“A people must have dignity and identity.” — Andrew Goodman
“The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law, to the strength of the spirit.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“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
Arch of Dignity, Equality, and Justice on the grounds of San Jose State University, San Francisco Bay Area, CA
By extension, the primary purpose of architectural designs or built up spaces 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, the input of building users is often not solicited when architectural plans are drawn up. Sometimes, even when they are consulted, proper attention to simple, but necessary details that one considers common and essential to our everyday living, are often left unaddressed.
John Cary, in a TEDx organized speech, gave a talk titled “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 Architects and their designs should be experienced was 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 ability of architects 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 the delivery room of a hospital. 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 direct line of vision of the birthing mom 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…”
In the story that Cary told, 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. Did the designers of the space put much thought in 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 as a “tool” for the mind, consciousness, and thoughts of the people. 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 the functional needs of users and translating them into the design is what distinguishes an ordinary Architect from a great architect. Architecture can improve the dignity of mankind 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 history of the world—it is quite disheartening to see how our attention span has drastically reduced because of our attraction for glistening objects of minor value. Architects are not automatically immune to this trend as many are now concerned with creating beautiful facades with less emphasis on functionality of spaces. Over time, there has been an increasing shift away from the core of design—upliftment of mankind and human dignity—to an obsession with creating flashy exteriors, at the expense of function and dignity.
The approach to design that focuses on the dazzling instead of the functional has eaten deeply into the teaching of architecture at institutions of learning. Nowadays, there is an excessive focus on designs that are excessively ornate when it comes to rendering and the display of arrogantly flashy facades. There is nothing wrong with pushing for schemes that are highly appealing; 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 excessive pleasantness of the design while the essence of the design suffers. The functional spatial arrangement of the design is also paramount and must not be relegated 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.
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. Architects are reminded in this quote of the consequences of design, and how it can shape us both individually and collectively. It also tells architects of how our values should be adequately taken care of by our built-up spaces so that these spaces will over time enhance and shape our dignity. When the Architect places the essence of the design above everything else, the design will organically unravel itself in its’ purest form to the Architect. In a way, the architect needs to wear the hat of the prophetic (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. By so doing, they can help in using spaces in improving the dignity (i.e., nobility or elevation of character; worthiness) of those that inhabit the spaces that 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, but it must not overlook functionality (i.e., having or serving a utilitarian purpose—capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed). Hence, to improve the dignity of mankind 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. This only displays the carefree attitude of the designer to the comfort of the health and concerns of the gender of the users. This is just one instance among many others. In other words, it is imperative that architects need to 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. Designs 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. This helps in building their psychosocial and motor skills. Designs should not be indifferent to age. Ever been on a 15-story house and the height of the balcony rails is just at the standard 3-feet (36inches or 900mm)? To be honest, this may just be a bit clumsy because it is a height scalable by a curious two-year-old. An inconsiderate design that could quickly spell the 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.
#3. Shelter: Housing is one of the three most critical need of man in conjunction with food and clothing. Even though we live 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 7.6 billion people, it is shocking to note that 1.6 billion people (about 21%) lack adequate housing. There is nothing less dignifying than the unfavorable aspect of homeless people hopelessly sleeping in the open, exposed to the elements and other countless dangers. Architecture and a combination of sound collaborative efforts can restore dignity to the homeless. This can be done by building functional, and affordable spaces that do not cheapen the outcomes, with the goal 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 the dignity of man.
#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 a time 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 cultures and climatic conditions of the proposed location—creating designs with significant disparities with the proposed location.
Architectural Eclecticism—Architecture landmark—Morozov’s residence built in 1899 in Moscow, Russia
#5. Accessibility: Although this is gradually changing, a lot more can still be done. 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 absolutely dignifying to say the very least. Hence, all efforts must be made to provide affordable housing for all—not slums—but homes that are dignified and livable. 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 the dignity of mankind if it seeks to connect with the health and welfare of all.
#6. Value-driven: Architecture that is value-driven dignifies and uplifts all. Architecture thrives on accessibility, acceptance, and ownership. A good design will always take into consideration the needs of its users—making the users feel valued, respected, seen, and heard. Through the architectural design process that goes into the conceptualization of the living spaces, Architects can go a long way in adding value to the lives of the people that will potentially live in their designs or buildings after they are constructed. 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 the dignity of mankind, and by adopting the aforementioned points, the new approach can be set in motion. An approach—“obedience to a higher law”—which takes into cognizance the multiplicity of the myriad of challenges of today’s world without prejudice. Some of these challenges are centered on ethnic or racial differences, urban inequalities, environmental hurdles, and economic disparities. Obeying the “higher law” will hinge on focusing solely on the common denominator of the human element and thinking and acting beyond the challenges. We are all human, and it is dignifying to recognize and respond to helping humanity sans bias.
For architecture to improve the dignity of mankind, Architects must choose to look closely at how designs will be more community-centered. With this notion in mind, these challenges will have to be considered at a more individualistic level, and each issue addressed with the purpose of improving the relationship between the built environment and the ensuing community it creates—by reducing or perhaps eliminating all the unnecessary thoughtless hurdles. This can be achieved 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 built with the aim of improving the dignity of mankind.