Humanizing the built environment


There’s an interesting article by Chris Holbrook in The New York Times which explores the reasons why airports are “built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?” Even the shiny, new airports designed by high-profile starchitects – “the cathedrals of the 21st century” as Holbrook puts it – suffer from poor sensory experience, from ambient noise to glare to uncomfortable furniture. 

The remedy prescribed by Holbrook is for architects “to spend more of their creative energies on the traveler’s experience”. Furthermore, the “platoon of specialists” required to actually design and build the airport – the interior designers, surveyors, and specialized engineering firms (lighting, structural, landscaping, HVAC, etc.) – most of whom are even less concerned with the passenger’s comfort than architects are, also need to focus on the traveler’s experience.

Take, for example, the airport in my city, the Toronto Pearson International Airport. The recent renovations are nice overall: the wayfinding signage has improved, there’s some nice art exhibits, lots of high-quality daylight. Unfortunately, the most memorable part of the airport’s renovations is the miserable design of the waiting lounge and restaurant area. Why? Because they installed iPads – over 2,400 of them – at every single seat. The area is now an electronic forest of glowing rectangles. You can still talk to your fellow travelers, as long as you don’t mind having a glowing screen in your face selling you junk. The company responsible for deploying this sensory nightmare insists that it allows passengers to “customize and control the experience they want” (although “customizing” them out of the picture altogether is obviously not part of the experience they allow.)1

Airports are by no means alone on this. They are merely a symptom of the wider failure that architecture, engineering, and urban planning has suffered over the past few decades: a failure of humanism in the built environment. Our buildings and cities have become alienating, inhumane and dehumanizing spaces that are totally out of scale with human reality. Public spaces are now more likely to cater to corporatization and privatization than to humanization.

There are the usual suspects: 160+ storey behemoth glass skyscrapers vaulting out of the Arabian desert; car-oriented suburbs across North America; obnoxious visual pollution that inundates not just the Times Squares of the world, but seemingly every commercial space that retailers, advertisers and marketers can wriggle their way into.

But there are also thousands of other lesser-known and subtler crimes that mar human experience and civic beauty: offices and retail spaces that in mid-July are made to feel colder than a Mongolian winter; expansive concrete plazas littered not with garbage, but with a series of infrastructure eyesores; escalators made more accessible than stairs. Even the industry lingo used to describe people is oddly dehumanizing and detached: “occupant comfort”, “tenant satisfaction”, “building inhabitant”.

It’s time for the practice of architecture, engineering, and urban planning to become more humanistic. By this I mean that the human element needs to be reintroduced to their (our) work and made central. We have an obligation and commitment to making buildings for people (and the environment at large), not for technology. Technology is fine, as long as it’s used as a means to this end, not as an end in itself. Technologies and designs that are superfluous or distract us from this aim should be criticized and dismissed. As Einstein wrote in 1931, “Concern for the man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours.”

I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the topic of humanizing the built environment, and I hope to write more about it in the future.



[1] Before I’m labelled an out-of-touch elitist, let me say that I do recognize how, when put in a different perspective, these are all only minor inconveniences for the privilege of being hurtled through the air to the other side of the planet in under seven hours, all in the convenience of a window seat. Comedian Louis CK said it best when he ranted against the complaints about air travel so prevalent in our society: “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”. (Then again, Louis CK also brilliantly criticized cell phones and technology.)

Further reading:

The Role of Beauty in Green Design: “Pulchraphilia” – How Aesthetics and Good Design Improve Performance by Jason F. McLennan

The Power of Good Design: Beauty as a Force for Change by Jason F. McLennan

A Manifesto for Conscious Cities by Itai Palti

14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment 

Relativism and Urban Planning by Alain de Botton

Photo Credit: Angie Harms