Design for an Empathic World: Reconnecting People, Nature, and Self

Design for an Empathic World: Reconnecting People, Nature, and Self

by Sim Van der Ryn
     
 

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Despite an uncertain economy, the market for green building is exploding. The US green building market has expanded dramatically since 2008 and is projected to double in size by 2015 (from $42 billion in construction starts to $135 billion). But green-building pioneer Sim Van der Ryn says, “greening” our buildings is not enough.  He advocates for …  See more details below

Overview


Despite an uncertain economy, the market for green building is exploding. The US green building market has expanded dramatically since 2008 and is projected to double in size by 2015 (from $42 billion in construction starts to $135 billion). But green-building pioneer Sim Van der Ryn says, “greening” our buildings is not enough.  He advocates for “empathic design”, in which a designer not only works in concert with nature, but with an understanding of and empathy for the end user and for ones self.  It is not just one of these connections, but all three that are necessary to design for a future that is more humane, equitable, and resilient.

Sim’s lifelong focus has been in shifting the paradigm in architecture and design. Instead of thinking about design primarily in relation to the infrastructure we live in and with—everything from buildings to wireless routing—he advocates for a focus on the people who use and are affected by this infrastructure. Basic design must include a real understanding of human ecology or end-user preferences. Understanding ones motivations and spirituality, Sim believes, is critical to designing with empathy for natural and human communities.

In Design for an Empathic World Van der Ryn shares his thoughts and experience about the design of our world today. With a focus on the strengths and weaknesses in our approach to the design of our communities, regions, and buildings he looks at promising trends and projects that demonstrate how we can help create a better world for others and ourselves. Architects, urban designers, and students of architecture will all enjoy this beautifully illustrated book drawing on a rich and revered career of a noted leader in their field. The journey described in Design for an Empathic World will help to inspire change and foster the collaboration and thoughtfulness necessary to achieve a more empathic future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/16/2013
Advocating a holistic approach to all aspects of living, “green architecture” pioneer Van der Ryn (Ecological Design) draws a sharp distinction between the veneer of “green” design and the actual art of designing ecologically. His wide-ranging approach, illustrated here with his own watercolors, unfortunately suffers from a meandering presentation. Van der Ryn calls for synthesizing the physical and psychological needs of the occupants with the natural features and limitations of the landscape—a blend he calls “empathic design.” At his most succinct, he offers detailed outlines of how designers should approach architectural sites, working with the landscape, and accommodating natural light and water availability for maximum energy efficiency. From the environmental impact of building materials to the disconnect between designers and dwellers, the author effectively, often poetically, conveys his message. Perhaps too poetically, because as the book veers from acronym-heavy examples of agencies and organizations working in ecological design to quotations from Deepak Chopra, its underlying principles become muddled and increasingly esoteric. Inspiring, and beautifully expressed as they are, the author’s argument that humanity needs to connect spiritually with its environment in order to realize a deeper inner life seems too subjective to dovetail with architecture’s demands for objective reality. Full-color illus. (Oct.)
Point Reyes Light

"In its pages, Mr. Van der Ryn turns inward to the thoughts and feelings underlying his work as it has evolved over a lifetime."
Reference & Research Book News

"...[suggests] ways to create a better world that focuses on the people who use and are affected by the infrastructure, as well as the need to reconnect design to human and natural elements."
Planning

"...tells his personal story while also arguing for collaborating with people and nature..."
A Weekly Dose of Architecture
"Not everybody willing to change their inner self will have the same path as Sim Van der Ryn, but by sharing his story he's given them something enjoyable to read (and look at, with his watercolors that are sprinkled throughout the book) while they search for their own paths."
Design Affects

"What I noticed at the heart of this book—that I have yet to read in other architecture books—is an exploration into identifying personal intention behind design endeavors."
ia at Berkeley

 “With great wisdom and lucidity, Sim Van der Ryn illuminates our world, bestowing his insights into design and gracing us with his extraordinary art. A tour de force that leaves the reader with a deeper sense of the possibilities for beauty in our lives and sustainable living on our planet.”
A Daily Dose of Architecture

"Not everybody willing to change their inner self will have the same path as Sim Van der Ryn, but by sharing his story he's given them something enjoyable to read (and look at, with his watercolors that are sprinkled throughout the book) while they search for their own paths."
Jonathan F. P. Rose

"In Design for an Empathic World, Sim Van Der Ryn weaves the architecture of empathy for self, others and nature into a vibrant, compassionate whole. Brimming with gratitude, Van Der Ryn tells stories from his life as an architect, teacher and thought leader. His lesson, that only with empathy can we repair the fabric of humans and nature."
Jonathan F.P. Rose
"In Design for an Empathic World, Sim Van Der Ryn weaves the architecture of empathy for self, others and nature into a vibrant, compassionate whole. Brimming with gratitude, Van Der Ryn tells stories from his life as an architect, teacher and thought leader. His lesson, that only with empathy can we repair the fabric of humans and nature."
author of Blessed Unrest - Paul Hawken

"In Design for an Empathic World, Sim Van Der Ryn lays out timeless principles of how to become a true denizen of a living planet. His humane and insightful grasp of nature and society, expressed in this lyric and beautifully illustrated work, reveal Sim to be a treasured and iconic master of the craft of design and architecture."
Founder + Executive Director, Project H Design - Emily Pilloton

"Designers of my generation leave academia searching for ways to make their practice meaningful beyond themselves. Design for an Empathic World is a field guide for a new creative journey, written and illustrated by a wise 'sherpa' who I have long looked to for answers. It makes the case for architecture as an act of love, a peaceful defiance, and a constant response to economy, environment, and society."
Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley - Robert B. Reich

"With great wisdom and lucidity, Sim Van der Ryn illuminates our world, bestowing his insights into design and gracing us with his extraordinary art. A tour de force that leaves the reader with a deeper sense of the possibilities for beauty in our lives and sustainable living on our planet."
LEED AP, Michelle Kaufmann Studio - Michelle Kaufmann

"In this evocative and rich journey, the lessons that Sim shares with us are significant, inspiring, and create fertile ground for a beautiful reframing of the future. Design for an Empathic World is like a love letter to architects, artists, dreamers and all who enjoy making and inhabiting place."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781610914260
Publisher:
Island Press
Publication date:
10/03/2013
Pages:
192
Sales rank:
1,397,753
Product dimensions:
8.40(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Design for an Empathic World

Reconnecting People, Nature, and Self


By Sim Van der Ryn, Francine Allen

ISLAND PRESS

Copyright © 2013 Sim Van der Ryn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-505-2



CHAPTER 1

Introduction


The salvation of the human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility.

—Václav Havel


In the fall of 2008 after the beginnings of the financial meltdown on Wall Street, I started getting frantic calls and e-mails from both young and seasoned architects who'd been laid off and also a smaller number of communications from people who worked on Wall Street—mostly young but also some more senior people. I'm not sure why they contacted me—the architects might have known about me or read my books—certainly not the Wall Streeters, whom I did ask, "Why are you calling me?" Their answer was that they were referred to me by mutual friends.

My response took me back to backpacking experiences. Occasionally, when I was backpacking alone in western wilderness mountain areas, I would get lost. I had maps but GPS was yet to be invented. My first response was panic. Then I would sit down quietly and breathe slowly into my core, a place I now call "the inner self"—a sanctuary to go into when one is in difficult times. I would breathe, shut down my frantic mind, and follow the wordless intuition, which emerged from deep within my core.

My reply to those who contacted me was, "When you feel lost, throw away your mental maps and find a safe place, a sanctuary within yourself where your deepest self and inner truth lives." Some of my correspondents would stutter and end the conversation right there. Others would ask if they could visit me at my home on the rural coast of Northern California, and I met with quite a few.

I suddenly found myself acting as a life guide. Why was I willing to do this? I'm a member of the "Lucky Generation" born during the Great Depression of the 1930s who came into the workforce in the 1950s as America began a period of tremendous expansion and growth following World War II. When I graduated with a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Michigan in 1958, I had lots of job offers, and not because I had been an exceptional student. Gordon Bunshaft, chief of design at Skidmore Owings and Merrill, then the top corporate firm in the country, offered me a job in New York. Touring the drafting room, I was dazed by the sight of more than a hundred men in white shirts and ties hunched over their drafting boards.

This was not for me. I flew to San Francisco and found many smaller offices that were hiring. After a few years completing my internship, I started teaching in the architecture program at the University of California, Berkeley, and also started an office with a high school friend from New York, Sanford Hirshen. In my academic career, I was mentored in my work by department chairs and deans who were very supportive of my interests, even though they didn't fit into the mainstream architectural program at the time. Our young firm did significant work in low-cost and innovative housing and we had great clients.

When the calls came in from desperate young architects in 2008, I knew it was time to do what I could for other designers who did not live in a time as generous, optimistic, and supportive of innovation as my contemporaries and I had.

I feel gratitude toward an empathic older generation that nurtured and guided me as a young architect and teacher. My generation and the post-World War II baby boomers that followed have the opportunity to enable today's younger generation in their lives, which are more difficult than ours were. That is a task we should be grateful to accept as our legacy to a younger generation. As we get older, we hopefully feel ourselves more deeply living the truth of our inner selves; and sharing that with a new generation is something we can give to those who will follow us.

In this book, I share my thoughts and experience about the design of our world today. I focus on both the strengths and the weaknesses in our approach to the design of our communities, regions, and buildings with a critical eye and suggest how we can help create a better world for others and ourselves. Mine has been a long journey. As Steve Jobs said, "You can only connect [the dots] looking backwards." The biggest lessons I've learned relate to caring for others and being true to myself. Carlos Casteneda once said, "Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask ourselves this crucial question: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then the path is good. If it doesn't then it is of no use to us."

My lifetime focus has been shifting the paradigm in architecture and design. We now think of design primarily in relation to the infrastructure we live in and with: buildings, transportation, automobiles and highways, trains and buses, airplanes and airports, oil and natural gas lines, electricity, water and sewer systems, phones, computers, TV and radios. There is little focus on the people who use and are affected by this infrastructure. There is still little thought given within design professions to how someone will use a space or a building. The design brief or program is generally prepared by the client and defined mostly in terms of square foot requirements for different uses. Basically, design leaves out any real understanding of human ecology or end-user preferences. How many office workers would voluntarily choose to spend their working lives in windowless cubicles? Although it seems like common sense, the field of post-occupancy evaluation that I helped to found in the 1970s is still not broadly accepted. Post-occupancy evaluation uses observation and interviews as tools to uncover how occupants actually use and respond to the designed environments they live and work in.

This disconnect from end use allows designers to design without empathy for humans, to separate the work from themselves, and still too often, to design without empathy for the natural environment. It is not just one of these connections, but all three—to self, to others, and to nature—that are necessary to design for a future that is more humane, equitable, and resilient.

At a time when the gap between the wealthy and the poor is expanding, we're faced with the possibility of peak oil, increasing incidents of human-induced as well as natural disasters (many as a result of or exacerbated by climate change), and challenges to strong in-person community networks brought about by more time in cyberspace than public space. We need to takes steps to reconnect design to the human and natural elements that are being lost at great expense. Design is much more than ratios, regulations, and beautiful 3D models. The way we approach design has implications for human and natural networks and the future of our planet.

Integrating the design of human systems and natural systems for the benefit of humans and the living world is ecological design, an important addition to our design toolbox. (This is the topic of one of my earlier books, Ecological Design, with Stuart Cowan.) But including the very important integration of connection to humans (self and others) is what I am calling empathic design. Empathy is learned and practiced through direct experience and awareness that there is life beyond the physical, material world.

A silent player in design is the structure of the human brain, which has not changed since humans joined the earth. Our brains are wired so we can instantly respond to immediate short-term threats, but not to long-term threats that we cannot experience directly. Empathic design implies thinking ahead, integrating probable future risks such as oceans rising, temperatures rising, soils declining in fertility, chemical pollution of water. Empathic design should consider both the precautionary principle as well as the law of unintended consequences.

Many people are not aware they have an inner self that shelters their deepest truths. We live in a fast-moving information-overload culture where people are encouraged to project their image of themselves, their persona—in the workplace and through social media.

MIT technology scientist Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other takes a hard look at how new technologies designed to bring us closer together are driving us further from each other and from ourselves. We don't find our deeper inner selves on our smart phones, texting, social networks, or in Internet conferences.

I'm not suggesting that we return to the Stone Age, but that we understand the implications of technology on design and community. New technology has provided enormous benefits to design and facilitated the creation of communities online as well as in person. But online communities and our thirst for a constant stream of information on a device should not replace human interaction. It was the mechanization of the world that separated design from its human and natural roots, and part of the reason design is now faced with a pressing need to become more humane—to become empathic.

When did design enter the human story? Early humans made simple tools of stone and wood to pound plants and seeds to eat, kill game for food, skin animal hides for clothing, make fire, and paint themselves and their caves with pictures of animals. Agriculture is the mother of architecture. Agriculture created hierarchical systems of power and control that served wealth and power, and five thousand years later, that is still architecture's major purpose and client base.

Sigfried Giedion's monumental work Mechanization Takes Command meticulously examines the history of mechanization and its effects. He begins with designs to eliminate handcraft in building, agriculture, and homemaking. He recounts the development of the mass assembly line, created first to disassemble pigs and cattle, and later to assemble automobiles. The book was published in 1948, before today's totally computerized robotic assembly lines. The larger picture we are left with is that the design of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Industrial Revolution resulted in the disassembly of the living organic world and the assembly of a mechanical world.

How do we reassemble or reconnect the built world to the human and natural worlds? Change in our design professions and practice, and in all of our institutions will come when enough people have empathy for other people and all forms of life. In Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan, Don Juan instructs his students to walk as long as it takes in the desert until they find their spot, the place where they feel truly at home. I used this same approach in community design projects located in natural landscapes, instructing participants to walk in silence until they found the place that felt best to them. Usually, after some hours, we'd find people clustered in the same place—an example of discovering an empathic relation between self and place in nature.

In this book I do not address specific solutions for reforming society's institutions. My hope is that my journey and experience can provide inspiration and a path for moving toward more empathic design.

I follow this chapter with a focus on the practice of human-centered design, which was very much in focus during the social revolution of the 1960s and since then largely neglected. Following that, I explore design education, its strengths and weaknesses, and call for integrating hands-on design experiences early into a child's education. Next, I discuss nature-centered design, which is finally being welcomed as vital to responsible design today. That leads to a discussion of the possible opportunities for moving toward more empathic design. I close with a view of the journey toward one's inner self, where we each find our deepest truth and fullest heart.

I hope that this book will inspire collaboration within and across disciplines—that it will help to foster the collaboration and thoughtfulness necessary to achieve a more empathic future.

Ernest Callenbach, the author of Ecotopia, who died in the spring of 2012, left a wise and beautiful epistle on his computer shortly before his death. These excerpts capture the challenges and the hope for our future. "We are facing a century or more of exceedingly difficult times.... We live in a dark time here on our tiny precious planet. Ecological devastation, political and economic collapse, irreconcilable ideological and religious conflict, poverty, famine: the end of the overshoot of cheap oil based consumer capitalist expansionism.... How will those who survive manage it? What can we teach our friends, our children, our communities? Although we may not be capable of changing history, how can we equip ourselves to survive it? Hope. Children exude hope, even under the most terrible conditions, and that must inspire us as our conditions get worse.... Mutual support. The people who do best at basic survival skills are cooperative, good at teamwork, altruistic, mindful of the common good.... Thinking together is enormously creative; it has huge survival value."

CHAPTER 2

Human-Centered Design


The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.

—Cesar Chavez


In 1964, President Johnson pushed through the Economic Opportunity Act, the centerpiece of the War on Poverty. Governor Pat Brown appointed Dr. Paul O'Rourke, a longtime advocate for improving farmworker living conditions, as director of the new agency, California Office of Economic Opportunity. O'Rourke chose as its highest priority improving housing, health care, and child care for migrant farm labor families in California's Central Valley, where most of the US vegetable crops are grown. He retained my partner Sanford Hirshen and me to plan, design, and build facilities for migrant farmworker housing, health and child care in twenty-two rural counties. There were no building codes for farmworker housing. How could you write a code for families camping out under a bridge, sleeping in their cars, or living in an abandoned shack where a labor contractor stuffed as many workers as possible? Our assignment was not only to design and build the facilities, but also to find and secure the sites, which neither the counties nor the farmers were eager to provide. The industry needed tens of thousands of workers during the growing season and harvest times, but they didn't want them living in their backyards.

We searched for suitable building systems for both housing and separate health care and child care facilities. We also had to design infrastructure for each 100-home camp, including electricity, water, and sewer lines. We came up with a simple, straightforward system for the homes. We took two sheets of plywood, bonded them to a two-inch slab of Styrofoam, placed a two-by-four at either end, and we had a simple sturdy system for walls and roof. We didn't know it at the time, but we had invented the first version of what are now known as SIP, or structurally integrated panels, and widely used in high-performance building projects. We provided each family with living and sleeping space, bath, and kitchen at a cost of less than $5 per square foot.

Between 1964 and 1974, we designed and built thirty-three camps to shelter migrant farmworkers and their families in California. Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy's brother-in-law and director of the nationwide OEO program, and Robert Kennedy both visited the camps with great interest. Farmworker leader Cesar Chavez was in favor of farmworkers developing their own communities, and we supported that effort. Yet, forty years later, in spite of these efforts and interest from high-profile political figures, the lack of suitable housing, health care, and child care for service workers remains a largely unresolved problem across the country. While advances have been made in some aspects of human-centered design, more significant changes in the field of architecture may be necessary to become truly empathic.

Richard Farson, a psychologist, founder of the California Institute of the Arts and former board member of the American Institute of Architects, forthrightly addresses the issue of architects' seeming unwillingness to become advocates for users of their products. In his 2008 book The Power of Design, which was praised by many leaders in the design fields, Farson asks, "Is design a profession or a business? I think most designers would answer 'both' because they are not aware of the differences, let alone any ethical incompatibility between the two. Because in recent years architecture and design have become far more business than profession and because designers believe the corporate world is where their financial futures lie, they have come to share the values of that world. No longer do they expect to fulfill the social responsibilities they may once have cared about most. The results of our designs almost always affect the public, and so the consequences of any such compromise are actually borne by the public. As currently practiced, architecture and design are not essential because they are more business than profession."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Design for an Empathic World by Sim Van der Ryn, Francine Allen. Copyright © 2013 Sim Van der Ryn. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author


Sim Van der Ryn is President of The Ecological Design Collaborative, a design and consulting practice providing comprehensive services though the non-profit Ecological Design Institute established in 1969. He has been at the forefront of integrating ecological principles into the built environment, creating multi-scale solutions driven by nature’s intelligence for over 40 years. Sim has served as California’s first energy-conscious State Architect, authored seven influential books, including Ecological Design, and won numerous honors and awards for his leadership and innovation in architecture and planning including a Fellowship of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts (1997); Rockefeller Scholar in Residence, Bellagio, Italy (1997 and 2013); a Commendation for Excellence in Technology, California Council American Institute of Architects (1981); and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1971). He is an adjunct architecture faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley.

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