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The Big Rethink revisited: Becoming Earthlings

Reflecting on The Big Rethink series of essays, Buchanan argues for a new culture integrating understandings of ecology, evolution and identity

Episodes mentioned in feedback to The Big Rethink (TBR) series include: the comparison of villas Fallet and Savoye by Le Corbusier (before and after adopting that name) in the second essay (TBR 2, AR January 2012); the diagrams by Richard Tarnas charting the changing, perceived relationships of self and world (TBR 3, AR February 2012); and the contrast of the Cities of Doing and Being (TBR 11, AR March 2013). Many were surprised to consider that an Arts and Crafts house might be more germane to our times and the quest for sustainability than a Purist villa. Others found poignant the Tarnas diagrams charting our declining sense, over the millennia, of confident identification with the world around. And highlighting the contrasts between the City of Doing and Being illuminated for many key but overlooked differences between modern and traditional cities.

Common to these episodes is the loss of the feeling of being at home in the world, without which the pursuit of sustainability will prove an elusive chimera. This essay (which in parts assumes familiarity with the earlier essays) revisits and links these episodes by exploring, through psychological insights bequeathed by modernity (yet often ignored by architects), what they reveal about our individual and collective sense of identity. It argues these must change if we are successfully to confront major environmental challenges. These are intractable precisely because our attempted solutions fail to recognise, and address at the apt level, the role played by our sense of identity: how we, largely subconsciously, understand our relationships with the world. In psychologically informed parlance, we pursue lower level solutions to what are higher level problems, and so are doomed to fail.

Much of this essay, then, deals with the subjective realms of psychology and culture, their equally subjective underpinnings in sense of identity, and the often subliminal beliefs reinforcing that identity. All this is axiomatically not amenable to objective proof, so die-hard Modernists might be inclined to dismiss much of the argument. The question to ask then is: would designing as if what is said were true, or even entertaining that possibility, result in better architecture − that which is richer and more resonant, that better enhances life and our cities, and is easier to relate to and more likely to advance the quest for sustainability? It would be difficult, and extremely perverse, to say no.

Richard Rogers’ Zip Up House

Richard Rogers’ Zip Up House, a kit of parts that offers flexibility but again is a suburban solution

Being at home in the world
House and home are often not synonymous today. Houses, for many, are largely investments, somewhere to live before trading up. So families grow up without the deep roots bestowed by a stable home, particularly one passed down through the generations; and by undermining any sense of rooted belonging, this inevitably impacts people’s notions of self and identity. And instead of adapting the house to the family’s particularities, it will be remodelled to enhance resale value. But as the glossies show, contemporary houses and domestic interiors are pristine displays and status symbols rather than for living in; they are particularly hostile to the messy vitality of children. This applies equally to: the frigidly minimalist, prohibiting clutter or rearrangement; dwellings crammed with objets d’art or whatever; and to much in between that is equally inhibiting of spontaneity and ease. These examples are, of course, indulgences of the developed world; yet they affect aspirations everywhere. But for much of the developing world a safe and stable home is a dream for their children to achieve while they worry about their shacks being cleaned out by gangsters or demolished by the authorities.

‘There are still those who buy the Bucky Fuller and Banham line that lightweight − or seemingly lightweight − buildings are materially efficient and gentle in environmental impacts’

But let’s start exploring the sense of being at home in and belonging to the world by commenting on a strand of quintessentially modern domestic projects once taken seriously, and still with admirers. Its apotheosis is in Reyner Banham’s 1965 essay ‘A Home is not a House’1 which noted that a contemporary house contains a plethora of mechanical and electronic equipment, enough alone to provide the house with much of its structural support. Thus an updated conflation of hearth (hot air and air-con outlets) and ‘entertainment centre’ (tv, hifi etc), would be the central focus of the ‘unhouse’ (Banham’s term), a bit of kit rather than architecture. In suitable weather, enclosure would consist only of blown curtains of tempered air, and otherwise of a transparent inflated bubble, leaving the occupants tantalisingly close to, yet frustratingly out of touch with, the semi-natural setting. Privacy would be provided by landscaping − hedges, berms and so on. This is an extreme form of what TBR 2 referred to as picnicking or camping on the land, rather than settling into it, the supposedly gentle engagement with the natural world is in fact a vulnerably brittle form of energy-intensive, technologically dependent hubris. That Banham’s proposal ever seemed clever and prescient, and now only puerile to most of us, clearly indicates how much we and the world have changed. Yet arguably, prominently displaying all this gubbins draws attention to, and makes us aware of, our dependency on them − and so is better than their increasingly pervasive invisibility.

Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion

Buckminster Fuller’s 1946 Wichita House hovers above the ground and is essentially anti-urban

Key precedents to such proposals are Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, developed in the 1930s and ’40s, and his Wichita House designed to be built using the postwar spare capacity of an aircraft factory. Both houses hover above their sites − the Dymaxion suspended from its central mast, the Wichita capped by its rotating wind cowl − their hexagonal or circular plans again suiting them only for suburbia. Fundamentally anti-urban, their internal arrangements tightly circumscribe the activities and life within. Less well-known, offering flexibility in size and use and contemporaneous with Banham’s ‘unhouse’, is Richard Rogers’ panellised Zip Up House on stilts above a sloping site, leaving a dank and useless space below. Another anti-urban solution, it ignores the tenet that sustainability implies treasuring every bit of land, leaving none merely left over and unsuitable to people and plants − or as a smear of cosmetic landscaping.

These examples remind us that modern architecture and its furnishings were partly inspired by the mobile equipment and prefab buildings used by armies and colonial administrators, from which evolved some famous modern holiday houses. (Bucky even proposed using bomb craters for the foundations for helicoptered-in Dymaxion Houses.) Conquest and control are among the many dark and still unacknowledged shadows at the heart of modernity, contributing to its inherent unsustainability and other downsides, not least the sense that we and our works never quite belong − the central theme of this essay.

This strand of domestic design was, of course, given impetus by Le Corbusier’s dictum that ‘the house is a machine for living in’, as exemplified by the elevated and partially prefab houses for the workers on the ‘Radiant Farm’ project and the apartment plans of 13sqm per person shown in the book The Radiant City. In the latter particularly, fixed or heavier elements are constrained in size and place while the remaining space is subdivided by sliding doors for flexibility. The ‘machine for living in’ also informs in varying degrees the designs of his Purist Villas. Technically primitive compared with the projects mentioned, the best of these exceed being mere machines for living in, not least in the poetic lyricism of their choreographed spatial solutions and their many-levelled allusions. This is further evidence that, as asserted in TBR 3 (AR February 2012), Corb was no mere modern architect but one of that small band of Modernist masters who represented the third wave of anti- or post-modernity in the broad inclusiveness and depth of their concerns.

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye floats free and disengaged from its site like a temporarily moored ocean liner or space ship.

All this is especially true of Villa Savoye (1928-31), a weekend retreat celebrating fluid physical freedom and spatial flow along with omnipresent sun and sky. But it also alludes to and inverts such precedents as Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, its four faces similarly addressing the horizons, but without projecting stairs to engage the site. Instead, consistent with the machine-age inspiration of ocean liners and aircraft, it floats disengaged above its site to be entered from below, through the recessive ground floor. A ramp replaces the central hall, rendering the spaces dynamically centrifugal rather than statically centripetal, with the crowning cupola now fragmented into curving walls (one enclosing a solarium) drawing down rather than swelling into the sky. Replacing the Villa Rotonda’s statues of gods on the entablature, the residents are put on show through the near-continuous horizontal slot displaying them as a living classical frieze. Elevating a wealthy cosmopolitan elite to the status of gods, it perfectly exemplifies the hubris underpinning modernity.

For decades, architects and critics were oblivious to these historical references, which for Le Corbusier were for those with ‘the eyes to see’, yet which for him also embedded the villa, if not in its setting, within the long march of history from which he was assumed to have broken free. Hence for most, if Savoye alluded to culture, it was as Banham postulated, as a large sculptural Cubist still life, a fruit bowl raised to display its contents. And there are still those who buy the Bucky Fuller and Banham line that lightweight − or (more usually, on including foundations) seemingly lightweight − buildings are materially efficient and gentle in environmental impacts, so precedent for green design. But, as TBR 2 argued, this is an obsolete and far too narrow notion of efficiency, and once total life-cycle costing is factored in, such a claim is revealed as utterly fatuous.

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye

Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye opens up to the sun from above and focuses outward views on the distant horizon

TBR 2 implied that more pertinent as a model of sustainability might be the Villa Fallet (1906-7), built when the architect was still Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. (This polarised comparison of Savoye and Fallet is to advance an argument, and does not imply they represent an either/or choice. It is possible and desirable to combine the virtues of both, of modern freedom and traditional embeddedness, as Frank Lloyd Wright and others − including Le Corbusier − so often proved.) In contrast to Savoye’s abstract, if still allusive, forms and limited palette of finishes, the architect devised his own regionalist, fir tree-derived iconography for the Villa Fallet and retained the rich material palette of the times. With these, the villa elicits multiple relationships with its residents and its larger setting of pine forests while also linking sky and earth. Moreover, it was designed as a cultural artefact weaving a rich web of connections and interrelationships with and between occupants and setting, and cementing connections with the past it has evolved from and the future to which it steps forward.

‘What is announced to those who can see afresh by all the autistic self-contained and detached forms of the International Style, by the dark − or reflective-glazed air-conditioned boxes and towers, by aggressively posturing Brutalism or its suave high-tech progeny, by today’s blobby icons and Parametricism?’

Savoye promised liberation from such constraints to serve a life lived in the present moment. Typically of modern architecture, it was deemed a purely functional device (Le Corbusier, of course, secretly knew better), subservient to its occupants (in contrast to the more elevated mediatory status of a cultural artefact) and of value only while in use. But TBR 6 (AR June 2012) argued that it was precisely in devaluing culture, and a building’s role as cultural artefact (so rendering obsolete the baggage of communicative rhetoric, iconography and other forms of symbolism), that architecture ceased to be a crucial mediator between, and connector with, these vastly larger temporal and spatial realms, as well as deeper levels of our psyches. Without recovering this cultural dimension, and returning to architecture the full complexities implied in being cultural artefacts, progress to a sustainable civilisation (rather than merely erecting individual energy-efficient buildings) will be curtailed.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret’s Villa Fallet

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret’s Villa Fallet is rooted in place, pulling the earth up to form its rusticated base and guiding the rain and snow from the sky down to earth, while its fir tree-derived ornament connects it to the nearby forests

So a theme running through The Big Rethink essays is that sustainability is more than an objective issue only − that is, confined to the Right Hand Quadrants of Integral theory’s All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL) diagram (TBR 3). As such, solutions must go beyond the purely objective means of technology and ecology and so on, as relevant and helpful as these are. Contributing massively to unsustainability too are such psycho-cultural issues (belonging to the AQAL’s Left Hand Quadrants) as the mindset that prioritises the objective, and ignores the disruptive dissatisfactions accruing from neglecting the subjective realms. These lead fairly directly to the various forms of addiction (not only to drugs and alcohol, but shopping, TV and other forms of distraction, and even our over-dependence on fossil fuels) that depth psychologists understand to be a prime characteristic of our times.2

The exaggerated emphasis on the objective is a central pathology of the Orange meme of Spiral Dynamics (TBR 10: ‘Spiral Dynamics and Culture’, AR October 2012), whose memes are among the most powerful determinants of our sense of self, our identities. Orange is the meme of modernity with its mechanistic materialist science (that is still dominant although dated) and selfishly competitive materialist ethos (climaxing in corporate-sponsored neoliberalism), and everything else we are so familiar with. Along with the prodigious benefits Orange delivered, these have now brought us to the brink of disaster. Yet, as earlier essays argued, proposed solutions to the many and massive problems − which we now recognise are the downsides of modernity and the Orange meme − still conform to their associated mindsets, particularly in seeking objectively rational and technical solutions only. They are thus doomed to failure.

All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL) diagram

The four quadrants of the All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL) diagram

Progress towards sustainability requires also the contribution of the Green meme of postmodernity, despite its disempowering hyper-relativism, for its collaborative ethos and the introduction of a wider range of perspectives beyond modernity’s narrow purview. But most particularly, it requires transcending the First Tier of ‘Subsistence’ memes so that more of us advance to the Yellow, and preferably Turquoise too, ‘Being’ memes of the Second Tier. These give us the integrative big picture perspective and flexibility of perception and thinking, as well as an understanding and feeling for the many dynamic flows that feed evolution and ecology, personal and cultural development, all so necessary to inform a comprehensive and inspiring enough vision to move us towards sustainability. (Cultivating the Second Tier should now be a prime goal of tertiary education, but isn’t.)

Such was the argument of the earlier essay on Spiral Dynamics. Here we complement rather than contradict this argument by examining confusions stemming from ideas and actions informed from inappropriate psychological levels − rather than the cultural ones these entwine with.3 These confusions seriously cripple progress to sustainability, and lie behind many other intractable contemporary problems, including the continuing fragmentation of urban fabric. For immediate insight into this matter, imagine putting aside the blinkers of modernity (its conditioned habits of seeing and aesthetic prejudices) so as to see afresh: what, then, do the floating forms of Savoye and the other disengaged houses strongly suggest? Or equally, what is announced to those who can see afresh by all the autistic self-contained and detached forms of the International Style, by the dark − or reflective-glazed air-conditioned boxes and towers, by aggressively posturing Brutalism or its suave high-tech progeny, by today’s blobby icons and Parametricism, and so much else that won’t deign to defer and nestle into place?

François Dallegret’s illustration to Reyner Banham’s essay ‘A Home is not a House’

François Dallegret’s illustration to Reyner Banham’s essay ‘A Home is not a House’ with humans as aliens quarantined in a precariously perched bubble from where they can look out on but remain uncontaminated by nature

Attempting to transcend place and history, uncontaminated by context, culture and climate, these buildings come across as alien invaders, foreign intruders that blatantly refuse to belong. Like the disengaged houses we started with, these all resemble barely settled UFOs, or aircraft and liners that have temporarily touched land. Consider the typical hermetically sealed air-conditioned office tower: those inside, particularly that majority far from the windows, might as well be submerged below the sea, or on a hostile planet with a poisonous atmosphere. This then, writ large, is our attitude towards our gloriously paradisiacal planet and the marvellous buildings and cities left by history. It is this attitude, and the underlying sense of identity it reflects, that concerns us here because it is not only a major source of the unsustainability of modernity, but also the reason ordinary people find so much of it alienating and unlovable.

‘Consider the typical hermetically sealed air-conditioned office tower: to those inside they might as well be submerged below the sea, or on a hostile planet with a poisonous atmosphere’

If to a disinterested and clear-eyed observer it is obvious these buildings simply do not, nor even care to, belong, then what does this tell us − apart from confirming the modern mindset as a bubble of denial, aloof from its consequences in human exploitation, environmental degradation and so on? They reflect the (usually subliminal and unarticulated) feeling that humankind doesn’t really belong. Depth psychologists would assert that this disengagement is because modern humankind unconsciously realises neither we nor our works deserve to belong. Underlying modernity, masked by its technical bravura and hubris, they detect a suppressed awareness of its many problematic aspects − including the destructiveness of its technologically supercharged, savage assaults on nature, place and local cultures. Whether or not you agree and sympathise with such a view, it is surely clear that the striking common characteristic of these buildings, their aloofness from us and context, is what today is referred to as an ‘identity level’ problem, related to a confused psychological sense of who we really are. And just as we cannot progress to sustainability without embracing a higher cultural meme, so we cannot resolve problems arising from the identity level with solutions belonging to a lower level, such as that of behaviours − the level of the solutions advocated by  architects, environmentalists and politicians.

To properly understand the above needs explanatory background, although the idea of differing psychological levels has long pervaded such fields as management theory, clinical psychology and psychotherapy. The notion stretches back to Freud − with his id, ego and super ego − and even before. More pertinent here are theories developed since psychologist Abraham Maslow formulated his model of the Hierarchy of Needs in 1943 − now more generally conceived as the Pyramid of Needs. At the broad base are physical and survival needs while at the apex is what he termed self-actualisation. More recent, and both widely influential and powerfully effective when applied, is the model of ‘Logical Levels’ (sometimes called ‘Neurological Levels’) inspired by cyberneticist Gregory Bateson and formulated by Robert Dilts, a leading NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) practitioner.

Like the Maslow model, this needs no detailed explanation for our purposes here. Suffice it to know that a lower level is that of behaviours while at a higher level is identity, and above that beliefs. A correlated assumption of the logical levels model, backed by years of empirical application in collective and personal ‘change management’, is that problems are best tackled with solutions addressing the same, or preferably higher, level as that of the underlying causes, and that measures on a level below that of the cause(s) tend to be futile. A simplistic example illustrates the principle: telling children to tidy their rooms (behaviour level) requires frequent repetition. But persuading children they are not the sort to leave untidy rooms (identity level) eliminates the need for nagging. The last 40 years has seen many quick and easy techniques developed to bring about identity change, often by changing the supporting beliefs (the level below and underpinning identity), or, better yet, clarifying a sense of personal purpose. Astute questioning can bring beliefs into consciousness awareness, and often merely exposing beliefs to critical scrutiny, showing them as fallacious or no longer useful, is enough to change them. And sense of purpose is a major focus of contemporary psychotherapy and management theory.

typical modern office block

The typical modern office block ignores its setting while those inside might as well be below the sea or on a planet with a noxious atmosphere

Acknowledging the critical role of these higher psychological levels of identity and belief, and addressing them, is crucial to provoking the profound changes urgently needed in many areas of modern life. That progress towards sustainability (and such associated issues as healing the destruction wrought by modern architecture and urbanism upon our cities and countryside) has been so limited is because we have so far concentrated on the level of behaviours: consume less energy and resources, pollute less, recycle more and so on. We may know it intellectually, but until we viscerally feel and believe ourselves to be intrinsic parts of nature and locality, until we fully register and identify with the fact that we emerged from the earth through the long process of evolution, and so are rooted and belong here, we will not take full responsibility for all these and be motivated to take truly effective action. But our modern lifestyles and built environment so suppress our awareness of our connections to, and multiple interdependencies with, the natural world, and even with our manmade historic legacy, that we don’t truly believe deep down that we belong: it is simply not part of our experienced identity. This drives the unsustainability of modern civilisation and our callous disregard for the natural world, treating it merely as a storehouse of resources and our destructive impacts on it as ‘externalities’, as collateral damage to be ignored or tolerated as minor inevitabilities in the quest for growth and greater wealth. Even the latter, our urge to possess, to amass more land and goods, is a mad and futile compensation for the far greater comfort and satisfaction of truly belonging, of participating in a slow and noble unfolding far greater than us.

Degrees of separation
Our distorted identity, as being divorced from the world and not belonging, is reinforced by what can be called the Myth of Separation, a term chosen in acknowledgement of that used by Charles Eisenstein to denote the current era − the Age of Separation − in The Ascent of Humanity.4 This myth or illusion, that we are fundamentally distinct and disconnected from each other and nature, underpins our times, shaping all aspects of our experience, and is among the most damaging of delusions. It is referred to as a myth because nearly 100 years ago the leading edge of science (particularly, but not only, Quantum Mechanics with its theories of quantum entanglement and so on) proved it to be utterly untrue. Despite this, and the mounting supporting evidence of our manifold intimate interconnections with everything around arising from fields such as biology, ecology and evolution, this myth still determines how most of us perceive and understand the world. It also still underpins the mechanistic materialist science, which despite its limits and the crippling limits it sets to progress in some crucial areas (such as understanding many physical and mental health conditions), remains dominant because still operationally valid − it landed us on the moon, after all.

Although climaxing and reaching an extreme with modernity, the Myth of Separation originates far back in our history, starting with the acquisition of language and later intensified by the advent of agriculture, which progressively set us against nature. Many developments compounded it, such as the departure of the gods from this earth, through a transitional period of semi-detachment on Olympus, in favour of a single god up in the heavens, so that the earth plane was no longer a heaven but only a way station to be endured on the way to it. Besides the delusions of independence sponsored by our all-pervasive technologies, among the most influential and extreme sources is Cartesian dualism and post-Enlightenment thinking, reinforcing modernity’s stress on the Right Hand Quadrants of the AQAL diagram (so suppressing our sensual, experiential connections with the world and our once multiple cultural and symbolic links with it). These compound the disengagement arising from another major source, modernity’s fundamental founding assumption of an objective reality independent of us. As explained in TBR 3, this is what led to the world fragmenting into disconnected objects, as exemplified by the modern City of Doing in which separation (of buildings from each other and context, of one activity or function from another and so on) is a prime characteristic.

From the myth of separation comes the pervasive feeling that we transcend and are independent from nature, not truly of the earth, not deeply connected to it in reverential gratitude and so also responsible for it. It also accounts for the atomisation and hyper individualism of contemporary society, where people are disconnected also from each other and their own deep selves. Our built environment reflects this in not belonging to or creating place, nor helping us to belong, offering little for us (formally and symbolically) to relate to physically and psychologically. Hence the restlessness, the literally unsettled character, of modern humankind, alienated from and destructive of the world it feels dispossessed of and exiled from. And this is why progress to sustainability has been so slow and limited. The problem is an identity level issue − and our impotent attempts to solve them are at the level of behaviours, and so will never be effective.

The myth of separation was already pervasively influential when Villa Fallet was built; indeed its mediatory rhetorical elements mark it and its occupants as above nature as much as relating them to the larger spatio-temporal frame discussed earlier. But architecture being a conservative discipline (rightly so, and often should be more so), it took time for modernity’s intensification of the myth to become visibly noticeable. Obviously disengaged from setting and stripped of recognisable rhetorical elements, the self-centred disconnect that exemplifies the myth of separation, is much more explicit and extreme at the Villa Savoye, as it is with most modern architecture. Moreover, the profound experiential and psychological consequences of the myth, its erosion of the sustaining webs of culture and its impacts on identity, are easily and viscerally experienced by trying a simple but illuminating experiment. Readers are urged to try it. Drop your awareness from your head down into your body, and then imagine lying on your deathbed and looking back at a long life lived in Savoye. Then do the same to experience the effects of life in Fallet. The experiences reported below summarise typical reactions from lecture audiences who have tried this, who were generally surprised at how distinctly and intensely different were the feelings evoked by each house.

Savoye elicits an exciting feeling of expansive freedom in  the fresh air and sunlight of an eternal summer elevated above the earth. Strongly felt is the horizontal and centrifugal spatial emphasis, which some feel as shallowly dish-shaped. Although the daily cycle is highlighted, that of the seasons is less distinct, nor is there much feeling of life adding up over time, of mellow maturation, especially as there is a disconcerting sense of disengagement from the earth and its rhythms in a building whose materials and finishes don’t weather gracefully. Life seems to have been fun but shallow, not least because without lasting legacy in beneficial impact on the surroundings. The reported long-term experience of the Villa Fallet is almost antithetical. Connection with surrounding trees and neighbours is felt, but much more powerful is the sense of a sheltering and centripetal intimacy and vertical connections, rooting the house deep into the ground and linking earth and sky. There is a reassuring sense of enduring permanence and awareness of the cycles of the seasons as well as of sheltering against and opening up to them. Here you feel of the earth, at home in and connected with planet and place, and life has a sense of fullness so that you face death with the quiet satisfaction of a settled life properly lived without the nagging sense of not having fully engaged with place and nature that Savoye confers.

This simple exercise gives a memorably visceral understanding of how the myth of separation, and the disengaged buildings it results in, actively discourage identification with earth and place, nature and its seasons, and so any sense of responsible stewardship for them and the desire for a beneficial legacy in lasting improvements. This raises an immensely significant issue of profound consequences for architecture, urbanism and the continuation of civilised life. Which way does true and lasting sustainability lie, supported as it must be by deep psychic satisfaction and an ennobling sense of identity? Is it with the gentle and temporary disengagement of aloof and voyeuristic detachment, of purporting to minimise impact and damage (or more usually, simply denying it) but without really connecting and belonging? Or is it with nestling into and engagement with place, as the term settlement implies, pleased to accept all its long-term responsibilities to its past and its future because of the deeply satisfying sense of meaningful purpose and lasting legacy these bring? Much supposedly green design pursues the former option, of merely doing less damage, or being less unsustainable. But surely for true sustainability we must choose the latter, and identify ourselves as belonging to and responsible for the earth and all its communities of humans and other species, and help all of these to flourish.

City of Doing and City of Being
Imaginary recollections from the deathbed are equally revealing of crucial differences between what earlier essays refer to as the City of Doing and the City of Being (TBR 11, AR March 2013). The former is the modern city of separate functional zones and freestanding buildings − which elicit relationship with neither neighbouring buildings nor us humans, being instead glacially alienating or (today especially) jazzed up with jolly colours and disturbingly jittery rhythms − all dispersed in a conceptual and experiential void to be connected by movement-only roads. Elsewhere I’ve called this the wiring diagram city. This is the city of fragmented fabric and fragmented lives, of differing activities undertaken in different places, of lives largely reduced to toil and, for those who can afford it, conspicuous consumption (as if that could be sufficient compensation for the lack of meaning) and succinctly summarised by the 1968 slogan of métro, boulot, dodo. The City of Being is the traditional city with its continuities of physical fabric and lived experience, the city as crucible of culture and consciousness, the configuration of its fabric creating many kinds of places and locations suited to a host of qualitatively different but interlinked activities, a place for  actively engaged citizens, not mere passive consumers.

‘Our modern lifestyles and built environment so suppress our awareness of our connections to, and multiple interdependencies with, the natural world that we don’t truly believe we belong’

Again drop your awareness from your head down into your body and imagine looking back from your deathbed at a life lived in each kind of city in turn. The differences can again be startling. With the former, people generally sense the fragmentation and consequent dispersal of their attention and energies, and even of their sense of self, as a dissatisfying restlessness and purposeless busyness. Without the sense of the buildings or themselves as being embedded in place, and so of being grounded and present, it’s as if nothing can drain or offset the pressures and stress that comes with being permanently distracted, with energy and attention dispersed, and so always somewhat unsettled. Thus the City of Doing is not only that of alienation and anomie, but also of overwhelm, ADHD and hypertension − all of them omnipresent conditions to which modern architecture and cities, and the lifestyles they shape, are major contributors. To these debilitating impacts must also be added all those discussed in earlier essays of the City of Doing, including those of the lonely isolation from community that impedes self-knowledge and flowering into full maturity. So the sense many report of looking back from imminent death on a life that was immensely busy but only half lived.

The historic City of Being, contrasted with the modern City of Doing

The historic City of Being, contrasted with the modern City of Doing, below. The City of Being is one of continuities of physical fabric, space and experience while the City of Doing is one of isolated buildings freestanding in a void and so of discontinuities in activities and experience

The deathbed experience reveals the City of Being to be markedly different. Here you experience the seamless continuities of physical fabric and lived experience, of being always enveloped and grounded, with buildings of a reassuring physical presence and compositional subtlety to gently engage yet not overwhelm awareness. In such a humane and supportive setting you can be absorbed in what you are doing or who you are with, without that feeling of frazzled distractedness and pressured busyness. Psychologically it is clearly the much more satisfying option and reminds you that the fullness of a life well-lived, such as you hope to look back on from your deathbed, is less about the many things done than of being fully present while doing them. And all these benefits are in addition to those already explored in earlier essays (particularly TBR 11). These include the benefits to self-knowledge, psychological health and developing maturity of being visible to all on the street, enmeshed in community and fully known by others in all aspects of your life − in contrast to these being fragmented between different places and the differing roles played out in them, as in the City of Doing.

The profound differences between these two kinds of cities are again largely those of psychological attitude and identity. Designed and managed by those unguided by a sense of deep connection and belonging to the larger whole, the modern City of Doing is dogged by various fracturing impacts. Its public realm is the domain of single-minded and uncooperative disciplines, of engineers of various sorts (traffic, lighting, telecommunications, sewage), landscapers and signage people; and for those who commission its buildings the city is little more than a chessboard of economic opportunity. To this is added an architectural chaos of egos competing with ‘statement buildings’ − demonstrating the architects’ vaunted creativity in often spurious form-making, or their uncompromising integrity as proven in the unfriendliness of materials. Bad enough as are the products of these ambitiously individualistic, ego-driven architects, hardly less so are the products of those in it for the money only: mean-spirited utilitarianism that similarly spurns responsibilities to any larger whole. The disharmonious jostling of a multitude of typologies, materials and much else, highlights the unsettled and unsettling nature of buildings that refuse to relate and add up to any larger whole, let alone be rooted in place and past.

Earlier essays noted that in cities and other settlements where visual harmony prevails − both between buildings, and between them collectively and their larger setting − this is largely due to the repetition of only a few formal typologies, enhanced by a limited range of materials, as well as commonalities of facade composition and proportions. At least equally important was the psychological attitude and sense of identity of clients and architects. When building the traditional City of Being they were very aware of their responsibilities to the larger whole, to the pre-existing communities of both buildings and people (as today we should also be of the communities of other species and all that they depend on). The ambition was not only to build well in the manner of the existing architecture, but also to fit in as an intrinsic part of the larger whole they were extending and embellishing, with any competitive urges tempered by the stronger collaborative one of enhancing the whole.

Despite all the ongoing talk of contextualism, the ego-striving ethos of the City of Doing remains dominant, intensifying the fragmenting grip of the myth of separation. In London it is clear in the willy-waving crop of new towers, each standing out with their distinctive, nickname-attracting forms: the Shard, the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesegrater and so on. Disruptive as these are, another 230 towers have planning approval, or are advancing towards it, to be dotted haphazardly around the city in a mad dash to destroy much of its remaining cohesiveness. The same pernicious ethos is equally clear in greater London in the gratuitous offensiveness architects feel compelled to display to street and neighbours with the assertively abstract forms of new houses that announce disdain for all around. That this obtuse offensiveness is not the proof of Modernist credentials these architects assume it to be is shown by earlier buildings such as Ralph Tubbs’ Indian YMCA (1952) near Fitzroy Square, and many others which are uncompromisingly modern yet slip into place with a tact and deference that enhances their surroundings.

campus of Vienna University

An assortment of buildings by a mixed bag of architects – including Zaha Hadid, CRAB studio, Carme Pinós and Hitoshi Abe – at the campus of Vienna University

That the urge to be distinct and not fit in still displayed today seems more blatant than ever before (except perhaps in the Brutalist era) is, one can only hope, a sign of reaching a sunset-effect terminal extreme before civility and concern for the larger whole returns. The recent apotheosis of this manically competitive, ego-induced chaos is not in London but Vienna (AR May 2014): the new campus built by starchitects shrieking no interest in any form of deference or coherence, like drunken drag queens showing how eye-catchingly and inappropriately over-dressed and outrageous they can be. The result is a pyrotechnic sunset effect strongly suggesting this nonsense must surely be nearly over and we can start to develop a more mature and reciprocal architecture of shaping places where, instead of jangling over stimulation, we can feel settled and at peace with ourselves and our settings. But the latter environments require designers whose sense of self transcends the shallow reaches of the ego to identify with and embrace larger responsibilities to place and people and so ultimately to the planet too.

‘The new campus in Vienna built by starchitects shrieks no interest in any form of deference or coherence, like drunken drag queens showing how eye-catchingly and inappropriately over-dressed and outrageous they can be’

The diagrams by Richard Tarnas, shown in TBR 3, speak eloquently to the psychological predicament (which he describes in different terms to what follows) that contemporary architecture and urbanism does so much to intensify. This is illustrated by the last diagram, showing the Late Modern (or contemporary) Worldview and evoking the sense of solitary smallness and impotent powerlessness in the face of an alienating environment and unsupportive social milieu. In marked contrast, as the first diagram shows, is what Tarnas calls the Primal Worldview that pertained through most of human history, when as tribal nomads the whole world was our home and we were intrinsic to and barely separate from it. We were just some of the beings who coexisted there, yet because conscious also responsible for and with reverential gratitude towards, a prodigiously providential paradise.

Diagrams by Richard Tarnas

Diagrams by Richard Tarnas poignantly illustrate the progression of the experienced sense of self and its relationship with the larger world around. In the Primal Worldview, the self was sensed as permeable to and part of the larger world around. With the progressive development of the Modern Worldview since the advent of agriculture and then the city, the self was increasingly experienced as separate from the world around. This reaches an extreme in the Late Modern Worldview where the isolated self of atomised contemporary humanity feels lonely and lost in an indifferent world

But with farming and permanent settlement came what for Tarnas is the Modern Worldview as we strove to create for ourselves a home bounded within this larger world. The latter then became ‘other’ and distinct from us, a wilderness seen in differing degrees to be hostile, to be defended against and, with the advent of cities, to be walled off from. But with the coming of a mechanistic science, and particularly since the Enlightenment (and later the reduction of architecture to serving function), we have created a world that frustrates our ability to feel at home in it and truly belong. The central thesis and much of the argument in these essays is that − guided by Integral theory, Spiral Dynamics and much else now available to us − it is time to shape a new culture and concomitant built environment. In these we will both move forward into the next phase of cultural evolution, the era already emerging, and regain − through understanding such things as ecology and evolution, reinforced by an enhanced sense of identity − a sense of belonging within and being at home in the world.

Imagine extra-terrestrials visiting earth. They’d be appalled by what we are doing to this glorious planet and by our pressured lifestyles (of long work and commuting hours, unhealthy food and so on). The latter, they’d probably surmise, we created to minimise enjoyment of and absorption in earth’s profligate beauty and webs of harmonious relationships, and as feeble excuses for our unawareness and inaction. Maybe extra-terrestrials haven’t visited because looking from afar they worry our affliction is contagious. If they did come, it is pretty clear what they would say: why don’t you just accept that you are Earthlings − as much part of nature as earthworms? And having acknowledged your identity as Earthlings you will no longer be a purely parasitic presence but will embrace, treasure and be responsible for your miraculous planet − shaping lifestyles and settlements accordingly.

YMCA in Fitzrovia and North London house

Ralph Tubbs’ Indian YMCA in Fitzrovia, London, (left) fits harmoniously with the historic building to the left, proving that exemplary modern architecture could be compatible with a sensitively respectful response to setting. Recently built house in north London (right), its abstract forms signalling aloof disdain for its setting, as if still considering that this might prove its contemporary credentials

Attitudes of designers would then differ dramatically from those typical today, becoming much more sensitively attuned to the long-term needs of the manmade and natural surroundings, including those of every species present, seeking to contribute, not just exploit. Surely, central to educational curricula at all levels, including that of architects and urbanists, should be tuition on becoming a fully-fledged Earthling − as it was for the many millennia before civilisation. This relates directly to earlier discussion (TBR 8, AR September 2012) about the urgent need to pursue two of the central questions of our time. First, who deep down do we truly want to be in light of today’s understandings of what it is to be truly human, so that we can look back from the deathbed with the satisfying sense of a life fully lived? Second, who does the planet, which evolved us, want us to be? We need to explore these until both answers are identical. From this will emerge renewed and empowering identities, collective and personal.

Recognising ourselves as Earthlings implies nothing regressive, like becoming Hobbits in a Peter Jackson film. (It is more about an ethos than an aesthetic. Those who bury their homes in nature today tend not to be proper Earthlings in that they spurn the community of fellow humans, and so still exemplify the myth of separation.) Instead being an Earthling entails taking the next step forward in our development and healing an immensely damaging split which is among the most pernicious legacies of the modern mindset’s intensification of the myth of separation: the widespread assumption nature and culture are polarised opposites. Proto-cultural behaviours are found in other species − in grooming and mating rituals, rank hierarchies and so on. As with these other species, culture is absolutely intrinsic to who we are. It developed with us as we evolved within nature. It is also the prime means of advancing yet further our own evolution, which is that of human nature − and thereby continuing the advance of evolution generally. Emerging from, rather than opposed to nature, culture is how we give meaning to all aspects of the natural world and find our place within it, intensifying our experience and appreciation of it. Understanding this clarifies the assertion in an earlier essay that the Noosphere (culture) transcends and includes the Biosphere (nature), as well as why the views of deep ecologists and others who hold that we should invert this, although understandable and laudable in motive, are simply wrongheaded.

new house in North London

Another new house in north London whose abstract and alien forms contrast with the welcoming and legible forms of the traditional houses to the left of it. These latter acknowledge, greet and in various ways relate to the passers-by and ‘look them in the eyes’ in contrast to the inscrutable evasiveness of the new house

Such understandings should drive and inform one of the great collaborative projects of our time: recreating a culture that will connect us with our origins and the cosmos, and support us in our unfolding into full humanity − as Earthlings. But at the moment we are stuck, the inertia entrenched because we are, as described by the increasingly influential eco-theologian, the late Thomas Berry, ‘between stories’ − those meaning-making narratives central to all cultures. The old stories − the myths, legends and religions − that underpinned traditional and historical cultures, withered under the onslaught of materialist science and rationalist thinking, leading to Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’. But the elements of an excitingly ennobling new story, that will give meaning to and reconnect us with everything around, are there for the taking. These are among the greatest of modernity’s legacies and include the New Sciences − New Physics, New Cosmology and New Biology − that have not yet impacted our worldview that is still in thrall to a mechanistic rationalism and materialist science. From this vast legacy of knowledge and technique is emerging the new story with which to consciously engineer a new culture. Among much else, the sources of this new story − just asking to be woven into an encompassing, life-enhancing and empowering culture − include (among much else) the work of Eisenstein and Berry, and mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme (with whom Berry co-authored the seminal The Universe Story),5 the epigenetics and extrapolations from it of cell biologist Bruce Lipton, the depth psychology of Carl Jung and James Hillman and the many tools for personal and cultural transformation developed in psychotherapy and management studies − and, of course, the synthesising rigour of Integral theory and Spiral Dynamics.

Narratives of planetary culture
This new culture will envelop leading-edge science as part of it (rather than an antagonist) to be as resonant as any myth and as spiritual in its implications as any religion. It will thus re-enmesh us in a rich web of connections that give renewed meaning and purpose to our lives, as well as an enhanced identity and sense of belonging that exhort us to take responsibility for more than only our own lives. Further elaborating this master narrative of a planetary culture will be a rich ecology of local variants, woven from the particulars of place, its customs and history, preserving or evolving from the best of local traditions to provide, in a manner analogous to biodiversity, levels of redundancy and resilience necessary to sustainability. All this would be part of shaping a more inspiring vision of what is possible, so enticing and giving us the psychic drive to tackle the many forms of systemic breakdown that confront us, in contrast to the debilitating emphasis on the negative that reinforces our current inertia. Social psychologists say the hectoring emphasis on the threats we face and the sacrifices we must make only serve to foster extrinsic, selfish values at the expense of intrinsic, communal and altruistic ones, so compounding resistance to change.

north London houses elevation

Elevational drawing and street elevation of north London houses. The drawing analyses some of the ways the elevation is composed (with an interplay of ‘centres’ forming a coherently disciplined pattern) so as to invest the building with a sense of ‘aliveness’ that elicits a relationship with passing humans. This is a crucial aspect of how historic buildings helped us to feel at home in the world, some equivalent of which has to be recovered as part of the larger project of achieving genuine sustainability

As argued in earlier essays (particularly TBR 4, AR March 2012), the role of architecture goes far beyond providing shelter, economic return, accommodating function and so on. Historically, as with the city too, its most essential and ennobling purpose was to help us create ourselves (through such things as ritual and the spatial projection of the psyche, as described in that essay) as complex, cultured beings. Understanding this − and again applying the vast reservoir of knowledge modernity generated, and gathered from earlier cultures − architects can then contribute to this regeneration of culture to help shape the next step in human development by designing a built environment that accommodates and actively encourages this epochal transition so that the natural and manmade world once again becomes our home. Much of what this would be like was discussed, along with their roles in shaping identity and fulfilling our human potential, in the essays on urban design (TBR 11) and the neighbourhood (TBR Conclusion, AR June 2013). In part these were about elaborating a built environment rich in potential social encounters and different kinds of places to enjoy and explore as a means to discovering and developing the self. Also stressed was the need to reconnect up our fragmented world and reconnect us with it by creating buildings that related to each other and us, as well as to the natural world with which it gives us a heightened sense of awareness.

Some of the more purely architectural aspects of shaping a built environment to which we can relate and feel at home are discussed in the essay on ‘Place and Aliveness’ (TBR 7, AR July 2012). Among other things, this discussed the role of facade composition − especially the physiognomic dimensions of pattern and the enlivening effects of a play between elements forming distinct ‘centres’. The benefit is that instead of the public realm being shaped by the repetitive, extruded rhythms typical of modern and contemporary architecture, it would be faced by buildings that themselves project a sense of identity and being − and so hold the space before them and invest it with a sense of place. The most succinct way of explaining this is that such buildings, like pre-modern ones, look you in the eye, so acknowledging and greeting you, in contrast to the way modern and contemporary buildings evade eye contact and so fail to acknowledge and relate to you.

Yet this introduces another troublesome identity issue: when this is explained and illustrated to audiences of architects, they tend to readily grasp and be convinced by the argument. Yet when asked if they would attempt to apply these insights, they sheepishly tend to admit not. More than doubting if they have the compositional skills, it is an identity issue: nervousness of the judgement of peers. Confronted with the choice of being Earthlings or architects, with shaping the long-term future or seeking quick and easy recognition, with healing and serving the city and its citizens or saving face, many grudgingly admit it would be the latter. Architects, then, need a new sense of identity too, one in which they feel they belong to and are responsible for a larger whole, and so will design to enhance that sense of wholeness which helps them and us to feel at home.


1. Reyner Banham, ‘A Home is not a House’, Art in America, no 2, April 1965.
2. Witness to the Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction by Linda Schierse Leonard is only one of numerous books exploring the theme.
3. Problems endemic to a cultural meme are best resolved by solutions from a more elevated and expansive meme, which is why current Orange meme approaches to sustainability have been limited in their success. The psychological issue here though is that we fail to recognise that the cause of a problem is often at a higher psychological level than the proposed solutions.
4. Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the Human Sense of Self, Evolver Editions, 2007, 2013. Although this essay draws on the ideas of this book, it also, because of space constraints, simplifies and somewhat distorts them. Although it is a big book, reading it is highly recommended.
5. Berry first posited this idea in his 1978 booklet The New Story, later republished in his book The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club, 1988. This theme is developed at length in The Universe Story by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, Harper, 1994. See also The Great Work by Thomas Berry, Bell Tower, 2000.

neighbourhood as the expansion of the home

neighbourhood as the expansion of the home

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