The Origins of Contextualism and Humanism in My Work: Memories of Arizona in the late 1950s

Context and Visual Impact
I first recognized the tragedy of buildings desecrating the beauty of their natural settings in the late 1950s as very conspicuous homes carved out flat spots began to creep up the south side of Camelback Mountain. Today, there are dozens more of these rude atrocities; some looking like cruise ships that have somehow run aground in the middle of the desert. I’ve been offended for nearly 60 years by the possibility that a few individuals could so dramatically diminish the public’s enjoyment of the Valley’s natural beauty. This offensive awakening is what’s responsible for the proliferation of “minimum visual impact” guidelines that have been adopted by Valley communities. As I hope to have demonstrated in my own work, this non-prescriptive approach was not intended to favor any particular design style. (I couldn’t dissuade DMB from their prescriptive approach at Silverleaf)

Contextual Humanism
My first visit to the Grand Canyon occurred around the same time and the experience stood In stark contrast to the tragedies on Camelback Mountain. My experience with the work of Mary Jane Coulter filled me with wonder and exposed me to the glory of what buildings could be. Her indigenously inspired buildings at the Grand Canyon were seemingly drawn up out of the ground (Bright Angel Lodge, Hopi House, and Watchtower), or seamlessly nestled into it (Hermit’s Rest), each exemplifying great and profound respect for their context and setting.

My experience with Coulter’s work was profoundly moving and influential. It evoked wonderment and excited my senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch. Her work introduced me to the broad immersive potential of architecture by demonstrating that buildings could evoke indelible emotional responses, stimulate the imagination, and add depth and meaning to the lives and experiences of ordinary people like me. Coulter’s work at the Grand Canyon did this by connecting nature, buildings, history and native culture into a singular and unified architectural experience. So profound was this experience, that it inspired these goals as the ambitions and philosophical underpinnings of my life’s work.

For me, humanistic design goes beyond providing practical and convenient utility, comfortable ergonomics, and pleasant scale. Humanism in design is simply the act of honoring and respecting our humanness; it involves inspiring and exciting those things within and about us that make us uniquely human; things such as: our curiosity, imagination, quest for meaning, and aspirations of spirit, as well as humankind’s fondness for beauty and the appreciation of art. As creators of the built environment we have the potential (if not the special obligation) in our work to elevate and advance the well-being of humankind by their experience with the built environment.

The Boulders Meditation Chapel: First Foray into Contextualism
During our second year in the College of Architecture at ASU in the mid-late 1960s our studio was assigned to design a meditation chapel at the site of the landmark granite boulders outcropping in Carefree. Still offended by the desecration of Camelback Mountain, I would instinctively respond to this assignment with a non-building shelter whose scale and ambiance would be drawn from the voids between the boulders. I decided the chapel’s appearance would be totally sympathetic and subordinated to the highly unique character of the boulders natural setting. With this student design I began to articulate what I would later call the principles of “minimum visual impact.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but these contextual principles would serve as the ethical underpinnings of all my work in “visually fragile” environments. Over time this respect for the visual environment would be adopted broadly in design guidelines throughout the Southwest. I’ve had the privilege of working in many different climates and settings around the country and beyond, and I’ve learned from this experience that few settings are more visually fragile and deserving of respect than our present location in the foothills of the Upper Sonoran Desert.

Discovering the purpose of my work
Since my experience of Coulter’s work 61 years ago, I’ve been on a quest in pursuit of the deeper meanings, motivations, and purposes of my work. Over this period, I’ve compiled a still growing set of principles and values against which I test my every intuition and design decision.

Understanding our Humanness
Since we design most buildings for people, I’ve always thought it best if we understand both what makes buildings work and what makes people tick. As it turns out, the buildings are the easy, calculable and predictable part… understanding people, however, is the really tricky part. Although we humans have the capacity for rational thought, this is typically not the mental faculty that guides our behavior. I find it helpful to remember that humans are emotional beings with rational capacity – not the other way around. Understanding people’s feelings and behavior is tricky in part because we all seem to suffer from the futility of habitually trying to make rational sense of irrational behavior. Human feelings and behavior are made even more impenetrable by the fact that we often don’t know what’s motivating our own feelings, emotions, tastes, and opinions; much less understand those things in others.

I frequently remind myself that for many reasons each of us interprets our life experience differently. Each of us actually lives in different realities: and sometimes this is painfully clear, but despite these differences, I’m comforted by the fact that there are sufficient commonalities in our physical and physiological experiences for each of us to relate to one another with some measure of care and empathy. This human perspective underpins my personal approach to design, and it demands that I accept, acknowledge, and respect without judgement, the essential human nature of all those served by and effected by my work.

The Nuance of Well-being
Here, I want to distinguish between physical ‘comfort’ and psychological ‘well-being’ as being two, related but distinctly different, aspects of our personal condition. It’s my opinion that as designers in this bountiful modern era we often give too much attention to the artistry of our work to the detriment of our user’s comfort and well-being. Delivering physical comfort requires an understanding of human physiology and ergonomics; two fields of science that have developed enough useful metrics to at least get us within the ‘range’ of human comfort.

‘Well-being’ on the other hand is a mental or spiritual condition. The highly subjective qualities in this realm can only be measurable relatively. I’ve found that subjective qualities such as well-being are best assessed by assigning them a location somewhere along a dimensionless spectrum of that quality that’s bounded by the extremes of the subject individual’s personal experience. In other words, each layperson understands and defines a room, for example, as either “small” or “large” based solely upon their own experience. What may be large to one person may be considered small to another. The same holds for every other qualitative aspect of our lives.

In addition to delivering physical comfort, convenience, commodity, and beauty, I want my designs to promote a heightened sense of ‘well-being.’ To do this, I must first avoid those things that commonly cause discomfort, anxiety, dislike, or fear, and instead deliver those qualities to which most people are attracted, or to which they respond positively. Human emotions and ‘feelings’ are a complex confection of sensory perceptions spontaneously filtered and extemporaneously interpreted by each individual’s inheritance and cumulative life experience. Consequently, the best we can do as designers to understand and promote well-being is to study human behavior broadly, and then to listen very carefully and without bias to our individual clients, clientele, and user groups.
The following are only a few of the many subtle factors that together comprise what we sense as our well-being: safety, security, certainty, clarity, comfort, convenience, serenity, beauty, relevance, identity, accomplishment, fulfillment, gratification, health, value to others, and self-esteem. If sufficiently conscientious and determined, designers and creators of the built environment can significantly affect many of these aspects of well-being.

Human Scale as an Aspect of Well-being
By ‘Human Scale’ I mean the qualitative aspect of architectural composition that affects our user’s sense of personal importance with respect to that of their architectural environment. ‘Scale’ in this sense refers to one’s feeling of relevance within the scope their surroundings. Each person’s connection to their environment is a constellation of many, largely subliminal, sensual perceptions derived instantaneously and concurrently from the two and three-dimensional frameworks of our experience.

In this context, human scale simply refers to the relative measure of the human body compared to another object or space. Our initial perceptions of scale are often formed from our three-dimensional experience of viewing familiar objects from a distance. Of course, clever designers can manipulate these perceptions as evidenced by Walt Disney’s largely 2-dimensional reproportioning of Main Street at Disneyland so that the children would seem more significant in a city streetscape that they would normally experience as overwhelming. Feelings of significance are important.

Once inside a space our initial sense of its scale (and of our relative significance) is derived primarily from the total volumetric proportion of all its occupants to that of the overall space they occupy. Special circumstances notwithstanding, most people don’t like to be confined or dominated. In the extreme aversions such as confinement can cause intense feelings such as claustrophobia. On the other end of this same spatial spectrum, people don’t like to feel insignificant, inconsequential, or alone. We often see this when only a few people are forced to occupy a space that was designed to accommodate hundreds; for example, when two people are dining alone in the clubhouse dining room that was designed to seat the entire membership.

Our sense of scale in relation to our environment is also perceived in two dimensions where we subliminally perceive the relative proportion of our body’s dimensions to those of the surrounding surfaces. The dimensions of a brick, or a stone, or a board, for example, are much closer to the size of the human hand or human body than are the inherently monolithic surfaces that we often create with modern concrete, glass, and drywall. Of course, none of these materials are inherently good or bad, but the visual and tactile characteristics of each surface can dramatically effect perceptions of scale and significantly influence the resulting ambiance. The scaling effects of these otherwise monolithic materials can be readily modified by the application in 2-dimensions of color, texture, pattern and sheen; thus elevating these 2-dimensional elements of composition as equal in importance to the 3-dimensional aspects of size and volume.

Other subtle aspects of ‘well-being”
I am fascinated by the many subjective aspects and idiosyncratic dimensions of human well-being. We don’t have time to delve into them this evening, but I encourage you to examine what conditions are important to your own personal sense of well-being and to consider those factors as you design for others. Here are two:

Certainty and Clarity: People like to know where they are and how to get where they’re going. Everyone is discomfited by uncertainty. Most of us are uncomfortable and become anxious, for example, if we can’t identify or find the building’s entry. If the path to our destination is not clear once inside, we can feel uneasy exploring the unknown. These mildly anxious feelings can rise to the level of great frustration or even panic in some who become easily confused or disoriented.

Privacy and Modesty: Humans like to have personal privacy under certain circumstances and empathetically don’t like to invade the privacy of others. Hotel guests, for example, are invariably uncomfortable when forced to walk by the windows or private patios of other guest rooms.

Intangible Aesthetics
I think of comfort and well-being as two important aspects of aesthetics, and I think we (especially designers) do ourselves a great disservice by narrowly limiting our understanding of aesthetics to matters of beauty and art. There are countless intangible and difficult-to-describe experiential qualities that cannot be seen, heard, smelled or tactilely felt, but that nevertheless combine to significantly influence the overall pleasantness and ambiance of the environment. These intangible qualities may not be measurable or even enter our conscious awareness, but they are very important to human comfort and well-being. Whether traditional or modern in styling, all good buildings consider the importance of these mental, emotional, and spiritual human dynamics.