Ian Ritchie Architects

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What is Radical Today? 2019

Ian Ritchie was invited by The Royal Academy of Arts to contribute to an exhibition, What is radical today? 40 Positions on Architecture from 6th September — 7th November 2019 at The Architecture Studio, The Dorfman Senate Rooms, Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts.

On the 6th September 2019, Maria Smith and Ian Ritchie RA discussed their contributions to the display following an introduction by RA curator Gonzalo Herrero Delicado.


My radical thought is to uproot the pervasive Cartesian Dualism which has been fundamental to our Western way of life for far too long.

In my 2003 Bossom Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts entitled ‘Design in Need of a Compass’, I reasoned that we must reconsider our basic Western exploitative attitude. I addressed the question: How does our intellectual heritage shape our actions? The question has continued to encourage me to explore how homo sapiens sapiens can tame rampant homo faber and homo consumeris.

The Greeks sought to reconcile Heraclitus’ idea of ‘perpetual change and eternal becoming’ with that of the ‘unchangeable being’ of Parmenides. The paradox was resolved by the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus in the 5th century B.C.E. They developed the concept of an inert, fundamental unchangeable atom which, moved by undefined forces (spirits), could combine with other atoms to generate change. This outcome of the debate was to have a profound impact upon the development of our western society.

The wholeness of life had been split between spirit and matter, between body and soul; and investigations of the human soul and ethics, rather than materials, dominated western thinkers and society until the Renaissance, when a renewed interest in matter and the natural world arose. Descartes focused on this division, giving it a subtle new dimension: the artificial separation of ‘mental’ and ‘physical’, and the concomitant philosophy that the natural is chaotic and perfection unavoidably artificial. Descartes, inadvertently, took us on a path separating us further from nature, towards a world where man has legitimate mastery and dominion over nature, and is free to exploit the natural world without guilt or consciousness of damage done.

During my involvement with neuroscientists during the past decade, the idea has grown that designers should learn to design with the mind in mind, and that doing so may provide a way to achieve better outcomes for man and the environment. We are learning that our mental states are the product of an interaction between individual physiology and all of the external environmental and sociocultural factors – not fully reducible to their constituent parts – that these physical processes interact with by means of our senses. Our mental experience is grounded entirely in the physical world, and this is the proper non-duality that we need to recognise and design for.

Humans are profoundly social creatures. We evolved to thrive in small tight-knit social groups and natural environments. Our genetic and neurological predisposition for such a life and the emotional equilibrium it engenders has changed little, if at all, despite our unique adaptability.
Imagining the future as a tech-world driven by technological developments such as AI, is only a further retreat into the separation between us and the natural world which is costing us so dearly. Technology, yes – but let’s have a technology which benefits us symbiotically and which enables us to live in universal harmony with the planet, and architecture which fosters harmony with each other.

To rediscover the holistic nature of being, one which is less anthropocentric, also requires questioning the values and role of religions – the ways in which religions led to imperialism, the spread of market capitalism and to globalisation at the expense of peoples and the environment.

To change demands radical thought. It becomes a question of how humanity perceives itself in relation to the environment and to itself. What is it to be human? How should we define progress? Does progress exist?