Recently, we have been able to watch the upcoming documentary Built Beautiful, directed by Mariel Rodriguez-McGill. Screened at the Denver Film Festival 2020, it tells a story of a paradigm change, brought to architecture by recent developments in science.
However, as the audience soon learns, neuroscience is not the first field to look into the relationship between humans and their built environment. During the 20th century, psychologists have also been researching this important topic. Architecture, though, seemed largely unmoved by the previous developments.
Harry Francis Mallgrave is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Illinois Institute of Technology and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He received his PhD in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and has enjoyed a career as a scholar, translator, editor, and architect. He has published more than a dozen books on architectural history and theory, including three considering the relevance of the new humanistic and biological models for the practice of design. His most recent book, Building Paradise: Episodes in Paradisiacal Thinking, is currently in press with Routledge Publications. Drawing upon a theme first raised by Alvar Aalto, it offers both a selected history of the idea of paradise as well as a ‘garden ethic’ for the ecological practice of design.
Michal Matlon: Nikos Salingaros said that most of what is usually called architectural theory is not really a theory, since it holds no predictive value about the impact of the built environment on people. Would you agree that’s the case? And with the increasing introduction of scientific research as an input into the decision making of architects today, do we need to change the definition of architectural theory as such?
In the recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about public space. We often hear how important is the right size of a square, the appropriate choice of greenery, comfortable sidewalks for pedestrians or ergonomic design of benches. We hear a little less, however, that one of the most important elements of public space is the buildings that surround and shape it.
There are several reasons for this. First of them might be a practical one. Under today’s conditions and with the current form of the zoning plan in many European cities, the city simply does not have much impact on the appearance of buildings. In some countries, we encounter so-called “form-based” zoning plans. Meaning those that determine the formal appearance rather than the function of buildings in a certain zone, so that the whole neighborhood looks pleasing and unified.
The second reason is the orientation of today’s architecture on individual buildings and their authors, rather than the creation of harmonious neighborhoods. And the third one is the strong legal protection of private property, which results in weak powers of the city in regulating the appearance of buildings.
Meredith Banasiak is a Director of Research for BA/Science, a research and innovation group of Boulder Associates Architects. As a former faculty member in architecture and environmental design, Meredith integrated neuroscience concepts into her studio and human behavior courses to support designing for human diversity across physical, sensory and cognitive abilities. She gained experience as a Research Assistant at the Krasnow Institute at George Mason University and during her time as a Research Associate with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Meredith is a Fellow with the Centre for Conscious Design, and has published in psychology, medicine and architectural research journals and books.
Natalia Olszewska: Could you tell us what happened that as an architecture practitioner you have started to lean towards neuroscience?
Meredith Banasiak: Well, what we do isn’t very different from who we are. All my life I have struggled with sensory stimulation from the environment and was not able to inhibit intense sensory stimuli as a child. I would be in places where I felt like my brain was being hijacked by my surroundings. And because of what was happening around me, I couldn’t control my attention, my emotions and my cognition.
So, when I was growing up, I wanted to both understand what was happening in my brain, but also I wanted to design the environment, so this wouldn’t happen to others. I feel like I’ve spent my education preparing for a career that didn’t exist yet. I have just followed what I was curious about, which was natural sciences and the classics. I studied Latin, Greek and classical archeology.
Natalia: Could you tell us more about when and how did you connect with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture?
In urban planning, we often focus mainly on the built structures: offices, houses, retail, “formal spaces” and infrastructure. What is not addressable on Google Maps is either not existing in people’s minds or seen as a potential development opportunity by real estate companies. A special kind of space, so-called in-between spaces, elude a structured planning process.
However, I think this is a profound planning error. The “in-between” bears potential for hosting the new and creating opportunities not existing in formally defined places. More important, “in-between” not only refers to a physical location, a site, but more generally to our intentions, awareness and understanding.
Upali Nanda is director of research for HKS Inc., a global architectural firm, and associate professor of practice in architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She also serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation. In 2015, Nanda was recognized as one of the Top 10 Most Influential People in Healthcare Design by Healthcare Design Magazine. Most recently, she was honored with the 2018 Women in Architecture Innovator Award from Architectural Record.
Natalia Olszewska: I’ll ask you about the consequences of COVID-19 for design. You have opened the Conscious Cities Festival in October 2020 with a discussion on this topic. Could you share some of your thoughts with Venetian Letter readers?
Sarah Williams Goldhagen is an esteemed American architecture critic and author, who taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. After immersing herself in research on biophilia, neuroscience and environmental psychology, she has written Welcome to Your World, a book introducing the effects of built environment on our feelings, memories, and well-being to a broad audience.
We talked to Sarah about her realization of a need for a radical change in architecture and about how to improve the architectural process and education for the benefit of everyone.
Natalia: When I read your book, I realized there’s certainly a need to educate the environment creators more. The impact of buildings on human health, cognition, emotion and decision-making is not appreciated enough. How do you think we should approach architects, how to explain it to them? It’s a big paradigm shift after all.
Sarah: It doesn’t really matter how fertile the ground is right now, because it’s up to us to till it. When I wrote Welcome to Your World, I was a bit naive. I thought if I lay out the principles of embodied cognition and human-centered design, and make them really comprehensible, everyone will go: “Oh!”. Well, guess what, that didn’t happen. The book is doing fine and there are a lot of people interested. But I wrote it because I realized architects didn’t know about human perception and cognition in the built environment. They might have intuitions about some parts of it. But very few appreciate how radical the shift has to be and how much can be done to make things better.
Before 2020, how many of you have been thinking about the importance of space and freedom? Not many, probably. We are inclined to constantly attend all the space we have available, without special constraints, except in rare cases.
Most of us have never had any coercion problems before. On the contrary. We have used new technologies and globalization to broaden our experiences beyond our family, friends and home town. We never really had the need to ask ourselves: “What if this space was denied to me? How would I react? What would happen to my mind if the body was confined to a small and limiting space?”
We are pleased to publish an interview with Raymond and Rochelle Neutra from the Neutra Institute for Survival Through Design. In our conversation, we explored the role of science in architecture, the importance of post-occupancy studies and why purpose-driven real estate developers are the key to creating good cities.
Natalia Olszewska: Raymond, I read an article you wrote. You were talking about your father, and you spoke about him as a biorealist. You mentioned some reasons for which people could oppose the idea of applying neuroscience to architecture. What do you think about it?
Raymond Neutra: I think there is a role for science in architecture. In my own career, I did environmental epidemiology, studying mainly harmful things to avoid. But there is also another kind of research about things that are good. If you consider toxicology and medicine, some of the toxicology is about agents that are harmful to the body and others about things which are necessary, like vitamins. The same is true for architecture.
My father established the Neutra Institute in 1962. His goal was promoting neuroscientific and environmental psychology research and its application in a responsible way to serve humanity. But he was ahead of his time, and he didn’t quite figure out how to do it.
We’re challenged now to understand how we can be helpful. There are people like yourselves who are doing things aligned with the values of the Institute and we need to understand how to do it.
We have carried out conversations like the one we are now having. It’s now nearly 50 people that I have talked to around the world. I am beginning to be struck that there are pockets of people with similar interests but they don’t necessarily know each other. So for example I was talking with Matthew Pelowski from the University of Vienna, from the professor Leder’s research group on aesthetics and art. Are you familiar with him?
As we have discussed in the first part of this article, fashion and beauty ideals have shifted and often turned into their opposites over the centuries. However, the idea that beauty is only subjective is still troublesome. There are many iconic works of art such as the music of Beethoven or the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, which are experienced as beautiful by those who belong to very different cultures, backgrounds and ethnic groups.
Indeed, Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment speculated on the existence of a “sensus communis” – aesthetic judgments shared by nearly all people. From a neuroscientific perspective, the existence of such a sense would imply a similar brain organization across individuals and cultures, stimulated by such art works.