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Humanplan: a 21st century pocket manifesto for architects

A short sharp graphic call to arms designed to stimulate the synapses. The campaign for a more humane architecture begins here

As an organism historically concerned with campaigning, the AR has an obligation to goad architects out of their narcissistic comfort zones and acknowledge the wider resonances between their profession and society. Over 90 per cent of the built environment is constructed without their involvement, so from a simple statistical perspective, it might be no exaggeration to declare that they are an irrelevance. The world turns perfectly well without them.

Yet dumb data does not always consider the bigger picture. The AR’s recent and well-received Big Rethink campaign was a call to reconceptualise architecture by examining what kind of world we want to live in and how architects can interrogate and reframe this wider agenda.


AR cover from March 1970 which was the fifth
in the eight-part Manplan series devoted to
a radical, state-of-the-nation dissection of the
built environment. Each Manplan cover was based on an often grotesque variation of a human head. This particular issue, with its disturbing image of a fetish trophy head from Brazil’s Mundurucú tribe, examined buildings
for religion

The AR has form in the calls-to-arms department. Long before the Big Rethink there was Manplan, the original AR campaign, an eight-part dissection of the state of the nation, conducted as the optimism of the 1960s gave way to the foreboding of the ’70s. ‘Though modern man is in some ways wealthy beyond dreams, in others he’s never had it so bad’, the opening editorial salvo proclaimed in September 1969 (a salvo that still rings true today). Manplan’s radical use of reportage to document how buildings are used, inhabited and appropriated was an attempt to expose the bleak realities of human experience and dislodge architects from their pedestal of smug self-regard. In retrospect, opinions vary as to its impact; whether it was a genuinely transformative way of tapping into and engaging with the wider social purpose of architecture, or simply the impotent spleen of an ageing editorial cabal.

Yet it still strikes a chord and gave the current editorial cabal the idea to devise Humanplan, a pocket manifesto for the early 21st century. In a homage to our illustrious predecessors, Humanplan employs a similar graphic framework to explore certain themes and ideas, prioritising the impact of image over analysis.


Albrecht Dürer’s famous star map of 1515 mapped the cosmos as a series of myths and legends, overlaying and intensifying what was there with the power of human imagination. Now, though we can see further and more deeply with sophisticated telescopes, our elemental connection with the heavens has been lost

But unlike Manplan, there are no plans to extend it beyond this issue. Rather, it’s  a short, sharp, guerrilla tactic designed to stimulate the synapses, like the arctic hit of that first martini at cocktail hour.

Architecture could be described as the ultimate theatre of the absurd, trying to give meaning and order to chaos beyond its comprehension. So Humanplan is an agile visual stocktake of contradictions and complexities, of things lost or misappropriated, of flawed grandeur and defiance, of societies on the margins, and some provocative ways of seeing and being. It’s far from exhaustive (and unusually personal), but in scope and scale it coalesces into an uninhibited affirmation of what makes us human, with the power to change the world.


Beyond the barricades: city walls

In the modern era, walls have become toxically charged agents of political, social or religious division (Berlin, Belfast, Israel). Some walls have fallen but some still endure as a shaming reproach to our historic inability to see the other’s point of view. Who or what are we trying to keep out? The walls in our heads are more pernicious than any manmade structures.


Like a publican trying to separate two brawling drunks, this Peace Wall in Belfast scythes surreally through backstreets to ensure that Protestant and Catholic communities are kept apart. Originally an inevitable legacy of the Troubles, many such walls are still in place | Abbas / Magnum Photos


Constructed to forestall Palestinian terror attacks, but with the effect of isolating communities in the Occupied Territories, Israel’s West Bank Barrier has been condemned by human rights groups | Zed Nelson Photography

Travelling light: nomadism today

Being on the move used to be a way of life, but no longer. We fear and despise people who can carry everything on their backs and don’t settle. Travellers, Tuaregs, Mongolian yak herders; nomads use resources sparingly, touch the ground lightly and have an intimate rapport with place, space, time and the seasons. Less can definitely be more.


Travellers escaping from the settled life, but nomadic culture everywhere is now under the constant threat of persecution and privation | Bert Hardy


Herders on the steppes of Central Asia with their yurt, the traditional portable dwelling made from bent ribs clad with felt, an elegant response to climate and necessity | Gueorgui Pinkhassov / Magnum Photos


The lightweight tents of Moroccan tribesmen encourage cooling and can be easily dismantled and ferried from place to place | Getty Images

The cocktail hour: thinking, drinking, creating

The link between drinking and creativity would make a fertile thesis topic, but these days, getting ‘Louis Quinzed’ on martinis at lunchtime is regarded with suspicion and horror. We should remind ourselves it was not always thus and that some of the world’s greatest architects regularly enjoyed a tipple.


The original social media: glass in hand, Frank Lloyd Wright holds court in the Bride of Denmark, a private pub in the basement of the AR’s former offices. Rather than the banal witterings of online ‘communities’, architecture needs more human contact and more agreeable salons for thinking and drinking


The Bride of Denmark was created in 1947 from salvaged elements of pubs damaged during the war and soon became London’s unmissable venue for the architectural establishment

Dark skies: the power of the cosmos

Unlike our ancestors, when we gaze up to the heavens we don’t see what’s really there. The cosmos is physically veiled by manmade light pollution, but it’s also subconsciously obscured by our capacity for introversion and self-obsession.We need to reconnect with the void to apprehend our true place in things, which is to be a finite species on a finite rock, destined for extinction. So we should behave better in the infinitesimal time we do have.


In most urban areas light pollution now obliterates the night sky | Science Photo Library


The mind-bending spectacle of the cosmos would have been a regular sight for our ancestors, who studied the skies for portents and wove powerful mythologies around the stars | Babak Tafreshi/Science Photo Library

Earth to earth: the Ndebele culture of South Africa

Architecture might seem inconceivable without architects, but the richness of ‘primitive’ tribal traditions shows that humans have an instinctive grasp of how to build, how to apply ornament, how to situate forms in landscape and how to give genuine meaning and structure to the rituals and romance of existence.


The Ndebele people of northern South Africa§ are a matriarchal society with highly expressive traditions of building and craft. Architecture is not just concerned with pretty surface decoration, it also subtly structures space and function, locating them in place and time | Paul Almasy/Corbis


Ndebele women in full fig outside their houses. Beadwork and textiles are other distinctive skills but their culture is now either being eroded or commodified for tourists | Alamy

In every home a heartache: housing inequalities

Providing decent housing is still the most daunting built-environment challenge that the world faces. But in this architects have become either supine purveyors of trophy baubles, or part of the mincing machine turning out mass housing by the yard. That is, when not touring slums to imbibe their photogenic qualities of charming self-reliance. Mumbai, with a population of over 20 million and growing, neatly encapsulates all three conditions.


Spot the slum: Mumbai’s fetid informal settlements are overshadowed by newer regiments of battery housing | Viviane Moos/Corbis


From the sublime to the ridiculous: the world’s most expensive house (also in Mumbai) built for India’s richest man appears modelled on a gargantuan club sandwich. Among its essential modern conveniences are three helipads | Time Inc (UK)

Real icons: the Legend of St Ursula

Derived from the Greek word for image, the term ‘icon’ has become a lazy shorthand for what usually turns out to be vacuous, overbearing architecture. An icon originally meant a painted panel for religious contemplation, not the latest superstar monstrosity. We need to reclaim it, so here is an example of a real icon, the lovingly observed Legend of St Ursula by the great Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio.


Created for the Scuole di Sant’Orsola in Venice, Carpaccio’s exquisitely detailed cycle of paintings documents the life and death of St Ursula | Bridgeman Art


En route back from a pilgrimage to Rome, Ursula and her retinue were slaughtered by Attila, King of the Huns. Among the scrum you can discern the moment of Ursula’s martyrdom, at the hands of a splendidly camp archer | Bridgeman Art


The final painting in the cycle illustrates her apotheosis, borne victoriously heavenwards and crowned by a sextet of chubby seraphim | Bridgeman Art

Lead Image

Defiant among the ruins: the life of nomads, whether traditional desert dwellers or modern Travellers, now tends to be seen as either a burden or a threat to the ‘settled’ community


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