Alessandro Villa: We all appreciate natural materials

alessandro villa
Alessandro Villa

Alessandro Villa is an architect alternating design activity with teaching. Since 2003 he has been an adjunct professor of Interior Design at Politecnico di Milano and a faculty member at Scuola Politecnica di Design. He has also been a visiting professor at the Tongji University of Shanghai and Goenka University in New Delhi. Alessandro worked on long-term research projects focused on innovation on behalf of international companies (FIAT, 3M, Fincantieri, Beiersdorf) and universities.

In 2004 he opened an interior design practice, working on small-scale architecture, graphic design, and visual communication. He is an expert on materials for interior use, interested in senses and perceptual aspects. He also collaborates with Impronta, neuroscience for architecture and design consultancy.

Natalia Olszewska: I have known you, Alessandro, as one of the pioneers of neuro-design in Italy. You started to write about this topic many years ago. What made you interested in this new field?

Alessandro: I first started to connect the worlds of materials and neuroscience. It was because I’m also a professor dealing with this topic, and whenever I was teaching and talking about it, I always started from the topic of perception.

Currently, there is a huge amount of materials, and every month new products are coming to the market. It’s almost impossible to have an encyclopedic knowledge on the topic and transmit it to students. Also, with the help of the internet, anyone can get technical information. So I needed to take a step forward, to give something more to my students.

My first considerations were related to Gestalt Psychology but also the work of experimental psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa working in Italy between the 60s and the beginning of the 90s. He was a professor at the school where I teach and there was his name on a lecture hall. It made me curious and I started to inquire who this man was and what he did.

Over time, I started to find out more about the recent studies and I have started to become particularly interested in the work of Semir Zeki, a British neuroscientist studying the neurobiology of beauty. He was initially studying mechanisms of visual perception and neural correlates of visual perception. Later, Zeki with his passion for art coined the term ‘neuroaesthetics’. And so that’s why later on, I was talking about ‘neuro-design’, as that was the original inspiration for me.

“Kanizsa Triangle”, an optical illusion demonstrating the principles of Gestalt psychology. A non-existent triangle shape is perceived because of cut-outs in the existing shapes. Image: Fibonacci on Wikimedia Commons.

Beauty is a very important concept for designers. And while there are many studies about all the different sides of a design project, there is not much research about the idea of beauty. People think that beauty is subjective, that it’s different for everybody. But I found it interesting, that on the contrary, as per the idea promoted by Semir Zeki, there might be objective qualities of beauty.

Zeki suggests that there are some mechanisms in the brain related to the perception of beauty, very similar to those that are responsible for the perception of color, or the perception of faces. And he says that there might be some inherited constants that are set in our body.

We can think in a similar way about other domains of design. So the next step for me was to realize that there are some materials that everybody likes. For example, natural materials. Almost universally, we have a preference for them. We feel good when we are in spaces where there are natural materials, particularly wood, so I wondered if there is something biological that can explain these preferences. And also, I wonder if we can consider the beauty of natural materials a sort of universal canon. I mean, something that all humans can feel almost instinctively. 

Natalia: What stage of thinking about materials and neuroscience are you now at? How far did you get with your research? Where would you like to proceed?

Alessandro: Well, after some time, I started to consider that there is a booming market of imitative materials, which imitate the natural ones. And nowadays they are so perfect that if you don’t touch the material, it’s impossible to say which one is the natural one and which is the imitation.

This is often done with wood and stone, which are imitated by ceramics, laminates, and PVC. These materials are bestsellers. I am in touch with many companies and producers and in the last 10 years, all of them have confirmed this. These materials are not very loved by architects and designers, but clients and the public seem to appreciate them very much. 

Mondadori Live Bookstore
Mondadori Live Bookstore (2007). Image:

This trend is also confirmed by the market. Imitative materials have been the best sellers for many years, which is further evidence of the spontaneous preference for surfaces with a “natural look”. And we should be aware that today technology would permit us to create any kind of texture, pattern or decoration. 

Nevertheless, imitation of nature is still preferred by the public. I guess we could consider this “data” – the market, on a planetary dimension – as a sort of evidence for further considerations about our attitude towards natural materials and wood in particular. 

So the idea, which I presented during a conference in London called Between Data and Senses: Architecture, Neuroscience, and the Digital Worlds was to make some experiments. I wanted to make a comparison between the perception of the imitative materials and the natural ones. The experiments consisted of showing both of these materials to people and asking what they feel and what they like.

Of course, they shouldn’t know which one is natural and which is imitative material, the experiment should be blind. We would also use skin conductance responses to see what is the emotion they experience and what they experience when they are told about the real nature of the material. 

We would look for a biological reaction. Maybe some people may be disturbed to discover the true nature of the material. We would also look at the difference between the public and specialists – designers, architects, wood producers, or workers, who have a better knowledge of the materials. Because the guess is that common people nowadays don’t care so much about the originality of these materials. This research would be very useful to understand if this is true and why.

Of course, materials are not works of art, like in the case of Semir Zeki’s research. But they matter for design and our perception of spaces because spaces are defined both by volumes and by surfaces. We could design new surfaces, which produce a positive effect on people. The idea is to use technology used in neuroscience, like neuroimaging. Such research has not been done yet. Currently, I’m searching for funding to be able to continue to go on with this project.

Minimal and Modern

Michal: As you mentioned, there seems to be evidence that people prefer some materials or some geometrical forms over others, but this is not what is then usually built in reality. If the reason for that would be to lower the costs, that would be understandable. But then even when well-known, expensive architects are involved, the result is usually still very much the opposite of what this evidence shows.

It’s very popular today to make everything white, plain, empty and made of raw concrete. Why do you think that it has come to this? And what do you think is the actual force shaping architects’ preferences in general? Because there must have been something convincing them that doing it this way is the right way. Maybe the same motivator could be used to start building architecture better for people’s well-being.

Alessandro: I think that architects have a specific culture, and this culture is built on tradition. In particular, the modern tradition started by Adolf Loss. He was an architect working in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. He’s famous in particular for his collective essays ‘Speaking into the void’. The title of his most famous article is “Ornament and Crime”, where he stated that the new architecture that was coming before WWI and WWII should be using materials in an honest way, without the decoration that at that time was covering the works of arts or the architecture in particular.

Colonne di Porta Nuova (2021). Image:

This style and the artistic movement he criticized has a different name in every country, Jugendstil in Germany, or Art Nouveau in France, in Italy we call it ‘Liberty’, in Vienna it is called ‘Secession’. In his article, Loos was reacting to this over-decorated architecture. He had an incredible influence and still has nowadays. So this way of thinking has been mainstream for more than 100 years. And this could be also the explanation for why many architects prefer a minimalistic style.

“Less is more” was also a phrase adopted in 1947 by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And it did also become a kind of a common idea for common people about modern architecture. I often hear in the language of clients, or friends something like: “I like something modern, I like something minimal.”

So people connect the idea of minimalism to the idea of contemporary architecture and design and the idea of minimalism very often refers to a preference for very simple shapes, but also sometimes precious materials.

When I say precious materials I mean materials with an important surface, that is communicating something. And that’s why very often in minimalistic projects natural materials like marbles and natural stones are used for their aesthetic quality, not only for the function. 

Sometimes they are not functional at all, but they are used for what they communicate. And to make them even more evocative, designers use them within a context of very simple geometries and empty spaces so that they become protagonists of the scene, of the projects. 

Engaging All Senses

Michal: And what do you think about the statement that is coming today from psychologists and neuroscientists, that it’s the person who should be at the center of the space instead of the space being created to express something?

Alessandro: Yes, space has a strong impact on emotions. Certainly, some designers try to create emotions by using the materials, not only the shapes, that we have more research on, and these materials they use generally create a kind of universal reaction. So neuroscience could start studying this phenomenon and by studying it maybe we could also learn something about the way the brain works.

There are many ways to study and many elements to understand when it comes to the relation between architecture and people. There are also studies of light, both natural and artificial. New research that could be started is exactly the research on materials. And companies could help us. Of course, they need to sell, and understanding how people react to materials not only visually, but also in other ways, could help them do that.

Today, most wood products don’t smell any longer, because there is paint or varnish on their surface to make them more durable.

For example, in material development, the latest innovation is about designing and imitating the material’s texture. There are ceramics that, if you look at them, give the feeling of wood. They’re likely colder than wood, but they are practically the same.

That’s why these experiments should be cross-modal, which means several sensory modalities should be researched when it comes to materials perception. Not only visual but also tactile qualities.

I started to collect some samples that I would like to use for these experiments. And I noticed that actually, the visuals are almost identical, the imitative materials are almost identical to the natural ones. The tactile qualities are also going in that direction, but the acoustics are still very different. 

Also, the “percussion” of a material is important, when you tap the material to check its acoustic qualities. Another aspect is the smell. For example, natural wood, particularly in the past, had a very strong smell when it was used, especially at the beginning of its life.

Today, most wood products don’t smell any longer, because there is paint or varnish on their surface to make them more durable. So we don’t perceive this quality of wood any longer and this is something that we are losing. In further research, we should consider all the senses. 

The East and the West

Cultural influences are also important. That’s why I was saying at the beginning that the experiments should be done for groups of people with different cultures. And I suspect that we would have different results.

We all appreciate natural materials, it seems like there is a positive opinion about them. Wood is considered to be a good material and probably it was considered a good material even in prehistoric times, because this was one of the first materials, together with stones, that were used to make tools. And wood is much easier to work with than stones. 

Secondly, today we associate wood with the feeling of warmth, and we say: ‘I like wood because it gives a warm sensation’. And actually, it gives a warm sensation, but also it has a function, for example when we use it to light a fire. This is something – fire –  which we discovered about 30 000 years ago. So it’s not long enough to become an element of our DNA, but certainly long enough to affect us deeply.

In the Western tradition, even for homes, people often ask architects to make something that looks durable.

Wood is also a very good insulator. If you want to have a warm space, you cover it with wood. For example, in houses in the mountains, the outer architectural envelope is made of stone because the massive stone absorbs the temperature slowly and gives it back slowly, but very often we need to have a warmer space in a short time. And wood is a material that can provide these effects. So we are starting to find some connections, which are cultural but also physical, between the appreciation of the aesthetic and the function of the material.

I’ve been traveling to India and China, and I had the chance to talk with people and ask them about their opinion on natural materials. We all know that the Chinese industry now is very important, but originally they started by copying European and American products. So they are not worried about imitative products because imitation is certainly part of the culture.

And so I was asking the Chinese if they appreciated wood, and why? And they all say that they would prefer natural material for an economic reason because it’s related to luxury. We Europeans think that the original is important, and I think here of Walter Benjamin’s work and how he considers that original was something important. 

Another example. If you think about how marbles were used in the Renaissance in Florence, they were certainly precious because they were durable. Architecture also very often states what is important to a society. 

Even the Greek temples were made of stones. In the Western tradition, even for homes, people often ask architects to make something that looks durable. And so this is why we use marbles so much even today. In the Eastern culture, durability is not so important. They don’t have many monuments in China or Japan because monuments there are made of wood which is not durable and so they have to be rebuilt again and again over time.

How Children Learn Materials

Natalia: When you were talking about the fact that there are different cultural appreciations of materials, I was thinking about the neuroaesthetic triad by neuroscientists Vartanian, Chaterjee, and Coburn. Their model proposes that the aesthetic experience of an object is generated because of the interaction between three physiological components which are sensory-motor systems, cognition (which is also related to an accumulation of collective and individual experiences), and the third system which is the brain’s emotional system.

When we take a tree, it’s different from the wood into which we process it. But we see a relation between the human-made and the natural. 

Recently, I was trying to find some research on materiality and restoration. And I found a few interesting studies done by Japanese researchers. They were talking about texture and they were saying that in general wood, but also rough natural surfaces, aid relaxation and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for resting states).

Alessandro: Textures are often the result of human artificial processes because we don’t use most materials as they are found in nature. When we take a tree, it’s different from the wood into which we process it. But we see a relation between the human-made and the natural. 

Since childhood, we are involved in gaining this intuitive knowledge of nature and how it works. When my son was young, whenever we saw a piece of stone, he used to say that it was made of a monument. So in his mind, it was a piece of sculpture. In other words, the sculpture was the material. 

Stone statue
A child growing up in a city might initially say that “stone comes from a statue”. Image: Vincent Liu on Unsplash

And I think that even if a child doesn’t think about the precise process of how a tree becomes a tool, or a toy, or a piece of furniture, I think that this is something that they learn very, very soon. I think that even in the most urbanized country, children go to the mountains, to the seaside, to the woods, and they see a broken tree trunk on the ground. And so you start from that experience to immediately understand the relationship between natural elements and natural materials.

And probably my son hasn’t been enough in nature, his culture was mainly based in the city. His first experience was that a stone is a sculpture. So we see how living in a city may lead us away from nature.

How to Feel a Building

Michal: You made me think a lot about how we form our relationship with materials and that maybe it’s even more complex than we had thought because there are multiple levels on which we are shaped: our culture, our genetics, our experiences as a child, and so on. It seems to me that makes it even more important to find out if there is something universal to all humans. 

Because one thing is building interiors for specific people, where you can find out what they react positively to, and another when you have to decide how an office building should look like, where you have to decide for thousands of people who will be using it.

One more question. If you come back to everything that we have been talking about today, your practice and your knowledge, what would you consider as some positive examples of buildings or places which implement what we know about materials and how they can affect people positively?

Alessandro: I would answer it in a slightly different way. When I was a student, I remember that during my Erasmus student exchange program in Great Britain, one day we went to visit a beautiful church in London, designed by Micholas Hawksmore. The church was made of natural stone. We were at a big square in front of the church.

Christ Church, Spitalfields by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Image: David Iliff on Wikipedia.

The professor told us to start to look at this building, first when we were far away from it and think of the visual perception that we experienced. Then, as we were getting closer, he told us to be aware of what we were experiencing emotionally. And then we went closer and closer. And when we were very close, he said to touch it with our hands, and then embrace it with the whole body. It was a very good way of getting to know this building. It taught me a lot about how to approach a building. I have since applied it many times.

I had a similar experience in the Pantheon, in Rome. I remember that the famous Spanish architect, Alberto Campo Baeza, said that when he went to Pantheon for the first time, it was beautiful, and then he stayed there for a longer time and he started to cry.

Then, when I went to Rome some years ago, I said, well, let’s see what happens to me. And so I stayed there for a long time and I didn’t cry, but I had some very deep impressions, deep knowledge of the place. For me, it was no longer a monument. It was a space with which I was creating a relationship. 

First I had hoped there would be no people there, but when I went there, the space was full. At first, I was a bit annoyed and uncomfortable, but after a while, I started embracing the moving mass of people inside. 

My perception of the floor, which is made of marble, and of the space, started to have a scale because of the people there. My experience was certainly very different from Alberto’s but was specific to that moment in that place. And probably not repeatable again.

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