Itai Palti: Architecture is to become an empathy-based profession

Itai Palti is a practicing architect and researcher focusing on designing with the human experience in mind. He is Director of Hume, a science-informed architecture and urban design practice. In 2015, Itai founded the Conscious Cities movement. For his work in advancing changes in the design profession, he was named by Metropolis Magazine as one of 2020’s ‘Game Changers’.

Itai is the Director of The Centre for Conscious Design, a think tank focused on using design to address urban challenges facing society. He is also on the Advisory Council of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. An alumnus of The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, Itai has worked alongside the late visionary architect Jan Kaplicky at Future System on projects such as the Ferrari Museum in Modena.

Natalia Olszewska: Let’s dive into the topic of Conscious Cities. I think that our readers would like to find out more about your movement and the motivations behind it.

Itai Palti: In my opinion Conscious Cities have always existed if you think of cities as the accumulation of human decisions and intent. When I first thought about Conscious Cities I didn’t think about new types of cities, but rather a new way of reflecting on how we shape our environment, and how our environment shapes us. The latter is a matter of consciousness. How aware are we of this process?

Michal Matlon: What was your path towards this realization?

Itai: I’m probably not the first person to think of cities as a reflection of consciousness, but my journey led me there. I come from an architecture background and when I was in architecture school, I wondered why we seldom spoke about the people that we’re designing for? In school, we were fixed on form and how the elevation or the section or the model looked like as an end product. When it came to architectural discourse, it was very conceptual.

In architecture school, you could take a concept related to human experience, but that concept would often revolve around cultural commentary, and that would then be turned into form. Projects were about a statement rather than focusing on the spatial experience and effect of a space.

In architecture school, I wondered why we seldom spoke about the people that we’re designing for?

In my Master’s degree, I worked on a project addressing the relationship between Jewish and Arab communities in Tel Aviv. My initial question was: how do you bring these two communities together? There was no evidence-based literature in architecture that would give me any indication as to how I can design for empathy. How I could design for social connection? How can you lead conflict resolution through design?

I was looking to gain some knowledge that was much less abstract, that would help me to understand how people might experience the space that I’m designing, and to understand how I can improve my design process. I understood intuitively that this knowledge had to come through a different field and not through architectural history or theory. That was a moment when the connection between built form and consciousness was created in my mind.

This period of searching is what led me to more and more conversations with researchers. Eventually, I also realized something quite scary, which is how powerful architecture and urban design can be. And because historically we haven’t included the science of human experience in design, we are not systematically conscious enough of how profoundly we’re affecting people through the production of space.

In thinking up the video for An Introduction to Conscious Cities, I decided that its beginning would reference Frankenstein and the story of inadvertently giving life to something unplanned and potentially dangerous. The idea was to suggest that we’re often unaware of what we’re giving life to when we design cities. And we could potentially, without being conscious of where we’re heading, give life to something harmful.

Merging Science and Architecture

Natalia: So you said that you knew that a solution would come from other fields. What fields? 

Itai: Initially I looked at philosophy as a way to find a framework for talking about architecture and consciousness. Philosophy often points at the boundaries of science and gives some great clues of where to look deeper. You can look up the philosophy of empathy or the philosophy of curiosity, and then you see that someone has taken a philosophical idea and applied a scientific method to understand more. So I started in philosophy, but when I dug down deeper, it led to the human sciences, cognitive science, and neuroscience.

Michal: Did you also talk about this with your classmates? How did they react to your ideas?

Itai: No, I wasn’t particularly close to others at architecture school. All my friends were either medics or students of something more empirical than architecture. I didn’t understand the studio culture of staying up all night. I felt compelled to always be out and experience the city as much as possible, I was young and learning a lot about others and myself.

Michal: I had an interesting conversation recently about this notion that architects often feel like finished, completed professionals. The architectural culture often lacks this need for constant development of the individual.

Itai: When I was being interviewed for architecture schools, a conversation with a professor at Cambridge left a mark on me, even though I didn’t go there to study. He asked me: ‘Why do you want to study architecture?’ I think I answered something along the lines of: ‘I want to make a positive impact in the world’. He told me: ‘That ‘s not right’. 

You know, I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong here, but he thought people should study architecture because they are curious. I think that curiosity towards the world and society isn’t reared as much in architecture school as it should be and I admire that professor for what he said. Curiosity means growth, and when it isn’t celebrated enough it leads to stagnation, I think that’s what’s happened in the profession. There isn’t enough of a habit of questioning ourselves.

Michal: And when you decided to create something like a movement, or the Centre for Conscious Design, how did the story continue then?

I didn’t want to, particularly. I think it’s something that I enjoyed speaking about and making people curious about. I felt like I had a lot to learn as well, and perhaps I could find people to learn with, who thought similarly. I just knocked on the doors of neuroscientists and psychologists and started speaking to them. I didn’t organize the first Conscious Cities conference, which occurred on the heels of the publication of the manifesto I co-wrote in The Guardian. I was invited to speak and was just happy that the idea resonated with others.

Manifesto for conscious cities. Image:

At the time, I was working on the practical side of applying science to design. But I also felt that I wanted to pursue the Conscious Cities movement because it was much more important to spread the word and get people engaged. Without doing that, without a community of like-minded people to catalyze change, there would be almost no possibility of practicing this kind of work and I knew that there were plenty more like me who wanted to. 

Natalia: You said at the beginning that to understand human consciousness to some extent, you could look at cities because they are just an accumulation of human intent. What can we learn about human consciousness by looking at contemporary cities?

Itai: I think we can learn a lot about the relationships and the connections between different people’s consciousness. When you look at a city, it’s a manifestation of relationships, and also of control and power.

Cities are interesting to me because they reflect the values of a society. When you look at cities, at least Western ones, you notice we have very little control over our shared environments. That says a lot about the imbalances of power and existing social hierarchies.

The Future Architects

Natalia: From your perspective, what is the role of the architect or urban designer in this process of shaping cities and human experience? Do they channel the voice of people? 

Itai: I think architecture is a profession that came out of a position of privilege in society. When you look at ancient rulers, they were also seen as architects of sorts. Because what does it mean to be an architect? It means to imagine and create, and to be in a position to affect change.

The emergence of architecture as a profession came from the rise of specialization in society. It is not that architecture schools always existed, and not that anyone from any sector of society could have studied architecture and become an architect, it was a privilege.

Urban Thinkscape is an initiative to integrate the benefits of playful learning into the urban fabric. Image:

I think that’s something that we need to look at with a lot of suspicions. Because it still is a profession that is relying on a history of privilege. Architects used to give shape to visions of people with power. I don’t think much has changed.

Look at shopping centers, architects will create a shopping center that makes visitors buy more by removing windows and disconnecting them from time, regardless of the will of the visitor. The architect here is the agent of the client. 

In the architecture profession, there is no oath for ethical conduct. But with all this criticism, I still believe that architects don’t choose to be in that position, this is where society has led them. There are no mechanisms that give architects authority to make ethical decisions or to even keep clients in check against unethical decisions. 

Bland facades look fine at a scale of 1:100 in a drawing but are experienced very differently.

So what do I think is the future role of the architect? I’m not even sure the architecture profession should exist as is because placing a person between people’s aspirations and whether they can achieve them or not is a way of funneling control into specific sectors of society.

And that’s worrying because it’s the reason why we have so little agency in our environment. I hope that the future role of the architect will be based on applying positive cultural values to how we shape environments in a more egalitarian manner. 

Natalia: We have been talking about a city as a manifestation of human intent, but it looks like in many cases it’s just the intent of an architect or the client.

Itai: That’s where things go wrong. Because when you look at places where people enjoy being, they tend to have grown organically through some kind of collective consciousness and the emergence of a local aesthetic language. 

When you disassociate a design from a place, in the way that architecture practice often does, you create levels of abstraction, and those levels of abstraction cause damage to the environment because the design disconnects from context and experience. 

The process tends to bring in alien ideas that haven’t evolved in a situated manner. On top of that, the design professions don’t systematically co-create with communities and that leaves a lot of room for interpretation and misinterpretation of the needs and aspirations of those who will experience a design.

The Center for Conscious Design ecosystem. Image:

The architecture profession’s reliance on abstraction in the creative process has a part to play. When buildings and cities take on the size of a piece of paper or a computer screen, it’s quite a poor representation of how an environment will be experienced. Bland facades look fine at a scale of 1:100 in a drawing but are experienced very differently. 

I’m not saying that this is necessarily intentional. What I’m saying is that there are processes, norms, and tools in the design profession that are points of weakness in the translation of intent into built form.

Natalia: I remember listening to an interview with Zaha Hadid. In this interview, she was talking about one of the important moments during her education at the Architectural Association. She arrived at the idea of extracting some geometrical figures from the works of Malevich, an abstract painter, and giving them life in the form of buildings. But if it is about the scale, could the design process change greatly if architects have tools that enable designing on a 1:1 scale? 

Itai: Yes, but that wouldn’t necessarily prevent other forms of abstraction. I saw a video of Frank Gehry where he crumpled up a piece of paper and it turned into a building. 

People don’t realize how fucked up that is because when we think of architects, and this is partly because of the history of the architect, we think they are a kind of a god, and we accept that a good architect is someone who can think of a building as an object. 

That is the exact opposite of what I think architects should be. Architects, if they survive, should become invisible. Architects should be a medium for communities that help them to achieve their aspirations. The ego of the architect shouldn’t even be noticeable in a designed environment.

Is crumpling a piece of paper the right way to design a building? Image: Reza Rostampisheh

Building With Empathy

Michal: Do you think that an alternative could be something similar to Christopher Alexander’s process? 

Itai: I think Christopher Alexander made a really good first step towards creating something I call ‘spatial metacognition’. His work helps you be aware of how things emerge and how they might affect us. Sometimes it is about limiting, sometimes emancipating, but each act has an intent and a consequence. I think it’s in the right direction of what an architect could be, an enabler of creativity rather than an imposer of ideas.

Natalia: What skills does it take to become an enabler rather than impose? What skills do you think an architect should have? 

Itai: Empathy and the desire to act on that empathy, because empathy usually isn’t enough. You can be very empathic, but not necessarily be a very nice person. It’s what you do with that empathy. But you need to be interested in representing other people’s needs more than your own in that position.

In general, because of the lack of agency that we have in the built environment, people’s interest towards how they might change their environment for our own good is diminished. When you speak to an architect, you’re usually in a position in which you have some kind of agency to have influence and that’s the moment where the architect can inspire curiosity and creativity. 

The more architects are able to explain how and why a design decision is informed, rather than based on taste, the more their work will be valued.

Maybe the architect’s role is really to try to get people to be more aware and curious, and make more informed decisions for themselves. On a technical level of space production, in many cases you don’t even need an architect to build something, that says a lot about the profession’s diminishing relevance.

So I think architecture is to become an empathy-based profession. And if you look at where the future of work is going, it’s the only place the architect has left to go. Empathy-based professions are the only professions that are going to be left for humans to do.

Natalia: And what is the role of science we spoke about in architecture? 

Itai: I think it’s a tool to augment empathy. But it has an important role in changing that element of privilege in the profession, and in making it relevant again. The more architects are able to explain how and why a design decision is informed, rather than based on taste, the more their work will be valued.

You don’t go to a doctor and they think: I feel like trepanning your head to cure your headache’ or you go to an engineer that says ‘I feel like installing  really thin beams because that’s going to be lovely’. It’s based on some kind of knowledge. And architecture as a profession is completely outdated compared to other professions in that sense. Science is going to be the lifebuoy here as the evidence base for working on spatial experience

Michal: Where do you see this kind of mindset and knowledge being applied?

Itai: Regarding the integration of science into architecture practice, this is happening in a few places at the same time. I’m happy to see that it’s an approach that more and more are taking up. We are finding ways to redefine the work of the architect.

Regarding the role of the architect as an enabler, good examples of what we might do come from places that are less set in their ways, in terms of the production of space. Like in other sectors, emerging economies are leapfrogging by being able to adapt more quickly.

There is an architect, Kevin Kimwelle, in South Africa. I’ve spoken to him a few times. He works with communities in a really interesting way. He helps communities map out their own resources and map out their skills, and then brings them together to build what they need. 

It’s done with the blessing of the local authority, but because the local authority has such few resources, they have an interest in the community helping themselves. I think that’s a really good example of creating awareness, consciousness, and agency. In a way he’s doing what I’m talking about, which is becoming invisible, becoming the medium for communities’ aspirations to emerge.

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