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Nonfiction in Brief

PLACEWAYS A Theory of the Human Environment by E.V. Walter (University of North Carolina: $29.95, cloth; $10.95, paper)

April 03, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Secular thinkers, if recent books are any judge, are increasingly drawn to the sacred. Humanists are expressing a need, growing from deep roots, for tradition, myth and festival. Scientists, in turn, are attempting to construct holistic concepts of the natural world. (While the quasi-religious fervor over "supertheories" in physics is more a creation of the popularizers than the practitioners, many leading scientists have been returning to the broadly inquisitive tradition of the Renaissance). E. V. Walter, an emeritus professor of sociology at Boston University, is both a humanist and a scientist. His attempted union of the sacred and secular is unique, focusing not on philosophy or physics, but on the alluring, relatively new disciplines of environmental psychology and space perception.

Today's urban planners, Walter writes, "fail to view the city as a whole, as an order that carries meanings other than the maxims of zoning, amenity, and circulation." Ideally, however, they can create "a way of living that does not fragment experience or exploit the environment." Walter sounds like a utopian environmentalist, of course. But he's actually critical of those who speak of "spaceship Earth." This metaphor is revealing, he writes, because it implies that Earth is merely a mechanism, "a life-support system providing the ingredients people need."

Walter's message is compelling and urgent, particularly for those who live in an urban space as amorphously defined as Los Angeles. His practical ideal is the Greek city, which was symbolically united to history and from center to periphery during torch races, when the sacred flame, representing the birth of civilization, would be transmitted from one altar to another. In contrast, Walter writes, "A place is dead if (its) physique does not support the work of imagination, if the mind cannot engage with the experience located there, or if the local energy fails to evoke ideas, images or feelings . . . . To inhabit a place physically, but to remain unaware of what it means or how it feels, is a deprivation more profound than deafness at a concert or blindness in an art gallery. Humans in this condition belong no where ."

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