we were, then the Architecture of Empathy is to start designing for the whole human -- as both biological organism and an aesthetic eye with a unfulfilled longing for transcendence.

What would that kitchen look like? Not antiseptic with food and utensils hidden behind geometrically flat planes. What would that roof line look like? Not straight and level and spanning the entire building.

This design process begins with an utter honesty with ourselves, concerning how every aspect of the built environment makes us feel, and from every perspective and aspect of usefulness and beauty. After that, can we begin to design for another person, or anyone who is not conscious of how they feel in any given environment.

We are so used to pretending we are something that transcends animal bodies, that being honest seems ridiculous and even pretentious. We sniff at nudist camps as some kind of exhibitionism, and consider the concealing aspect of clothes proper and good. We can dig deeper, to the underlying drives that make clothes seem baseline normal and our bodies pretentious.

The natural form, the architecture of animals, should include the natural architecture of people. We are such a creature of artifice, though, that artifice is our nature. We are half-brain and half-prehensile hand in this regard, the thinker that creates tools to create more tools to create the myriad things through which we live our lives. So our natural architecture is the architecture of tools.

What would we build if we were just ourselves, and not trying to be eternal, perfect, distilled, and conceptual? In many ways, we already practice the architecture of empathy, for the sterile glass and steel geometries that dissociate, depress and divide us come from our own sadistic and self-hating impulses.

When we celebrate the zit as beautifully human, when eating isn't a source of shame, the architecture of empathy will flow naturally from every creative relationship. Until then, the A of E's goal can only be to understand the consequences of design on the human experience better, and design with them in mind. The A of E is a direction, a question, an approach, and not an end result


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