Some time ago, I participated in an architectural educational trip to Switzerland. Starting from Saint Etienne, France, we would travel to a large part of the country to visit several architectural works. Among them, the Thermes de Vals by Peter Zumthor, the Rolex Learning Center of SANAA, the Kirchner Museum of Gigon / Gruyer, and the work of the Swiss Hans Jorg Ruch, in which the architect himself would guide us.
We started our tour at Mr. Ruch’s small architectural office, where 4 or 5 people worked calmly against the backdrop of the mountainous Swiss landscape. During the day, we visited his various local works, mainly in the Swiss countryside. At the end of the day, we arrived at a historic residence in a small Swiss village, Zuoz.
Chesa Madalena, built in the 14th century on one of Zuoz’s twenty, sixteen meters high towers, was used as a rural residence until 1999. The house was then restored and converted by Ruch into a modern art gallery.
Despite its modern renovation, the interior retained the pulsating old feeling, with the thick stone walls of the centuries-old tower, and the (perhaps necessary) Swiss introversion, as the house was crammed between its neighbors while observing the rest of the village in proximity.
Passing from the still empty spaces to the first levels, through a humid stone hall (a former stable) and an unpredictable series of different spaces, we reached a room that embraced the tower while a theatrically placed window opened to the village and the landscape painted by the blue hour of the day.
From that point, a narrow wooden staircase led to an elongated vestibule from where a vertical staircase hidden in the roof of the space started. Going up and at first glance, my heart almost stopped. The experience caused an unprecedented feeling of awe. What was it that I saw? An attic with a mattress on the floor and a bay window overlooking the village and the Swiss landscape.
Reality is Introspective
Since then, I kept wondering what contributed to this hitherto incomparable experience? What made Switzerland’s Chesa Madalena attic so uniquely riveting? Olafur Eliasson, a Danish-Icelandic artist who often uses natural elements to intensify the viewer’s experience states that reality is relative.
Every human experience, at the time it takes place, is automatically associated with events, stimuli from our external environment, but also with emotions and thoughts appearing in our minds. This means that whatever happens is not self-existent in the human mind, but is influenced in intensity, importance, and interpretation by previous experiences and emotions.
For example, take a look at the following three words:
summer island concert
These words create associative feelings and thoughts, different to everyone, charged with past experiences or future expectations. They mean something different for each and every one of us. Moreover, during this period, given the pandemic restrictions worldwide, these words have a greater intensity than if we weren’t going through this global situation.
What is most important is that the reality, if such a thing exists, is always filtered through each one’s personal perception and therefore is slightly different for each one of us. The most interesting thing about this assumption is that the filter of personal perception is generally undetectable. In other words, anyone could argue that their reality is The Reality.
Many of these mechanisms were developed, in a simplistic interpretation, for the very purpose of human survival: unlike the rest of the earth’s fauna, the human brain, even though it consists 2-5% of a human’s body weight, it consumes 25 % of its energy needs.
Humans had to automate mental processes so that they could survive and evolve as a species. As a result, the human brain processes 11 000 000 bits per second of which only 50 bits are perceived by human consciousness.
In other words, for each new experience, the human brain looks into the past for already existing patterns. Then it can use the patterns it identified and save energy precious for its survival.
The Fast System 1, the Slow System 2
In the book Thinking, Fast & Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes how human mental processes, which essentially determine the whole human behavior, thinking, perceiving, and experiencing, operate through two systems, which he calls System 1 & System 2.
System 1, the fast system, is the autopilot of the human mind (this is what Don Norman called the visceral factor). It includes all the processes that take place automatically from walking while talking at the same time to tying your shoelaces.
Taking this a step further, System 1 refers to all the automated mental processes of a person, whatever each of us is “used” to do, think, and feel in response to a certain cue. For example, the nostalgic memory of the neighborhood where someone grew up or the unpleasant feeling of passing by an area that holds bad memories. System 1 administers the vast majority of the processes of human life.
In the case of System 1, and due to its automated nature, “errors”, often known as “biases” occur. These errors misdirect human judgment, without it even being perceived. For example, confirmation bias often leads one to interpret facts to confirm their initial beliefs.
In contrast, System 2, the slow system, requires attention and focus to create a deliberate thought or behavior when encountering a new circumstance.
Embodied Experience Versus Rational Design
What do Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 & System 2 have to do with Chesa Madalena which I have visited?
Like all human experiences, the experience of space is, for the most part, instinctive, embodied in us, in the sense that an experience is formed without deliberate thought. In other words, the fast System 1 is the one mainly responsible for the architectural experience. There are spaces in which, for an inexplicable reason, we feel safe or happy, or on the contrary, we feel uncomfortable.
Many architects have tried to approach spatial experience in different ways: from Peter Zumthor’s atmosphere to Bernard Tschumi’s event. Nevertheless, throughout the 20th century and until today, the architectural practice has relied mostly on rational criteria: on functionality and maximum economy of space, time, and money.
The modernist movement, representing all the above, built the cities we live in today and epitomized the common belief that logic prevails over emotion.
It is worth noting that although spatial experience is mainly physical, design methods used today for creating architecture are based only on logical methods.
Designing for the Overall Experience
So which would be the characteristics of an architectural design method aiming to capture the overall experience of space? How can we include System 1 of the human experience when it may not even be perceived by the user themselves? How can an architectural method overcome the errors of perception? Or maybe design with them?
We can discern three different categories of System 1 predispositions that affect our experience of space and architecture. The elements included in these categories are uniquely combined for every person into a complex blend that composes the final personal experience.
1. Biological Predispositions
For many, many years, much longer than the time people have lived in organized settlements, daily life has been very different. For almost 2 million years, humans were foragers and lived in direct contact and interaction with nature. They chose their settlements based on easy access to food and protection from natural phenomena, animals, and invaders.
These places were natural shelters that inspired security, ensured the supervision of the surrounding area, and also provided protection from sudden visits. This predisposition is recorded in human nature. Research is constantly proving the beneficial effects of such spaces on human physical and mental health.
This theory has been described by the term biophilia. Biophilic design brings humans in direct contact with nature (greenery, water, natural light), uses sustainable practices, while also borrowing design elements such as organic forms, emphasis on detail, and organized complexity.
2. Social and Cultural Predispositions
Cultural predispositions, depending on the period and place where a group of people lives, significantly affect people’s experience of space by shaping their cultural and social references and standards. Similarly, today, we can’t ignore the rising effect of social media trends and information on human perception.
Let me give you an example. A few months ago, I attended a very interesting virtual presentation of the book Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm. The presentation included a series of short lectures on “the biological and evolutionary perspective on how the buildings around us affect us”.
At the end of the event, I took the floor to ask if there is a modern example of architecture that puts all this data into practice. Nikos Saligaros, architect and mathematician known for his work in urban and architectural theory, proposed a project by Dimitris Porphyrios in Athens, as a characteristic expression of the book’s principles – the headquarters of Interamerican Insurances on Syggrou Avenue.
Dimitris Porphyrios is an internationally renowned architect who is mainly active in Great Britain. His modern architecture combines elements from modernism with the extensive use of materials, such as metal and glass with elements of neoclassicism, such as the three-part organization of the facade and decorative details. Nevertheless, such a hybrid architectural style in Athens seems somewhat unfamiliar.
3. Personal Predispositions
Finally, as mentioned above, each one of us has our own predispositions that shape our spatial experience. Memories from our childhood, textures, materials, colors, and smells from scattered experiences comprise a unique spectrum of interaction when encountering new spaces and generating new experiences.
By Way of Epilog
My Chesa Madalena’s riveting experience, after all, can be probably explained by the combination of the biologically fascinating earthy stone textures and the traditional historical architecture, with a touch of a familiar minimalistic modern architecture like the one I was taught. Could the unforeseen cinematographic experience that the architect had set up play a role too? And what about my personal references from the past?
Experience, after all, is quite difficult to explain. It is often unpredictable and deeply personal. And this is what makes it truly magical. Nevertheless, to some extent, some traits can be predicted and designed to stimulate our mental predispositions. And, perhaps, designing with them in mind can lead to more riveting and fulfilling experiences of space.
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Annita Douka is an award-winning architect, living and working in Athens. She is interested in creating and promoting better ways of everyday living and experiencing life through architecture. She loves research, experimentation and technology. In 2019, she started publishing her own blog, Archireads, on architectural theory and conscious design. It has evolved into @Mind UX Architecture, a project that uses human sciences’ and UX theory and methodology towards a more human centered, life-enhancing, awesome architectural design accessible to everyone.