Andrea Jelic: If we don’t design for humans, who do we design for?

Andrea Jelic

Andrea Jelić is an architect, researcher, and educator working at the intersection of architecture and enactive-embodied cognition. Her research explores how the built environment affects the lived-living body. Dr. Jelić is an Assistant Professor in Space for Healthy Organizations at KU Leuven, within research groups Research[x]Design (Dept. of Architecture) and Building Physics and Sustainable Design (Dept. of Civil Engineering).

She is an Advisory Council member of ANFA—Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture and a faculty member in the Master’s program “Neuroscience applied to architectural design” at IUAV University of Venice. Her main research interests include the interplay between spatial design, organizational dynamics, well-being at work, social sustainability, and (learning to) design for the diversity of bodies and user experiences.

Natalia Olszewska: I came across your Ph.D. dissertation on neurophenomenology and architecture during my studies. It has great depth and it’s probably one of the best works you can find on this topic today. What made you interested in it?

Andrea Jelic: Throughout my architecture studies, I was always interested in phenomenology, human experience, multi-sensoriality, and how people engage with spaces. During my Ph.D., I had a perfect opportunity to explore these interests in-depth.

It was soon after I started my Ph.D. that Harry Mallgrave’s book The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture was published. This work, together with Richard Neutra’s Survival Through Design sparked my curiosity about cognitive philosophy and neuroscience.

Stepping into the perspectives of the enactive approach to cognition and neurophenomenology allowed me to give concrete language to many felt insights as an architectural designer about how we experience spaces.

The Enacted Mind in Architecture

Michal Matlon: Enactivism is also an important topic in your work. Could you briefly describe what it means? 

Andrea: In simple terms, it means that everything you experience, think, know, and learn in the world originates in your bodily interactions with it. Understanding cognition as enactive can be illustrated with an example of trying to understand a bird’s capacity to fly. 

Rather than looking only at the bird’s wings, flight is something that happens through the interaction of the bird’s body and its environment – the air. Similarly, understanding cognition requires us to look beyond what happens in the brain – and to consider the brain-body-environment as a dynamic system.

Flight is something that happens through the interaction of the bird’s body and its environment – the air. Image: AARN GIRI

I would also highlight that, in the context of my work, enactivism can be understood as a theoretical framework whereas neurophenomenology serves as a methodological framework and inspiration for designing experiments.

Natalia: And what is neurophenomenology about? 

Andrea: Neurophenomenology was initially conceptualized and proposed by Francisco Varela. It was meant to bridge the gap between the first-person and the third-person perspective in understanding the human mind.

The idea is that a science of consciousness and cognition needs to consider and take both perspectives seriously. This entails gathering data from the third person perspective e.g., neurophysiological measures, and from the first-person perspective to capture the phenomenological, lived experience through e.g. self-reports or (micro-)phenomenological interviews. So far, very few studies incorporate this approach.

Natalia: Can we then say that neurophenomenology is an attempt to combine personal lived experience with scientific measurements?

Andrea: I like to call this way of thinking about architecture and spatial experience “designing for the lived-living body” because the “lived” refers to the subject’s experience and the “living” refers to the biological organism. And then, because those are the two sides of the same coin and two ways of looking at the body, we want to use different methods to capture them at the same time.

Why Should Architects Use Science?

Michal: How could architects use knowledge generated with this approach? How could this be useful for their work?

Andrea: This is another thing that I am trying to put a little bit more emphasis on through my research and teaching. I think that in the context of interdisciplinary dialogue between architecture research and cognitive (neuro)science, we have left a considerable gap between research and design unexplored. 

We should be putting more research efforts into understanding how architects can use research in their practice. This is well illustrated by the work of my colleagues from the Research[x]Design  group, co-chaired by Ann Heylighen, here at KU Leuven (in Belgium). 

Specifically, through several studies, they highlighted that reading scientific papers is not the most useful method to convey information about user experience to architectural designers. Instead, more engaging formats, like videos or documentaries, might be a much better way to inform and challenge typical ways of thinking, especially about the diversity of user experience. 

Science is an inherent part of creating buildings.

How you provide information about any kind of research matters a lot. And I think we don’t know enough about the different ways of sharing this growing knowledge on health and experience-related research with architectural practice.

Natalia: Why should we be applying research to architecture? Why should architects be curious about science? Do they understand the potential of science for their field? 

Andrea: Science is an inherent part of creating buildings. In the case of human-centered design, it is just a different source of research, as architects try to understand a project and who they are designing for. I believe it is something that should come naturally to architects. 

While we should be mindful of the complexity of architects’ design tasks and the need to take into account a variety of different disciplines and research areas, this also fuels my fascination with how we can – and should – shape architectural education in the future.

Before coming to KU Leuven, I was an assistant professor at Aalborg University (Denmark), and together with a colleague Tenna Doktor Olsen Tvedebrink, we were teaching a course on architecture, health, and wellbeing

One of the intriguing questions underpinning this course was precisely about how to teach students to use health-related research in design. Part of the course included wonderful sessions discussing research papers, pointing out the limitations, and potentials, and even brainstorming what other factors could have been considered in these studies. 

The core idea behind this course was to encourage the students to start thinking about how they are going to apply the research insights to their design. Based on our teaching experiences, we can see that there is a need for developing pedagogical and design tools to help them translate that knowledge. This is a research area where we could do a lot as architecture educators. 

Currently, there is a small but growing number of programs and courses around the world that contribute to the efforts of bringing research on human health and experience into architectural curricula. 

Creating an environmentally and socially sustainable built environment certainly requires our students to have the knowledge and skills to integrate this research during the design process. Because, if we don’t design for humans, who do we design for?

How to Communicate Science to Architects?

Michal: You mentioned that getting architects to read papers is probably not the most effective way. Could you tell us something about that?

Andrea: Based on the past work of my colleagues and myself, other ways are worth exploring such as scenario-based design and introducing research-informed design personas for creating possible design solutions. In this way, designers’ language is used in combination with research.

Research-informed design personas are one way of communicating user needs to architects. Image: Gamiria Agencia de Marketing Digital from Pixabay

So, I think that one useful avenue to explore more in research-informed design is such narrative-oriented approaches. These approaches have been much more present in design more broadly – in product design or web design, yet architects have not used them extensively thus far.

Natalia: This is very interesting because at Hume, but also Impronta, we have used a similar methodology inspired by UX desIgn. The personas approach is great to convey the idea of users’ diversity and how they might have various needs.

I wanted to ask you about another project though – the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. You have been an ANFA Advisory Council member. Could you explain to our readers what kind of initiative it is? And what are its ambitions, also regarding the new Center for Education project?

Andrea:  One of ANFA’s main goals is to gather the community of professionals, from researchers to designers, across disciplines and to foster the dialogue and knowledge-building between architecture and cognitive (neuro)science. For the past decade, this has been particularly supported through the famous ANFA biennial conferences at the Salk Institute and more recently, with a growing amount of international events organized. 

In addition, a newly established ANFA Center for Education (ACE), an initiative led by Tatiana Berger, is a working group focusing on how to bring this exciting knowledge on brain-body-space interactions into the architectural curricula around the world. Together with other ACE colleagues, one of my aims is to grow the network of educators in Europe. 

Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Image:

We wish to create a space where we can talk about challenges such as how we can use research on human health and experience, including cognitive (neuro)scientific knowledge, how we can integrate it into the architectural curriculum, and importantly, what methods we should use to teach it.

Natalia: Could you tell us more about why architects need to understand how people experience buildings? Some say that architects have such a strong intuition that they just know what’s right to do. They observe people, they build for communities and this idea that architecture can take something from social sciences has been there for a long time. But why should we use cognitive neuroscience, or psychology to build better buildings? 

Andrea: Sarah Robinson has beautifully written in her book “Architecture is a Verb” that designing architecture should not be about how a building looks, but about how it feels and what it does. This fits very neatly with the enactivist perspective, where the built environment is understood as being constitutive of our experience, shaping our possibilities for action – from movement to feeling, and thinking. In extension, the environment becomes part of what and who we are. It resonates with our bodies, from their physiology to our sense of self.

I think that by looking from such a perspective on architectural experience, a different way of understanding designers’ responsibilities and the impact of design decisions opens up. While we still need to better understand the extent to which a building affects and shapes one’s biological processes and health, especially across different timescales, we do know that such an impact exists. 

The influence of the environment is not only passive and we should take into consideration the complexity of how people engage and interact with spaces over time. For this reason, it is relevant to take a more dynamic definition of health as the ability to respond and cope with challenges over the more static understanding of health as a state of physical, mental, and social well-being. Accordingly, we can focus not only on how the built spaces affect us but also on how they can provide us with support and opportunities to deal with daily challenges like different stressful situations affecting our health in the longer term. 

Michal: Do you have any positive examples to share?

Andrea: One interesting example is the designs by the RAAAF studio (Rietveld Architecture-Art Affordances) from the Netherlands. As a founding team of an architect and cognitive philosopher, Ronald and Erik Rietveld work with the concept of affordances, for example, in their project The End of Sitting

The End of Sitting by RAAAF. Image: Jan Kempenaers

In my view, one of the main values of their unique approach is that it opens up the possibility to think about the diversity of people’s abilities – and to understand them as a rich source of design inspiration. If you as a designer consider the people with diverse abilities and how these abilities are manifested when they interact with a certain space, what might be seen as an ‘inability’ at first, should not be understood as a limitation. 

Instead, the notion of affordances allows us to understand it as a different way of experiencing and interacting with the world; an understanding that can help architects to include and empower people. To think about the breadth of people’s abilities in this way is where, for me, the true strength of the design lies in shaping the world we live in.

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