Understanding the Experience of Architecture, Part 2

Image: Yulia Chinato on Unsplash

This article was originally published in Polish language, in the IARP magazine (Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland), issue Z:A 86.

In the first part of this article, we talked about the pioneering individuals and institutions that create new knowledge between architecture and neuroscience. We have also described the brain systems important for understanding the experience of architecture.

In this second part, we will look at how architects can use this knowledge to design spaces that enable human flourishing.

Previously, we saw that although some aspects of experiencing architecture are an individual matter, the activation of many structures and brain circuits is universal to most people.

Evolutionary psychology explains this is because humans and their predecessors spent millions of years in the same natural conditions (so-called “environment of evolutionary adaptation”).

Today, we use the same brains, mostly unchanged in the last two hundred thousand years, to experience man-made architecture.

What is Biophilic Design?

Image: Kevin Young on Unsplash

A growing design approach that reacts to this knowledge is called “biophilic design.” It advocates using natural materials, patterns, and other natural qualities in architectural design.

Research shows contact with nature can be a source of peace, energy, and creativity. It also regenerates and improves our mood.

Neuroscience deepens our understanding of this phenomenon. It explains what mechanisms occur in our minds during contact with nature and natural elements in architecture and how nature can coexist with architecture and urban planning to maximize the positive effects on humans.

Research shows contact with nature can be a source of peace, energy, and creativity. It also regenerates and improves our mood.

Biophilia was first mentioned by the American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson. In his 1984 book of the same name, he argued that the tendency of people to seek nature and bond with it is partly genetic. Wilson argued that biophilia is the essence of humanity and binds us to all living things.

Edward Wilson’s Biophilia

One of the theories explaining the positive effects of nature on our minds is called the “attention restoration theory” (ART). It says that people can focus better after spending time in nature, and it’s based on research into two types of attention: involuntary and voluntary.

It says that in nature, our brains tend to switch to the “involuntary” attention mode, which restores our “voluntary” attention capacities – our ability to concentrate.

Currently, attention restoration theory is being studied using neuroscientific methods such as electroencephalography (EEG). Scientists are trying to understand what’s going on in our brain during this restorative attention mode and what triggers it – both in nature and in the city.

In 2014, the organization Terrapin Bright Green, led by William Browning, used the accumulated knowledge from environmental psychology and neuroscience to create an integrated framework of biophilic design. Consisting of 14 design patterns (qualities), biophilic design is essential for our mental and physical health and can be easily applied to architecture.

Though biophilia is just one part of a good design, it also directly and universally translates into benefits for people’s mental and physical health and well-being.

Nature in SpaceNatural AnalogiesNature of Space
Visual connection with natureBiomorphic forms and patternsPerspective
Non-visual connection with natureMaterial bond with natureShelter
Irregular sensory stimuliComplexity and orderMystery
Thermal and air flow variabilityRisk / danger
The presence of water
Dynamic and diffused light
Relationships with natural systems

Designing For Neurodiversity and For Everyone

Recently, more and more attention has been given to neurodiversity and design for the needs of neurodiverse people. We want to emphasize, however, that neuroscience in architecture has a much broader scope, and designers should use it as a ground for designing for all users of space.

Using knowledge from neuroscience benefits everyone, not only those whose processing of sensory stimuli, cognitive abilities, or social interactions are somehow atypical.

However, neurobiologists’ research with neurodiverse people expanded the designers’ knowledge. We now know more about how space is perceived by people on the autism spectrum, with ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, struggling with dementia, or other atypicality of the nervous system.

Success lies in designing in a harmonious, logical, and clear way while simultaneously balancing the zones that soothe and stimulate the senses to an appropriate and natural degree.

Architecture may not only be unfavorable to the healthy functioning of humans, but even harm the brain through the excessive intensity of stimuli – deepening the feeling of stress, loss of orientation, increasing alienation, or the inability to focus.

Neurodiverse people are much more sensitive to these effects than other space users. Moreover, research shows that stress causes neuron loss and thus can intensify degenerative processes in the brain. Poorly designed space deepens the difficulties experienced by these people.

However, research shows that when it comes to designing for neurodiversity people, it’s about more than making the space simple.

Success lies in designing in a harmonious, logical, and clear way while simultaneously balancing the zones that soothe and stimulate the senses to an appropriate and natural degree.

By varying the sensory load and allowing for a smooth accommodation of the senses and the nervous system, a well-designed space can improve cognitive functions and social interactions and positively affect mood and a sense of security and comfort. It’s also important to vary the sensory conditions in more intimate spaces, like places of rest or meeting spaces.

Proxemics and Designing for Closeness

In the context of human-centered design, it is worth paying attention to the concept of “proxemics.” It’s a field of science that studies the mutual influence of spatial relations between persons and psychological reactions to these relations.

Simply said, it asks what happens when humans’ physical density and closeness change in space. American anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced this term to describe the effect of distance, closeness, and neighborliness.

Image: Eddi Aguirre on Unsplash

Understanding personal space is critical when designing public spaces where strangers meet in the same area. Personal space varies with personality and culture, but it’s also possible to generalize and create standard rules related to distance that allow most users to be comfortable.

As a rule, neurodiverse people are more sensitive in this area. They may feel more discomfort due to violating their personal space than other users. By creating an environment supporting neurodiverse people, we design better spaces for everyone.

After all, in the modern world, overloaded with intense stimuli, intensifying virtualization of reality, and riddled with social issues, the so-called “neurotypical” people feel tired and lost too. Care for the health of users of spaces thus becomes the designers’ responsibility.

Examples of Science-Informed Design Projects

There are already first projects being created, where the designers used neuroscientific knowledge applied to architecture.

1. A Space for Being, Milan (Italy)

A famous example of a project demonstrating how space can affect our biology was A Space for Being, opened to a wider audience at the Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2018. Its originator was Ivy Ross, vice president of hardware design at Google. The project was created in cooperation with the New York architect Suchi Reddy and Susan Magsamen, director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, mentioned earlier.

Suchi Reddy, using the conclusions of neuro-aesthetic research, designed three rooms, each with a different atmosphere. Visitors to the exhibition put on a sensory band that measured heart rate variability and skin conductance (sweating), which are important indicators of psychophysiological tension and stress.

According to Susan Magsamen, one of the conclusions of this exploration was that the participants’ self-described emotions differed from those recorded with the use of sensors. Magsamen concluded: “We don’t always understand the effect of space on us, and we can’t always interpret our body’s reactions. Technology can help us do that.”

2. Urban Thinkscape, Philadelphia (USA)

Another example of a project using knowledge from behavioral research is Urban Thinkscape. This Philadelphia project was realized through the cooperation of a multidisciplinary team of specialists in the psychology of child development.

The architectural consultant was Itai Palti – an architect and urban planner, a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, a scholarship holder at the Academy of Neurosciences in Architecture, and director of the HUME studio, specializing in architectural design based on neuroscience and behavioral data.

Urban Thinkscape. Image: Sahar Coston-Hardy.

It all started when the local community wanted to revitalize the Belmont neighborhood in West Philadelphia and chose a bus stop near the location of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech in 1965.

The project is a series of installations and spatial games designed to stimulate children’s skills in math, scientific thinking, linguistic skills, collaboration, and communication.

3. Enriched Environments for Brain Health Report

As architectural companies have been looking for design solutions for an aging world population in recent years, the charismatic architect and research director at HKS Architects, Upali Nanda, asked the HUME team to create an educational report for architects on preventing brain health.

HUME studio has collected hundreds of previously published studies on the neurobiology of brain aging, including cognitive decline. The team’s research focused on finding relationships between the characteristics of the built environment and memory, creativity, positive emotions, and engagement.

Based on this knowledge, they then developed science-based design recommendations. The project was presented at a conference organized by the Academy of Neuroscience For Architecture in 2020, during the Environments for Aging Expo & Conference in 2021. It was also published on the HKS website.

4. E&Y office in Rome, Italy

One of the pioneers of architectural design based on neuroscience data and guidelines is Lombardini 22 studio, a large architectural office in Italy. The person responsible for the neuroscience brief in this company is Davide Ruzzon, who at the same time is the originator and scientific director of the studies of Neuroscience applied in architecture at the IUAV University in Venice.

Studio Lombardini 22 has been using this design paradigm for several years. An example is the recently completed project of the E&Y office in Rome, created in cooperation between three departments of the company: DEGW, TUNED, and FUD.

5. Restorative Zone at Arup Office in Warsaw, Poland

In Poland, the first architectural company that began to implement neuroscientific knowledge in practice is the Workplace studio from Warsaw, one of the regional leaders in designing office spaces.

Architects from Workplace, in cooperation with the Italian company Impronta, specializing in application of neuroscientific research in architectural design, designed a restorative zone in the new Arup office in Warsaw. The collaboration involved creation of a restorative experience within a corridor – a space whose potential is usually left unfulfilled by designers.

The Impronta team, consisting of researchers and architects specialized in the application of neuroscience, supported the designers from Workplace by giving them guidance on the spatial plan, geometry, materials, colors, and lighting in the space. The project is currently in the execution phase.

Beginning The Age of Human-Oriented Design

Today, architecture, urban planning, and interior design require the cooperation of interdisciplinary teams. Though designers are often concerned about other disciplines limiting their creative freedom and presenting them with new challenges, it’s essential to understand the contribution of neuroscience and psychology to design. When applied correctly, they can serve as a powerful tool supporting human-oriented design.

In today’s dynamically developing world, educating architects and providing them with access to research on social, psychological, and neurological processes and technologies influencing human senses and habits is crucial.

It’s also worth following innovative projects created through so-called “speculative design,” one of the forecasting methods used to prototype future spaces and objects.

In today’s dynamically developing world, educating architects and providing them with access to research on social, psychological, and neurological processes and technologies influencing human senses and habits is crucial.

In today’s design process, architects must consider the user experience. The benefits of individual and group welfare translate into positive economic outcomes too.

When architects understand the mechanisms of the brain’s response to different materials, geometry, lighting, smells, acoustics, or air quality, they can design more consciously and influence how users behave, think, and feel.

By relying on specific knowledge derived from neurobiological research, it’s also easier to convince investors about innovative design solutions, sometimes seemingly non-obvious.

The emerging “neuroscience of architecture” has the potential to become an empirical platform for researching and exploring the experimental dimensions of architecture that have been largely overlooked in modern construction.

John Eberhard, an American architect and the co-founder of ANFA, predicted: “If our profession commits itself to seeking research-oriented knowledge in the 21st century, architects will not only enjoy a better reputation as they will become highly influential professionals for community health, but they will also gain knowledge to do their job better. “

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Marta Wierusz

Marta Wierusz is an Architecture and Town Planning graduate at the Łódź University of Technology. She studied Art Therapy at the Academy of Special Education in Warsaw and received an Erasmus scholarship at the Fachhochschule Mainz in Germany. Marta is a laureate of the competition “Good Innovations,” organized by Zamek Cieszyn, and runs the interior design team at APA Wojciechowski architectural studio. She specializes in sustainable and inclusive design, especially for neuro-divergent people and the elderly. Her purpose is to expand and promote knowledge in the field of design that puts people in the center and positively impacts users’ health and well-being. She cooperates with the A / typowi Foundation dealing with neurodiversity.

Natalia Olszewska is a Researcher and Practitioner in Neuroscience Applied to Architecture. Being a graduate in medicine (Jagiellonian University & Tor Vergata), neuroscience (Sorbonne Université & ENS), Brain and Mind studies (UCL) and ‘Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design’ (IUAV university) she works between disciplines and creates insights for people-centered environments.
At work, she combines her deep care for people and their well-being with her passion for architecture and design. Natalia is a co-founder of Impronta, behavioral science and neuroscience consultancy for architecture.


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