Jul 27, 2023

not a philosophy of architecture

My Design Tactics and the Human Body course will look at the assisted body over the life span, and I’m trying to articulate some organizing principles that we can use over the semester to evaluate, and re-evaluate, the first-order ideas that arise from the body in its many contexts. Right now I think I want students to consider, in our readings and visits and with guests:

A philosophy of the city. Here I mean the polis, but not merely politics. What is the shared enduring project of the city? We’ll visit old ideas and new ones alike.

An anthropology of the human. We’ll talk about the animal body and its biological needs, but we’ll also need to ask a separate question: What are people for? What is happiness versus flourishing? Where are the goods of liberty and autonomy, and what ends do those goods make possible?

A probing look at dignity. Human dignity is one of those unassailable ideas that many of us claim as common sense. But what meta-ethics makes the ground for dignity? To what would we appeal for its social claims?

I don’t really mean a philosophy of architecture as much as architecture (and design) that gets us to philosophy. To the how-should-we-live questions. Instead of starting and ending in the midrange principles of design in context (fairness, integrity, sustainability), I’m looking for ways to go right to the heart of the matter(s).

So we’ll read and discuss, but we’ll also have student-led examinations of what my friend Lisa Brawley taught me to call “stuff in the room.” We talk about a bunch of ideas in the abstract, and then we gather 3-5 objects in the built world to do a side by side examination. What is this object’s (or environment’s) history? What is its material language? What kinds of histories does it evoke or reference? Who is it designed for? I often supply a couple of word banks to students to help get them going in this enterprise. What are a design’s qualities and what are students’ attendant reactions to those qualities? Is the structure monumental, delicate, imposing, warm and approachable? Or clinical and severe? Are you invited or reproached by the space? How is it operating as what environmental psychologists call an “action setting”: a combination of mostly tacit cues as to what’s going on there, what’s possible and what’s forbidden?

And the features of assessment will be 1) reading quizzes (doing this for the first time!), 2) a couple of quick design experiments (short turnarounds and modest proposals are better than big extended projects, I find), 3) a “learning archive” built as a digital deck after every class, and a 4) midsemester and final assignment that I’m still figuring out.

I’ve got lots of sources on the month of time we’ll be looking at disability, but I’m actively researching sources for birth and death right now. A mix of material culture scholarship and philosophical works like Jennifer Banks’s Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth, Susana Moreira Marques’s Now and At the Hour of Our Death, the work of Anne Finger, Katherine Watson, Atul Gawande, a bunch of healthcare design, and much more. Do reach out if you have ideas!