Sim Van der Ryn and the architecture of empathy


Throughout his life, Sim Van der Ryn has been at the forefront of architectural design that incorporates natural systems into people’s lives and habitats. His new book, Design for an Empathic World, is a welcome addition to the discussion. In its pages, Mr. Van der Ryn turns inward to the thoughts and feelings underlying his work as it has evolved over a lifetime. He also traces the experiences that have helped shape his outlook, from his family’s departure from Holland just before the Nazi invasion to his current relationship with Francine Allen, a master gardener, author and former teacher. He reports that an increasing interest in growing and preparing food, as well as in yoga, have had a profound impact on him.

When Mr. Van der Ryn was coming of age as an architect, the concept of empathy was changing the field of psychology. A ferocious debate between behaviorists and psychoanalytically oriented therapists concerned the best approach to treatment. Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers suggested that it didn’t matter which approach therapists took: successful outcomes for clients were related to certain qualities—empathy in particular—in their therapists. Although Mr. Van Der Ryn’s work is not directly derived from this source, it reflects a similar approach.

Empathy is described as the ability to identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties; Mr. Van der Ryn has expanded the object of empathy beyond the boundaries of people and into the natural environment. “To be empathic, design must be human centered—it must consider the needs of the end user, including physical and emotional health, and the connection to others and nature,” he writes. Especially nature.

Mr. Van der Ryn abjures the invocation of catch-words that indicate a project is keeping up with the times. “The terms sustainability and green describe technical fixes to what are basically unsustainable systems,” he writes. For instance, many people responded to the energy crisis by eliminating openings that allow heat to escape from their homes. Since dwellings are often constructed from material such as drywall and painted with products that emit toxic fumes, preventing the circulation of fresh air can have serious adverse effects. Without considering the whole system, a seemingly enlightened activity can have negative consequences.

To understand empathic design, it might help to consider examples of non-empathic design. Looking upwards and west from Highway 101 at the north end of Novato, one sees what appear to be prison walls adorned with little more than small windows. These buildings, situated in former pastureland, house the Buck Institute on Aging Research and were designed by the famous architect I. M. Pei. Among them sit one of the pyramids that are the hallmark of Pei’s work, mainly visible to neighboring homes. But those homeowners may not fully appreciate Pei’s work, since much of the surrounding landscape was damaged by a slide that occurred during the construction of a berm meant to conceal the project from them. The project, it happened, was situated on top of a fault line. 

Ironically, many of the homeowners were retirees and among the class of people who were the targets of the Buck Institute’s research. In Mr. Van der Ryn’s eyes, the project is “an ugly blight” on the landscape… unwelcoming to place or people.” 

Mr. Van der Ryn has not only been a practicing architect; until his recent retirement he also taught at the University of California, Berkeley. One of the earliest projects he and his students undertook was to design more habitable campus living spaces. They rejected traditional hotel-style dormitories and substituted small units that included kitchens and other spaces for students, who are often on their own and caring for themselves for the first time. 

Some of Mr. Van der Ryn’s best-known work occurred during his tenure as State Architect during Governor Jerry Brown’s first administration. Mr. Van der Ryn took a temporary leave from teaching to accept the position and used the office to promote the design of public buildings that incorporated solar heating and other environmentally beneficial features. He also sequestered a small portion of his budget for post-occupancy evaluations, an idea he’d conceived after designing the campus units. 

He was stymied, however, by his client agencies—the prison system, parks, motor vehicles department and others. “They were afraid that if we found that facilities didn’t work as expected, it would reflect negatively on their bureaucracy,” he concluded.

But for Mr. Van der Ryn, such evaluations are an important way to achieve empathic designs. “Although it seems like common sense, the field of post-occupancy evaluation… is still not broadly accepted,” he writes. “This disconnect… allows designers to design without empathy for humans, to separate the work from themselves, and still too often, to design without empathy for the natural environment. It is not just one of these connections, but all three—to self, to others, and to nature—that are necessary to design for a future that is more humane, equitable, and resilient.”

Post-occupancy evaluations are now undertaken for 35,000 to 45,000 buildings certified by LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy-efficient Design) around the world, and Mr. Van der Ryn hopes the results of a current pilot study sponsored by this program “can help to inform green-building projects that will have greater benefit to the end-user.”

After his return to Berkeley, Mr. Van der Ryn participated in numerous green building projects and adopted innovations in both design and teaching that incorporate environmentally sensitive features. When he retired from teaching and life on a houseboat in Sausalito he became a full-time resident of Inverness, where he bought land over 30 years ago. 

The structures on this property have evolved as his ideas have developed; during his early years at Berkeley, he invited students to design and build structures where they could stay on the land. These simple dwellings are gone now, as is a subsequent bed and breakfast. Later additions were made to accommodate his growing family and others. As a result his home has an organic quality that reflects a growing relationship with the place in which he lives.  

As a youth, Mr. Van der Ryn aspired to be a painter—he chose to enter architecture because of its proximity to his artistic interests—and his newest book offers a window into -his talent. His paintings feature landscapes and outdoor scenes from his travels throughout the world, from Japan to Italy, all rendered in vivid color. As an architect he initiated design projects by painting on site and he taught courses in which students went outdoors to paint (silence was the only rule). 

Twenty-one reproductions of his watercolors are interspersed with text in Design for an Empathic World, which is published by Island Press and will be available on October 3. A collection of Mr. Van der Ryn’s previously published essays titled Nature, Culture & Design is scheduled for release in November. 


Herb Kutchins has been a college professor for more than 30 years and is a struggling writer—with hope!