Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment
The Architecture of Exile
All three books under review, though each in a quite different way, are concerned with man’s loss of a religious attitude toward his environment. They seem to imply that the end of the old cosmologies and the weakening of the old religions have deprived us of the power to situate ourselves in relation to the moving forces of the universe. Losing hold on man’s place in the cosmos has had, they say, disintegrating effects on the way we make our local habitats. According to Joseph Rykwert, “We have lost all the beautiful certainty about the way the world works.” For him this has had especially deplorable results for our cities, which have lost the religious defenses against disorder and squalor enjoyed by their predecessors in the ancient world. He sees the religious and cultural traditions that preserved the buildings and cities of ancient and medieval civilization as irreparably destroyed:
The arbitrary forms thrown up by harassed planners and architects are evolved on an irrational residue, motivated by unstated spiritual as well as aesthetic prejudice whose very irrationality contributes further to the instability of the community.
E.V. Walter holds the more optimistic position that “the archaic way of seeing, thinking and caring is not lost,” although he thinks that science, and especially social science, has gone a long way toward destroying it. Stanley Tigerman, the most pessimistic of the three, and the closest to revealed religion, is gloomy about our prospects for recovering spiritual health. He thinks that the kind of search for origins that the other two authors have pursued is doomed to failure, and that the only way forward is through scrupulous, devout attention to biblical texts. Or so I interpret his message, which is put in language that I find far from clear.
E.V. Walter’s Placeways is the most attractive and accessible of the three books under review, although the philosophy on which its conclusions are based is hard to accept in detail. Walter discusses prehistoric caves, Renaissance cities, and modern slums, among many other places, all by way of expounding a “holistic” theory of the way people authentically experience the places they live. He maintains that
in ordinary life, some people still do grasp a place as a whole through a balanced experience of intellect, common sense, feeling, and imagination. Our technical languages, however, do not express the unity and coherence of this holistic experience, which gets factored away by geography, local history, architecture, city planning, sociology, environmental psychology, and so forth. Fragmenting the experience of place in the abstractions of the special disciplines reinforces the split between our methods of feeling and our methods of thinking. It also spoils the human environment, vitiating our ability to build and inhabit good houses, communities, and cities, because the conventional ways of thinking about houses and urban space do not grasp the reality of places as wholes.
He tends to identify this process of fragmentation with the intellectual inheritance of Aristotle, and he wants…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.