By extension, architectural designs or built-up spaces’ primary purpose is to support and encourage human social activities. Buildings are to be subservient to the needs of the people who use them. However, this is far from the truth because, in many situations, building users’ input is often not solicited when drawing up architectural plans. Sometimes, even when consulted, proper attention to necessary but straightforward details that one considers common and essential to our everyday living is often left unaddressed.
“Dignity and design are uniquely related… Dignity is to design what justice is to law and health is to medicine. We often overlook the impact that in the simplest of terms it’s about having the spaces you inhabit reflect back your value.” — John Cary.
In a TEDx-organized speech, John Cary talked about “How Architecture can create dignity for all.” He thoroughly exhausted what architecture and design should be to Human Dignity. One quote that summed up how we should experience Architects and their designs should is this: “… Dignity is to design what justice is to law and health is to medicine. We often overlook the impact that, in the simplest of terms, it’s about having the spaces you inhabit reflect back your value…” dignity is “nobility or elevation of character; worthiness.” In other words, the architects’ ability to plan spaces that elevate character and worthiness (i.e., spaces that add value to the individual).
In one of his stories during his talk, he talked about him and his wife in a hospital’s delivery room. As his wife laid on the obstetric table/bed, John describes the color of the wall and mentions the awkward orientation of the obstetric table. He illustrates how a wall clock in the room was positioned above the doorway, in the birthing mom’s direct line of vision as her contractions increase hour after hour. While some may tinker with the relevancy of these small details, his wife assures him thus that “… the last thing a birthing woman would ever want is to watch the seconds tick by…”
Cary told the story that even the nurse working in the bedroom had her own two cents to chime in on their discussion. Without any prompting, she turned to John and his wife and said, “…I always think to myself, I wish I had become an Architect because I could have designed rooms like this better.” The design of the delivery room in this story was uninspiring and badly misaligned with the purpose it was built for, to say the very least. Did the designers of the space put much thought into the psychosocial effect of their layout? Did they not follow the functional directions of the Building Type and Standards? That may have been the case, but it is all up for guessing at this point.
Architects must consider themselves a “tool” for the people’s mind, consciousness, and thoughts. Great architecture must not just focus on the essence of the design. It must attend to the wants, needs, feelings and pay attention to the nonverbal cues (e.g., aura and personality) of the people that will inhabit his design. The capacity to pay attention to psychosocial signals and users’ functional needs and translate them into the design distinguishes an ordinary Architect from a great architect. Architecture can improve the dignity of humankind when the functionality of the built environment becomes a top priority.
However, in today’s world, with a literacy rate of about 86.35%—the highest in the world’s history—it is pretty disheartening to see how our attention span has drastically reduced because of our attraction for glistening objects of little value. Architects are not automatically immune to this trend, as many are now concerned with creating beautiful facades with less emphasis on spaces’ functionality. Over time, there has been an increasing shift away from the core of design—upliftment of humankind and human dignity—to an obsession with creating flashy exteriors at the expense of function and dignity.
The design approach that focuses on the dazzling instead of the functional has eaten deeply into teaching architecture at learning institutions. Nowadays, there is an excessive focus on excessively ornate designs when it comes to rendering and the display of arrogantly striking facades. There is nothing wrong with pushing for highly appealing schemes; however, there must not be an absolute disregard for the individual needs and local conditions of those that will eventually inhabit the buildings. The focus should not be placed on the design’s extreme pleasantness while the essence of the design suffers. We should never relegate the design’s functional spatial arrangement, which is also paramount to the background. There should be a harmonious balance of appeal and functionality of all architectural plans. That is the essence of great architecture that exudes dignity.
“A people must have dignity and identity.” — Andrew Goodman.
Winston Churchill once said that “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” No one is immune to faulty designs. The effects and interactions of our built environment remain eternal. The above quote reminds architects of the consequences of design and how it can shape us individually and collectively. It also tells architects how our values should be adequately taken care of by our built-up spaces so that these spaces will enhance and shape our dignity over time. When the Architect places the essence of the design above everything else, the design will organically unravel itself in its’ purest form. In a way, the Architect needs to wear the prophetic hat (i.e., the foretelling or prediction of what is to come) by functionally thinking about the impact of the spaces they conjure from the design screen to the standing form.
6 Ways Architecture Could Improve the Dignity of Mankind
Thus far, we have seen that spaces that architects design has a psychosocial impact on the lives of those that dwell in them. Architects should never design without having functionality screaming at the back of their minds. They can help use spaces to improve the dignity (i.e., nobility or elevation of character; worthiness) of those that inhabit the spaces they design. We have also seen the drift towards ostentatious designs—that is, plans that primarily focus on attracting attention but neglecting functionality. There is nothing wrong with beautiful architecture with jaw-dropping aesthetics. Still, it must not overlook functionality (i.e., having or serving a utilitarian purpose—capable of performing the purpose of its design). Hence, to improve the dignity of humankind through architectural design, here are some key areas to consider:
#1. Gender Sensitivity
These days, for instance, it is the norm to see women stand in line to use the women’s public restroom. It has become so “normal,” or should I say, “casual,” that we no longer see anything wrong with this obvious flaw. It’s not a dignifying perspective to see ladies waiting on an endless queue to use the loo. Such a scenario only displays the designer’s carefree attitude to the comfort of the health and concerns of the gender of the users. Such is just one instance among many others. In other words, architects should pay attention to gender issues and find ways to dignify “gender” with their designs.
#2. Age Conscious
A design should show empathy to children and as well as the elderly. Plans should aim to instill a sense of confidence in the young. It should inspire a sense of trust in them to help and nudge them to explore. Doing so helps in building their psychosocial and motor skills. Designs should not be indifferent to age. Ever been to a 15-story house and the balcony rails’ height is just at the standard 3-feet (36inches or 900mm)? Such a balcony rail height may be a bit clumsy because its size is easily scalable by a curious two-year-old. An inconsiderate design that could quickly spell doom for a youngling, to say the very least. Apart from the young, architecture should also pay attention to the needs of the elderly. Hence, architects need to be conscious of age factors when they are designing.
Housing is one of the three most critical needs of man in conjunction with food and clothing. Even though we live in a cutting-edge era, where technology has seen the most exponential improvements and people own more homes than they would ever need. With an estimated global population of 7.8 billion people, it is shocking to note that 1.6 billion people (about 21%) lack adequate housing. There is nothing less dignifying than the unfortunate aspect of homeless people hopelessly sleeping in the open, exposed to the elements and countless other dangers. Architecture and a combination of reasonable collaborative efforts can restore dignity to the homeless. Achieving this can be done by building functional and affordable spaces that do not cheapen the outcomes of housing millions of homeless people one city at a time. Check out what CNN Hero Chris Stout, via his Veterans Community Project, is doing by providing homes for homeless veterans—salvaging man’s dignity.
#4. Culture and Location
As the world continues to evolve into a global village, more people are beginning to move from their primary places and comfort zone to explore other cultures. The colonial era was when the conqueror or colonizers disregarded the prevailing customs and norms of a people yet sought to foist their traditions on the conquered or colonized without any form of recourse to subsisting cultures. We hope that these times are now behind us—at least, that is our hopes. Nothing was dignifying about such an era. Even though this era may be gone, some of the then tactics and mindset deployed still feature prominently in today’s living. Architects are thoughtlessly borrowing forms, design flows, and spatial matrices from other cultures without considering the proposed location’s cultures and climatic conditions—creating designs with significant disparities with the proposed location.
Concerning accessibility, many changes are happening in this sphere, ranging from enacting city ordinances to ambulatory users of buildings. Although a lot is changing, we can still do more. A good design is of no benefit if it is only accessible to a privileged few. Housing is a fundamental human need, and everyone should have the opportunity of having a space they can call their own—this is dignifying, to say the very least. Hence, we must make all efforts to provide affordable and accessible housing for all—not slums—but dignified and livable homes. Another instance worth mentioning under accessibility is that there are now laws and acts, at least here in the United States of America, that have been put in place to allow for all architectural designs to be handicap accessible—a remarkable move nonetheless. Architects and designers alike should champion this cause in every design regardless of its scope and size. Architecture can improve humankind’s dignity if it seeks to connect with the health and welfare of all.
Value-driven architecture dignifies and uplifts all. Architecture thrives on accessibility, acceptance, and ownership. A good design will always consider its users’ needs—making the users feel valued, respected, seen, and heard. Architects can go a long way in adding value to the lives of the people who live in the designs or buildings they construct. They do so via the architectural design process that goes into the conceptualization of living spaces. Architects, through their designs, can lay the foundation of the society that brings people together. Hence, architects are agents for building value-driven relationships for a more dynamic culture.
Ironically, Mahatma Gandhi once said that “The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law, to the strength of the spirit.” As we have seen in the preceding paragraphs, Architecture can be that vehicle for promoting humankind’s dignity. By adopting the points mentioned above, we can set the new approach in motion. The approach, which is an “obedience to a higher law,” takes into cognizance the multiplicity of the myriad of challenges of today’s world without prejudice. Some of these challenges focus on ethnic or racial differences, urban inequalities, environmental hurdles, and economic disparities. Obeying the “higher law” will hinge on focusing solely on the human element’s common denominator and thinking and acting beyond the challenges. We are all human, and it is dignifying to recognize and respond to helping humanity sans bias.
“The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law, to the strength of the spirit.” — Mahatma Gandhi.
Architects must choose to look closely at how designs will be more community-centered for architecture to improve humanity’s dignity. With this notion in mind, we will have to consider these challenges at a more individualistic level. We must address each issue to improve the relationship between the built environment and the ensuing community it creates—by reducing or eliminating unnecessary thoughtless hurdles. We can achieve such action when Architects begin to re-educate themselves by paying closer attention to the human element—the people—and see them as distinct individuals with unique needs. In this way, architects can design and build mindfully—“to the strength of a new spirit”—this way, societies can be planned/designed and constructed to improve humankind’s dignity.