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Sarah Williams Goldhagen: There’s no such thing as a neutral space

Sarah Williams Goldhagen
Sarah Williams Goldhagen. Image: Robert Tjalondo

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is an esteemed American architecture critic and author, who taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. After immersing herself in research on biophilia, neuroscience and environmental psychology, she has written Welcome to Your World, a book introducing the effects of built environment on our feelings, memories, and well-being to a broad audience.

We talked to Sarah about her realization of a need for a radical change in architecture and about how to improve the architectural process and education for the benefit of everyone.

Natalia: When I read your book, I realized there’s certainly a need to educate the environment creators more. The impact of buildings on human health, cognition, emotion and decision-making is not appreciated enough. How do you think we should approach architects, how to explain it to them? It’s a big paradigm shift after all.

Sarah: It doesn’t really matter how fertile the ground is right now, because it’s up to us to till it. When I wrote Welcome to Your World, I was a bit naive. I thought if I lay out the principles of embodied cognition and human-centered design, and make them really comprehensible, everyone will go: “Oh!”. Well, guess what, that didn’t happen. The book is doing fine and there are a lot of people interested. But I wrote it because I realized architects didn’t know about human perception and cognition in the built environment. They might have intuitions about some parts of it. But very few appreciate how radical the shift has to be and how much can be done to make things better.

After I published the book, I found to my surprise that the people who were the least responsive were architects. These are the practitioners to whom I have been speaking and writing my entire professional life! I have a PhD in architectural history, I wrote criticism for many years. Instead, I was finding a robust audience in professionals involved in health, mental health and neuroscience – they were just fascinated.

Woermannhaus in Swakopmund, Namibia
Woermannhaus in Swakopmund, Namibia. Image: Archive of Sarah Williams Goldhagen

One of the problems is that embodied cognition and human-centered design draws from so many different disciplines. There’s environmental psychology, there’s evolutionary psychology, there’s studies in cognition. On the built environment side, there are interiors and exteriors, landscape and infrastructure.

Architecture as a discipline is quite siloed. If an architect needs a landscape done, they hire a landscape architect. If they need help with structure, they hire an engineer. But the kind of experiential approach that we’re advocating just doesn’t work like that.

Another impediment to applying the principles of embodied cognition and human-centered design to the built environment is the tension between environmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. You know, cognitive neuroscientists are hard scientists and they sort of look down at environmental psychologists. But it’s the intersection of those two disciplines where the richness of information lies.

A third structural impediment: architects are not the dominant decision-makers in charge of the making of urban life. Architects are service providers, and service providers must answer to their client’s demands. And that third thing is what made me realize I was talking to the wrong people.

Michal: Raymond Neutra also mentioned this in our previous interview. He said that it’s fine to have idealistic architects, but it’s much better to have idealistic developers.

Sarah: Yeah, he and I have talked a lot about this actually. But it’s not just developers. It’s the policy makers who deal with the built environment. It’s all the people who hold the purse strings and hire the architects. And it’s a lot easier to convince them than the architects, because effectively, what you’re asking architects to do is to acquire a whole additional skill set in which they have little to no training. Schools just don’t teach human-centered design.

It’s not that architects aren’t curious. It’s that they’re busy. So on one hand, you have to look at it from the policy and business angle. And on the other hand, you have to tackle the education of architects.

The American architectural education system is actually incredibly conservative. One of the reasons is tenure. Once a person earns tenure, they’ve landed the biggest reward the academy offers and typically, they stay in one place (literally and sometimes figuratively) for the remaining 30 years. If the goal is to promote intellectual innovation and responsiveness to contemporary conditions, it’s a crazy system. I know this sounds awful, and I wish there were a better way of saying that, but to promote experiential, human-centered design, we sort of have to wait for the current generation to age out into retirement.

Michal: It’s one of the goals we had with the Venetian Letter. That we don’t want to speak only to architects or the environmental psychologists, who already know about these things. We want to speak to politicians, legislators, mayors.

Sarah: People in public policy, people in promoting social equity in cities, they totally groove on this stuff. They think human-centered design in the built environment is the coolest idea they’ve ever heard. They’re hungry for more. They think, why haven’t we been doing this all along? Educators… I was a keynote speaker at a conference of people who designed public elementary schools, secondary schools and high schools. They were able to make a lot of progress quickly.

Woermannhaus in Swakopmund, Namibia
Woermannhaus in Swakopmund, Namibia. Image: Archive of Sarah Williams Goldhagen

Natalia: Last night I was looking through your book. You tell this story of a trip to Florence, when you were a teenager. You said it was the first moment in your life where the built environment made such an impression on you. I love the moment when you were wandering through the streets of the city and you felt that it was the architecture which nudged you to go a certain direction.

What happened to this knowledge of using materials or creating streets of a certain width in order to create experience and drive your attention the right way? You know the history of architecture very well. So what do you think happened?

Sarah: Let’s take a positive example. During the coronavirus pandemic, in New York City, where I live, everybody realized we need a lot more public space. And so all of a sudden, all these ugly, horrible streets, started to become transformed into ad hoc public spaces. Now, a lot of people are saying: “ Wow, that’s pretty nice! Let’s figure out how we can retain that. Keep some of this and formalize it.” I think for New York, this is a real watershed moment where they can create more public spaces that nudge people into the right kinds of social behavior, being outside, sitting less and so on. Sometimes it takes a crisis to make people realize what they don’t have.

Architects love making patterns and it turns out that from a neuroscientific perspective, that’s really important, because people are pattern-seeking machines.

Michal: I think there could be other effects of the pandemic too. Maybe people will start to appreciate being in nature more, if we bring nature to the city. Or just having these social places where they can actually meet once the pandemic ends.

Sarah: This is why I think Colin Ellard’s work is so important. Because not only do we need to look at the design elements that make a certain place good, but we also have to think about badly designed spaces – what makes them bad, and what their consequences are for human flourishing.

People don’t do well in badly designed spaces. They get anxious, they get nervous, they get jumpy, they want to get out of them. And I think it’s important to talk about both sides of this. That’s why I say over and over again, there’s no such thing as a neutral space.

Architects love making patterns and it turns out that from a neuroscientific perspective, that’s really important, because people are pattern-seeking machines. So if you approach an architect by saying, I’m giving you ammunition to get more of what you want for your design for this community, and I’ll do it by giving you better arguments, they do appreciate that.

Natalia: It’s interesting, because we started this discussion saying that educating architects might not be the most efficient route, but now we started figuring out that we can somehow support their decisions. We can provide them with insights.

Sarah: We can. It’s just not like I get up on stage, tell them what’s important, and they’ll go off and do the right thing. That’s not going to happen.

Here’s an analogy. When I was very young, maybe five years into teaching at Harvard, it had a pretty conservative faculty. I would speak to the senior faculty members, my colleagues, and a topic that was often raised was sustainability. And the senior faculty would say: “Sustainability stuff is ugly, people who do it are such awful architects. We’re Harvard. We don’t need to pay attention to this.”

I didn’t oppose them much, but I was on the admissions committee and year after year, we would get more applications with students saying they want to study sustainability because it’s important. Young people are more politicized by nature. Same thing now with embodied cognition and human-centered design: what we are now talking about is, in fact, a political issue: using the built environment to enhance wellbeing across classes, ethnicities, and lifetimes.

So eventually enough students kept sending in applications to Harvard that read, “Hello, I really want to study sustainability”, that they hired faculty to teach it. Now of course it’s a big part of their program. In the best possible world, that will happen with well-being and human-centered design. The people who respond most to my books tend to be quite young, just starting out. They are now figuring out how they’re going to shape their careers.

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Michal: What do the architects appreciate most when working with you? What do you think they get out of this conversation? Is there something specific that they said: “I really appreciate that you brought these topics to the table”?

Sarah: I remember having a conversation with a buddy of mine, who’s probably the most brilliant architect I know. I mentioned the topic of attention management – how the psychology of attention needs to be taken into consideration when designing buildings and spaces. I used that phrase and he said: “Wow, that’s fascinating. I’m going to go back and think about everything I do from the point of view of attention management!”

So you know, the more curious ones will pick up on a lot of stuff. When I do consulting, they bring me in because I add weight through the knowledge that I bring to the table. That gives them better arguments to get more of what they want out of their design.

Michal: So it’s usually already clients who are inclined to think this way.

Sarah: It’s usually hospitals, universities, projects in medicine and healthcare so far. Although teachers were really interested too. They want their kids to learn, after all.

Michal: I think this is also what we’ve heard from Raymond, when we explored the history of evidence based design. What they also observed is that it started with hospitals, designing new buildings for themselves and saying: “Hey, you know, we use this approach in medicine. So we should also look at our environments the same way.” In a hospital, we can actually measure how much pain medication the patient needs. And so we can see whether the design improves that.

Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona
Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona, used until 2009. Image: Michal Matlon

Sarah: The nice thing about health is that it’s kind of unarguable. I mean, nobody wants to make people sicker, right? Nobody wants to be responsible for doing that. Buildings and anything in the built environment is massively expensive. And so if you put those things together and you say to the client: “If you don’t include that green space, we’ll take it out. But you actually might make people sicker,” they’re usually not going to do it.

Michal: On the other hand, when you ask people: “Would you rather, recover from a surgery in a beautiful hospital?,” sometimes they say: “I don’t care. I just want a good hospital with the best doctors and equipment.” But that’s why we need to step in and say that you will actually heal faster in a good environment.

For example, take the Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona. There’s this very beautiful old hospital, it’s on the UNESCO list and it was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the Art Nouveau style. So it’s very visually rich, full of biophilic design patterns and principles. Everything is very detailed, colorful, curvy, lot’s of fractals.

The hospital was used until 2009. But then they built a new hospital behind the old one. So it’s on the same street and you can look at them both. On one hand, a beautiful building into which I would like to get sick to actually get there. And on the other hand, there’s this building, which from the outside, is indistinguishable from a warehouse. It’s just a blank rectangle. From the outside, it looks horrible.

And so I ask – what happened to the mindset of people who built these buildings in the past? People who really paid attention to details and tried to make it beautiful. Today, you don’t hear architects even talking about beauty. We don’t have to necessarily agree on what beauty is, but it’s not even discussed today.

The Scottish Parliament Building by EMBT Architects
The Scottish Parliament Building by EMBT Architects. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Beauty, in the academy, is actually kind of a dirty word. You’re not really supposed to talk about beauty. Post-structuralism and identity politics have so pervasively dominated people’s education. And from that point of view, everything is socially constructed. Everything is individual. You can’t talk about beauty because beauty implies that there’s something in aesthetics that is inherently universal and this is profoundly, profoundly threatening to them.

And you know, that’s awesome. Yes, of course, lots of things are culturally constructed, there is such a thing as gender and ethnicity. But we still are all humans and there are things that are universal and we have data to prove that. Why can’t it be both?

Natalia: I’m trying also to collaborate with architects as much as possible, we write articles together. Very often we exchange ideas. Some people are really interested in science, but even the ones who are interested, they were still educated in a certain way.

Michal: We are often “complexifying” things too much, since we now have this explosion of: “Everyone is unique, different, and you have to express yourself differently and nothing can be universal.” But, I think we’re coming back to the universality through technology.

For example, there was a study recently. By making a computer, listen to a voice clip of someone and putting it into a machine learning algorithm, it can actually have around 70 to 80% accuracy of assessing their personality. Just from the voice clip that it listens to. It really questions the whole “uniqueness of everyone” and shows that we are much more predictable than we think we are.

Natalia: Right, it will make us humble.

Sarah: In a way it’s a good thing. I was presenting at a friend’s studio a couple of weeks ago and I raised the subject of beauty. They asked me: “How can you say there is such a thing as a female, ideal of beauty?”. I replied: “Well, do you want me to show you the 400 studies that provide the existence of universal ideals of female beauty?”

There is one thing I often say. Unless you’re disabled, you’re a human who stands vertically. You feel gravity in your feet. You can’t see behind you without turning your head around. There’s sort of a blank space behind you and you don’t know what’s there. Those are the three phenomenological experiences that almost everyone can relate to.

The Scottish Parliament Building by EMBT Architects
The Scottish Parliament Building by EMBT Architects. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Natalia: I spent so many years studying human anatomy and physiology, and so many things are common to us as humans. The structure of the brain, for example.

Sarah: Exactly, you think doctors walk in and think about the cultural construction of the nature of the heart they’re operating on? No, it’s a heart!

Michal: Good point. As a cherry on top, let me ask you a question we’re asking everyone who we’re talking to. We want to always show some positive examples someone could be inspired by. What would, for you, be the best example of a building or a place which really takes into consideration all the knowledge that we have about human psychology and experience of life?

Sarah: I would say the Scottish Parliament Building by EMBT Architects. There are so many smart, metaphorical moves dealing with natural light, with human scale, dealing with greenery. If I have to point to one building that encapsulates so much of this, that would be my building. Also a former school, now an art center in Swakopmund, Namibia, because it’s really beautiful. Reminds you that architecture can be everywhere.

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