Busbea pulls from the library shelves those long-unborrowed books that must at some point have been so important in architectural schools, remembered now by colleagues round about retirement age, but not much by anyone younger. Before the “return to the real” of the last decade or two, and before poststructuralism (the 90s ff.), there was postmodernism (the 80s ff.), and before that there was, well, this stuff, put together by guys like Edward T. Hall, György Kepes, Nicholas Negroponte, Sean Wellesley-Miller, Warren Brodey and Avery Johnson, Wolf Hilbertz, and Soleri, some now better remembered than others. Trying to say what exactly it was—“proxemics,” or Soft Control Material, say—is part of Busbea’s project. Though the reader is immediately reassured by lucid prose, a conceptual clarity, an archival command, and a wry candor about the task being taken on, over and over again Busbea reminds his readers that the futility of nailing down “environment” tormented the book’s protagonists, too.
Indeed, each chapter, and then the book as a whole, might be read as an attempt to overcome the seeming impossibility of comprehending environment, let alone designing it. The book opens by charting efforts to better perceive and describe the environment so as to design it. Obscure figures like Serge Boutourline a one-time employee of the Eames studio, devised methods of measuring environmental stimulation that might be manipulable by designers. All of this was so promising—but then that seeming impossibility of design loomed, as the data of the sensorium became overwhelming. It was beyond the Gestalt of unified form that had guided modernist design earlier in the century, because form and context were now recognized as part of a continuum—subject, object and environment were mutually constructive. As Busbea writes in his Introduction, “Where do we—as subjects and objects—begin and end?” (xiii).This was the problem explored by George Spencer Brown, R. G. Collingwood, Alfred North Whitehead, Samuel Alexander and eventually Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari; mid-century, the interdisciplinary anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, whose ideas are carefully explained by Busbea, is particularly important to understanding this ecological nexus of science, epistemology, and aesthetics. Broadly, science transitioned from the study of stable entities to the study of the relations among things; form and context were inextricably linked, overturning dualistic, Western, Cartesian conceptions of nature to grasp process, emergence—life. How to manage this continuum, conceptually and technically? One key seemed to be psychologist James J. Gibson’s theory of affordances—the perceptual handles of the environment, of what one can do with stuff, destined to be instrumentalized in later design theory, for instance by Don Norman.