Book Review: Design for an Empathic World by Sim Van der Ryn

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Discovering the Connections Between People, Nature, and Self

An email with the subject “Are architecture grads prepared for the real world?” arrived in my inbox this past autumn. Intrigued and also a bit skeptical, I opened it and read about a forthcoming book entitled Design for an Empathic World by Sim Van der Ryn. I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Van der Ryn so, naturally, I Googled his name and saw that he had a rich history in California’s architecture scene, including teaching at UC Berkeley, serving as California State Architect, and working extensively on ecological design. Seeing that a lot of his work aligned with my interests, I responded with, “I’d love to read the book and write a review.”

A few weeks later a copy of Design for an Empathic World in a tightly packaged cardboard wrap arrived in my post box. I opened the box to find a thin square book with a watercolor print laying behind the title on the hardcover. Inside contained enthralling stories about Mr. Van der Ryn’s decades of work in architecture, education and personal growth. Although many of the projects, initiatives, and stories were set in the 1960s and 1970s in California, the issues were still very relevant to what we are facing today.

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The 137-page book, which is divided into 6 chapters and contains thorough notes and index sections, is riddled with quotes, projects, initiatives, and beautiful watercolors painted by Mr. Van der Ryn. At times I felt like it was a bit too ‘California’–as the Brits like to call it–with initiatives like building a homestead that resembles, and most likely influenced, the permaculture movement taking the Bay Area by storm these days. At times I feel weary about the perception of the ‘idealism’ that California exudes. It sometimes feels disconnected and unrelatable to many parts of the world. Is this something to aspire to? Or is it meant to inspire? I hope the latter with careful, thoughtful, and appropriate solutions.

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What I noticed at the heart of this book–that I have yet to read in other architecture books–is an exploration into identifying personal intention behind design endeavors. Perhaps I need to brush up on my reading list, but I find that most architecture books focus on the projects, the theories, the processes, the struggles, and yet there is very little talk about the personal intention behind the designer (or designers.) And I’m not talking about ‘personal’ life, such as family life, affairs, or financial struggles. I’m talking about the why. What is the personal intention behind your interests? Why are you doing what you do? These stories provide the greatest insight and the deepest connection into any person’s work.

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After journeying through the first-ever post-occupancy evaluation in 1967, design-build studio in 1971, and early development of nature-centered design, Mr. Van der Ryn takes us into the “Journey to the Inner Self and Outer World” in the final chapter. He asks pertinent questions that all architects, designers, and, hell, people should ask themselves.

How do we connect to our inner selves, the core of our being? How do we grow and feed it so that it nurtures us and allows us to nurture others and the natural world through design? … It is our deepest connection to the magic, mystery, and wonder of being alive and connected to the endless and always changing stream of life within us and surrounding us.

You might be cringing a bit. “Ugh, it’s so frou frou!” But take the time to read those words slowly. This quest for purpose, to find ‘the meaning of life’, has followed humanity throughout history, travelling mainly through religious and spiritual clans, but is still relevant to everyone. The growing movement to refocus design around human actions and to connect with disadvantaged communities–with terms such as human-centered, public interest, and social impact–begins to tap into this inner purpose by asking: Why are you designing? What difference are you trying to make? Mr. Van der Ryn goes on to explain this inner journey, which I can see resonating with a lot of what I hear designers say when describing their passion for design.

The journey is important for anyone who believes that the meaning and purpose of their life extends beyond one’s image, material success, and accomplishments, and it is essential for true empathic design. It is grounded in our connection to the timeless world of our soul and our spirit.

If the “journey to the inner self,” finding your why, or uncovering the thread that binds your interest in design for the greater good resonates with you, I encourage you to pick up a copy and read Design for an Empathic World. Along with the ‘big question’, you will find examples of Mr. Van der Ryn’s inspiring work, writing, painting, and initiatives that we as the up-and-coming generation of designers can build upon for many years to come. And perhaps you discover how to design for an empathic world.

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Read more about Sim Van der Ryn at VanderRyn.com.

Find Design for an Empathic World in both print and Kindle version on Amazon.com.

Image sources: VanderRyn.com, IslandPress.com

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