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The Responsive Environment:
Design, Aesthetics, and the Human in the 1970s
Simon Sadler

Larry Busbea
University of Minnesota Press

A colleague bought this book in error thinking it was about “the environment”—that place with trees, creeks and, in the decade upon which this study focuses, hippies (one of my colleague’s interests). You should read this book anyway, I told him. Aside from the fact that it’s very good indeed, and beyond the inherent interest of the subject itself, certainly to this reader, it turns out that this responsive environment—a single-mindedly artificial one of sensing devices, feedback loops, and behaviorism—is the intersecting counterpart to that natural environment sought by the counterculture. In this book, the environmental designer emerges as a mediator of “the two cultures,” the arts and the sciences, intersecting institutionally and disciplinarily in universities, for example, as Arindam Dutta and his co-authors have shown in books like A Second Modernism, and as Avigail Sachs explained with the climatic and pastoral environmental design of the 1940s and 1950s in Environmental Design, or at Arcosanti, the mega-project by Paolo Soleri featured in the final chapter of this book.1

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.

Dynamic pattern was a key environmental index for Collingwood and Bateson. Pattern is the theme of Busbea’s second chapter, especially in regard to the once-so-promising proto-discipline of “proxemics,” developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Proxemics, the subject of another forthcoming study from Busbea, was a scientific notation system tracking patterns across media, from the temporal to the social. Hall isolated three laws of patterning: order, selection, and congruence. As he observed the proxemic patterning of urban crowds (watched in turn by Tom Wolfe, on one occasion) his reading of the ordered chaos of the city began to supplement those of Jane Jacobs and Kevin Lynch. Hall was also indebted to Ernö Goldfinger’s pioneering environmental and architectural psychology of a couple of decades earlier. In the moment of social distancing during which I’m writing, Hall seems startlingly relevant again, but despite his elaborate use of photography, diagrams, and equipment for immersive proxemics observation, he would again fail to devise a research method capable of guiding design practice. With his spouse Mildred Hall, he conducted elaborate research on behavior in Eero Saarinen’s buildings, and wanted very much to notate human choreography, inspired by the “scores” of choreographer and landscape designer Lawrence Halprin. He also consulted on Christopher Alexander’s plans for the San Francisco BART transit system. That coincidence between Hall and Alexander around patterning—Alexander was at work on his legendary pattern language treatises—is studied by Busbea with the insight “that for Alexander, the subject inhabited pattern, while for Hall, patterns inhabited the subject” (87). That is, Alexander, in his obsessive search for form and frictionless fit and coexistence reminiscent of an older modernism, was disinterested in individual psychology, as he aggregated human behaviors into patterns guaranteeing (he anticipated) the production of successful places and spaces. Whereas for Hall, architecture’s ability to respond to patterning was limited; it could accommodate but never mirror or embody ideal patterns, nor was that desirable.

The remaining four chapters of Busbea’s book are a wild ride, as they describe case studies in the design of responsive environments of varying eccentricity. What constitutes environment, it would seem, varied according to the predilections of the observer / subject / designer, usually an educated white male (Hall comes across as strikingly naive about racism). For all its science, environmental study was ideologically and aesthetically freighted, an architecture indeed. As Busbea reminds us in Chapter 3, the aspiration to design the responsive environment has a rich if only patchily understood avant-garde and utopian history (up to the present, for example in the work of Diller and Scofidio). Busbea positions Frederick Kiesler as an important forerunner, drawing on new research from Stephen J. Phillips’ Elastic Architecture, whose “Correlationism” envisaged synchronizing the design of subjects, objects and energies.2 György Kepes hoped to coordinate artists and intellectuals around the creation of environments reversing alienation. Promises of total design and management variously motivated cybernetic artist Nicolas Schöffer, participants at the 1970 Software show at the Jewish Museum, the work featured in Jim Burns’ Arthropods book of 1972, the USCO artists’ collective, Cedric Price, cyberneticists Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer, Dick Higgins, the journal Radical Software, Emilio Ambasz’s 1972 Universitas symposium at MoMA, and so on. These approaches shared a recognition that the ideal modern relationship between the human organism and its environment had shifted from equilibrium to dynamism, and that computers, cybernetics, and intermedia were to hand in the creation of the new Gesamtkunstwerk.

At the more pragmatic end of these efforts, and among the better-known, we find the architecture machines devised by Nicholas Negroponte’s team at MIT. But even Negroponte would seem to have been influenced by projects for responsive environments that are surreal to the point that Busbea’s meticulous account, complete with patent applications, struggles to relate to the reader exactly what was envisaged. Such is the case with the Warren Brodey and Avery Johnson Soft Control Material project detailed in Chapter 4, which called for a suite of interdependent technologies, “not a finite object with a distinct form,” but “a self-organizing biomimetic metal structure,” “both a tool and toy for facilitating new types of human environment communication” (144). Soft Control Material’s objective remains mind-bending—lifelike interfaces facilitating “new types of ecological interspecies relationships that could ultimately lead to a conscious evolution of humanity” (144). The user would gain precisely “by relinquishing its classical Cartesian insularity” (150) to become part of a non-organic organism without a telos. This would allow for the subject’s deprogramming from habitual behavior, entering into a new Batesonian “mind” composed of multiple organic and inorganic entities. It was a model of environment inspired by the topology of the Klein bottle, in which the inside and outside wrap around one another. An ancestry for this work, Busbea reminds us, is the connection between modern architecture and therapy, from the interwar calls for the New Man onwards. A wider context in the 1970s was New Age culture and its focus on wellness, which we still recognize, conveyed in part by a cyberculture which continues the legacy.

A slightly creepy, uncanny utopianism is found in the final couple of major case studies in the book. The lesser-known is Wolf Hilbertz’s Cybertecture, a project based at UT Austin which, through a certain fin-de-siècle aesthetics, projected an artificial habitat emergent through chemistry and robotics. The better-known of the utopias is Soleri’s Arcology, laid out here with a rigorous new scholarship that shows how Soleri conceived of cities as an evolutionary endpoint for systems and consciousness—an irreversible “esthetogenesis.” Hilbertz and Soleri drew on Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s belief in the growth of compassionate systems. These utopias share with the Soft Control Material project a belief that design is an evolutionary catalyst, not metaphorically, but literally accelerating the development of life.

The intellectual genealogy of the notion that technology extends the human organism into its own quasi-natural milieu, through which it evolves more quickly, is important to grasp for a deep understanding of post-war design, and Busbea does as good a mapping of the notion as anyone. In the final sections of the book, Busbea takes us deep into the archive to show us Marshall McLuhan’s rapturous reading of Edward T. Hall: “to say any new technology or extension of man creates a new environment is a much better way of saying the medium is the message” (199). If, per the philosophy of technology from the late nineteenth century onwards, technological extensions replaced the labor of the body, then so too, in Hall and then McLuhan, the designed environment is basically an extension of the body. Gillo Dorfles, writing in Kepes’ The Man-Made Object in 1966, further showed that through this extension, the human subject becomes its own background, its own environment, an extension of its own will. Subjects generate their own ecosystems, their own social relations, as though turned inside out. This was a premise of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which from 1969 on loosely synthesized practically every source encountered in Busbea’s book. In its spin-off the Co-evolution Quarterly, Jay Baldwin’s 1975 essay “One Highly Evolved Toolbox” made the case that tools, via the hand and the arm, are in essence an extension of the mind. Holding that connection sacred, co-evolutionists like Brand and Baldwin held, would stop our machines taking over, as the Artificial Intelligence of Negroponte and others crept into the scene. Co-evolution—that mutual construction of subjects, object and environments understood at an interspecies and planetary scale—was initially inspired by Brand’s biology mentor Paul Ehrlich: the evolutionary model transferred from nature to culture. As Busbea observes, the slippage between what was proper to the inside (or genotype) of the organism, and what constituted its environment, continued at the end of the 1970s with Richard Dawkins’ proposal of the “extended phenotype.” This was the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment, seen in the reproductive impulses driving the construction of a bird’s nest.

The book helps its readers swim toward this swirling horizon of matter and epistemology in the 1970s, delivering us to the shores of Deleuze and Guattari and their metaphysics of our world as an always-differentiating process. But the teleological optimism of responsive environment design wanes at this point. Deleuze and Guattari’s subject is no longer the center of natural and technical systems, but a product of them; Deleuze and Guattari hoped that the subject would now be relieved of the expectation of tuning its environment and itself. Meanwhile Hall and McLuhan had always viewed extensions warily, noting how their reciprocal quality turned back on the organisms they’d extended, with unintended effects. And Michel Foucault presented subjectivity not as a centered, humanistic free will, but rather as a set of effects of the environment (or dispositifs). At this point the humanistic concept of “extension” seemed almost quaint; the subject was merely the extension of a political apparatus. Hopes for the responsive environment withered on the vine.

The book is a rabbit hole into another time and place, though like other authors helping us understand the historical politics and design of environment and feedback—including David Gissen, Daniel Barber, Alan Smart, Felicity Scott, and Reinhold Martin—Busbea also opens an approach to our own, unfathomable present of techno-utopianism, environmental catastrophe, and designerly reform. Busbea concludes that, yes, his responsive environment was a moment in the long road to Silicon Valley’s inane control society. But so long as we’re able to read and write books like this—to see the environment, its patterns, levers, affects—there maybe remains hope for design and critical subjectivity. “Is it possible to imagine an art history of the apparatus?” Busbea asks (238). “Such is the provisional project of this book: to trace the shifting forms of a newfound perceptual and technical ability and its friction with a new understanding of the environmental limits placed on human action” (239). The human subject wielding this new understanding might not be centered, classical, and free, but they’re “a dense and capable subject nonetheless: a subject who makes up in discernment what she lacks in absolute freedom of choice.” In fact something of the hope for a non-dualist subject-environment can be detected again in calls for “transition design,” which urge that it’s not too late to save ourselves from the worst excesses of our extensions.3


Dutta, ed., A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture, and the ‘Techno-Social’ Moment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013); Sachs, Environmental Design: Architecture, Politics, and Science in Postwar America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018).
Phillips, Elastic Architecture: Frederick Kiesler and Design Research in the First Age of Robotic Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).
See, for instance, anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

Simon Sadler is Professor of Architectural and Urban History at the University of California, Davis, where he is chair of the Department of Design. His publications include Archigram: Architecture without Architecture (MIT Press, 2005); Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism (Architectural Press, 2000, co-editor, Jonathan Hughes); and The Situationist City (MIT Press, 1998).

How to Cite This: Sadler, Simon. Review of The Responsive Environment: Design, Aesthetics, and the Human in the 1970s
by Larry Busbea, JAE Online, July 17, 2020. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/review/responsive-environment#/.