Rebuilding Architecture: An Interview With Itai Palti
Itai sits in a yurt nestled in an Israeli forest. He pauses, cerebrating as we wax philosophical. Finally, he says:
“We’re going into new territory. This is something I hesitate to say in public—but I’m not sure I believe in the architecture profession at all.”
It may surprise some to hear this from Itai Palti, a luminary of science-informed architecture registered to practice in both the United Kingdom and Israel. Propelled to the forefront of architectural discourse by “A Manifesto for Conscious Cities,” a cornerstone of the conscious cities movement co-written with neuroscientist Moshe Bar, Palti is an increasingly celebrated campaigner for more empathetic urban design.
Now the principal of his own firm, Hume, and founder of The Centre for Conscious Design, an international grassroots think tank, Itai is open about his growing disillusionment with the system that surrounds him.
“I don’t understand at what point in history it became a given that someone’s agency to change their environment had to go through a middle-person with the correct title? That process of representation is when an idea becomes susceptible to distortion.”
Venustas Lost in Translation
While particulars are lost to the sands of time, many historians consider Imhotep to be the world’s first architect known by name, crediting him as the design mind behind the stepped Pyramid of Djoser in Egypt’s Saqqara necropolis. A deified figure in both ancient Egyptian and Greek culture, Imhotep was a revered polymath (or what we may today call a man of many side hustles): chancellor to the Pharaoh Djoser, high priest of Ra, and—by some estimations—a physician, sage, and astronomer.
Roman architects followed a similarly multidisciplinary path, becoming pillars of their communities by taking the roles of engineers, landscapers, artists, urban planners, and craftsmen—titles and responsibilities considered interchangeable at the time. It’s this era—the first century AD—that gifted us the earliest surviving architectural tome; one that continues to be cited, taught, and revered: De architectura by Vitruvius. In De architectura, Vitruvius painstakingly codified the accepted architectural principles of the time. The most famous and oft-cited passage asserts that the ideal building satisfies three criteria: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. These principles are now referred to as the Vitruvian Triad.
Translations of the Vitruvian Triad have evolved over time—and this is perhaps where we can trace the first cracks in the foundation of modern architectural philosophy. In the 17th century, Sir Henry Wotten paraphrased the Vitruvian Triad as “firmness, commodity, and delight.” In the 19th century, the Triad became “durability, utility, and beauty” at the hands of Joseph Gwilt.
The shift in interpretation—and thus meaning—is subtle but has potentially far-reaching consequences. Consider the evolution of “delight”—with all its connotations of pleasure, joy, and enchantment for the audience—to “beauty,” a quality anchored in the subjective and superficial.
And what of the essence of the words lost between the first and 16th centuries? The etymological ancestor of venustas is Venus—the Roman goddess of love. It doesn’t take a scientist (or poet) to realize that “love” carries a much stronger, more complex emotional connotation altogether.
And so, we lose the intention and nuance—even poetry—of Vitruvius’s instruction, yet its pedestal remains intact.
“Architecture is a self-referencing profession and its discourse is insular,” Palti adds. “That creates a weak connection to the changing aspirations of society and to the nuanced shifts in meaning, culture, and habits.”
What we do know is this: Vitruvius anchored venustas in a need for buildings to adhere to the proportion and symmetry seen in nature, famously using the human body’s ability to fit into both a square and circle to symbolize what he considered universal laws (this was later the inspiration behind Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man). For Vitruvius, the ideal building—and therefore the ideal city—was inextricably linked to the human form.
Perhaps Vitruvius should have added “neuroscientist” to his curriculum vitae. Multiple 21st century studies have revealed that our neural systems seek out bilateral symmetry and face-like shapes in order to connect with the built environment.
Building With Feeling
For Itai Palti, the depletion of emotion and empathy in architecture—still tangled somewhere in the skeins of history—is all too apparent in today’s architectural institutions.
“You can jump through the hoops and in the end you can call yourself an architect. But what does that actually certify you as? It gives you certification based on almost entirely logistical skills and creative skills that aren’t at any point explicitly directed towards empathy for stakeholders.”
This disconnect between buildings and people, Palti adds, is one of the causes of stress in urban environments. As neuroscientists have shown time and time again, the space around us directly influences our cognitive abilities and impacts our sense of identity, which is entwined with where we are and how we experience that space.
“We say, come to the city, this is a place of opportunities. This is a bench. You can’t move it. This is the apartment you rented. You can’t paint the wall,” Palti says.
“Think of how many limitations have been put into place through governance, through institutions, including professional design institutions, that have removed agency from us in the built environment. There’s a psychological distance between decision-makers and the people who are affected. But those people are the ones who know what they need best.”
Ecolinguists are also exploring the disconnect between people and their environment in a parallel discourse, with both streams of thought advocating that buildings—and the larger environment around us—be regarded as cognitive extensions of ourselves.
As ecolinguist Arran Stibbe points out in this issue of Blueprint, when we conjure images of a city in our minds eye, we see skyscrapers, roads, cars, and bridges—and not the equally intrinsic and inseparable part of what a city is: the organic beings that live there.
Is it possible that, through governance and the architectural process, we have grown used to backgrounding ourselves in shaping our shared spaces—and, as a result, all our behaviors, values, and needs are subordinated in favor of a select few who are deciding for many?
From Jack of All Trades to Creature of Myth
What became of the ancient architect, who wielded multi-disciplinary skills like a Swiss army knife? Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti’s magnum opus, De re aedificatoria, uses Vitruvius’ work as a springboard into architectural treatise. In it, he declares the need for architects to have “an understanding and knowledge of all the highest and most noble disciplines”—an indication that the polymath spirit of the pre-modern era remained alive and well in the 15th century.
However, Alberti goes on to paint a portrait of the Renaissance architect with broad, romantic brushstrokes. At his worst, the architect is the sole author of a work of art. At his best: a visionary, a hero, a deity.
In the critically acclaimed Building-in-Time, Dr. Marvin Trachtenberg points to this lionizing of the architect as a turning point for Alberti’s peers and contemporaries. Before the Renaissance, Trachtenberg asserts, architecture was a process rooted in social, cultural, and environmental metanarratives. During the Renaissance, however, the architectural process transformed into one that devalued context in favor of the author’s will. So began the ethical debt of architecture.
“There is a theoretical resistance to bringing a building into conformity with its changing environment,” Trachtenberg explained in a 2012 interview. “And this distorts and limits the practice of the kind of contextualism we have today. It’s not that people don’t try to do it or link things together, but theoretically it’s not supported in the way it was in the pre-modern.”
Design by Communities, for Communities
How do we rethread the narratives and reconnect people with their surroundings? Palti believes the solution lies in giving communities the ability and the agency to change their own environment, with architects moving away from being purveyors of knowledge and taste to enablers of the intent of the people.
“I think architects are out there to do good in the world, but I don’t think that the conditions that we have as architects allow that to materialize.
“You have to survive economically. You have to please the client—and the client’s vision isn’t always centered around community, or people’s health. In too many cases, it’s profit at the cost of those who will be really living and working in those environments. So it’s not only the economic model that needs to change, it’s also the design profession that needs a rethink.”
Critiques of the transactional nature of modern architecture are increasingly prevalent. As a popular Building Design editorial penned by Ellis Woodman declared, “the crisis in architectural education is not that schools are failing to deliver an education in business but that too many of them are failing to deliver an education in architecture.”
Many architects are willing and ready to take the role of the community enabler, and new counter-cultures in the architectural and urban design spheres are emerging. Palti’s Conscious Cities movement—which calls for the reprioritization of physical and mental health above traditional measures of efficiency—is a prime example. The Humankind city movement is another gaining traction globally. This school of thought, which has roots in Rotterdam, declares that cities should be retrofitted for happiness through a combination of people-first urban planning, social innovation, and urban change strategies.
“Locally relevant architecture isn’t created through laws; it’s created by creativity and a sense of community,” Palti says. “I think we could do a little better with far fewer rules and far more agency for communities to build for themselves.
“We’re convinced that we can’t build something without an architect. We’re convinced that we don’t have taste unless we go to a designer, but the designer and the architect don’t know half of the things that a person knows about themselves and how they experience the world.”
For those of us struggling to picture them, what would community-designed, healthy cities look like? For Palti, the answer has been under our noses for centuries.
“They would look like the ancient town centers that you love visiting and walking around. There is a reason why organically grown cities are pleasant to be in—because they were imagined and produced at a pace that supported the layering of multiple intentions without their wiping out in abstract broad strokes.”
As for the future of architecture?
“I am not sentimental about my title as an architect. I think we need to do a lot of soul searching to figure out what the hell it is!”
Hannah Swinkin is a content strategist and wordsmith at REEF.