Friday, December 23, 2011

Can an Architect Be a Humanist?

In 1984, author and playwright Robertson Davies gave the David Coit Gilman Lecture to an audience largely consisting of doctors and medical students at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution. Davies entitled the lecture "Can a Doctor Be a Humanist?," raising questions about the nature of the medical profession and the potential tension between the doctor's allegiance to largely impersonal medical science, on the one hand, and the doctor's role as healer with a magical, personal touch, on the other. The text of this lecture can be found in a collection of Davies' work published posthumously.

The Caduceus, the snake-entwined staff that symbolizes medical practice, is invoked by Davies as the illustration of this tension, with the right-hand snake being Knowledge and the opposing left-hand snake, Wisdom. To the doctor, Knowledge is the outwardly obtained and applied science, the results of laboratory experimentation, and clinical studies of large numbers patients. In opposition resides Wisdom, an introverted element that looks "not at the disease, but at the bearer of the disease [italics mine]," and comes from within. It is Wisdom that establishes the link between patient and healer, allowing the patient and her condition to "speak" and for the healer to listen. For the purposes of his lecture, Davies renamed the snakes of the caduceus as Science and Humanism and posed the title question to point out that the medical profession seems to be increasingly and overwhelmingly concerned with science.

Davies goes on to describe something he calls "doctor psychology," characterizing doctors as loners and naturally suspicious of cooperative efforts. Doctors are Heroes with a drive to conquer and rule without interference, reinforced by the natural tendency of the patient to view the physician as a god, with power over life and death. This is where Wisdom, or Humanism, has the potential to make a difference - allowing the patient and the true nature of things to speak. Sometime the diagnosis has little relationship to the actual emergent illness and is linked to underlying issues. Davies cites a personal example of a wise doctor treating his severe cold symptoms with probing questions into the stresses within Davies' life, ultimately revealing an underlying issue related to his work. Wisdom determines the difference between "a first-rate healer and a capable technician."

This leads me to the question the architect. I believe that there is an "architect psychology" that, despite the pervasive invocation of "collaboration" within the profession, is based on a similar kind of hero archetype. The architect, armed with specialized knowledge, is all too often engaged in the practice of "conquer and rule," with a patronizing approach towards all who might "interfere." Although there is no doubt that lifelong design education and experience provide unique perspectives, are architects viewing the world through a lens with a balanced filter - with Knowledge and Wisdom held appropriately tensioned?

The term "humanism" is often associated with the rejection of theistic religion and the supernatural in exchange for a secular worldview that celebrates human achievement. Despite the historical precedent for this association, Davies is careful to direct his usage of the term to the broader meaning, that of "an ethical system that centers on humans ans their values, needs, interests, abilities, dignity and freedom." For the architect, being a humanist in this sense does not mean the Howard Roark model of architect-as-hero or any other kind of Randian elevation of the individual to god-like status. If anything is to be elevated, it is to be the values and spirit of the people that are touched by the architect's work. And these qualities are accessible only through listening and observing through the lens of Wisdom.

Like the diagnostician's approach to a patient, the architect has an obligation to gather the elements that influence a design. Perhaps the architect can cultivate an approach that looks beyond the obvious and reveals the underlying issues, tapping into the humanity of those served, and thereby avoiding the "heroic" treatment of symptoms.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Re-roofing in Haiti - House #2

Continuing the series on my recent trip to Haiti...

At the same time the construction team was re-roofing house #1, another part of the team was prepping house #2. You can see a map of the location of both houses here. All photos are by Kyle Lamy except as noted. You can see Kyle's complete set of construction photos here. Don't miss Kyle's other Haitian photos here that are available for purchase. (All proceeds benefit the Haitian people.)

Photo credit: Moore
House #2 was typical of the many structures that remain incomplete for various reasons. 

In this case, the property owner is a woman with several children and extended family members living in a makeshift shelter constructed of tarps and sheets of corrugated metal.

However, her property also contained the beginnings of a house, with concrete block walls open to the sky...

...and a dirt floor covered in rubble.

The first step was to create a suitable floor, casting site-mixed concrete over the rubble. Parker demonstrates how to mix concrete in triathlon wear while Jacob, one of our amazing Haitian co-workers supervises. (The family's make-shift shelter is visible in the background.)

The floor begins its transformation under the direction of Fenel (in red shirt), our other Haitian coworker. (The man in the blue shirt was a local volunteer.)

And, the floor complete.

Photo credit: Moore
On the next day and after some minor block work by our friends Jacob and Fenel, we constructed a roof over the concrete block walls.

Like House #1, the roof was built from new corrugated metal over rafters and purlins of wood.

And the final result - a much improved (albeit still primitive) shelter for the family.

Here is the construction team at House #2 with the family.