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Interviews

Sarah Williams Goldhagen: There’s no such thing as a neutral space

Sarah Williams Goldhagen
Sarah Williams Goldhagen. Image: Robert Tjalondo

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.

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Humane Prisons: Why should we care about the inmates’ environment?

Prisoner
Many of us first felt what isolation means after experiencing the pandemic lockdown. Photo by Wendy Alvarez on Unsplash

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?”

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Interviews

Raymond & Rochelle Neutra: It’s fine to have idealistic architects, but far better to have idealistic developers.

Raymond Neutra
Dr. Raymond Neutra is the son of architect Richard Neutra. After a public health career in environmental medicine and epidemiology at several universities and the California Department of Public Health he has been drawn back to the legacy of his father and brother. He has been active in the preservation of the Neutra projects. In addition to preservation, he endorses the Neutra commitment to socially and ecologically responsible design inspired by evidence.
Rochelle Neutra
As a clinician, Rochelle has worked with low-income and underserved communities in the SF Bay Area and split her time between advocacy, direct patient care in safety-net clinics and clinical research. She served as the Medical Clinic Director at the Native American Health Center in SF and conducted NIH sponsored research at UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley. Most recently she has served on boards and advisory committees for nonprofits and is interested in the intersection between health, design and architecture.

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?

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Why Has Beauty Disappeared? #2

Universal principles of beauty, like fractals, reflect the order of living organisms.
Universal principles of beauty, like fractals, reflect the order of living organisms. Photo by Daniel Öberg on Unsplash

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.

Neuroaesthetics – A New Frontier

This is one of the topics investigated by the field of neuroaesthetics. Neuroaesthetics, which could be described as the “cognitive neuroscience of aesthetic experience” is a field drawing on long traditions of research in empirical aesthetics, on one hand, and cognitive neuroscience on the other. Neuroscience of aesthetics investigates the cognitive processes and functional brain networks involved in aesthetic experience. Its scope is to study a wide spectrum of these experiences which always result from interactions between individuals, sensory stimuli and their context.

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Articles

Why Has Beauty Disappeared? #1

Modernist mass housing
Beauty became rare in the cities of the 20th century. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

You would probably agree that most of our built environment is not particularly beautiful today. One of the reasons behind it could be that in the last hundred years, ‘beauty’ has become a highly disputed value. Especially when it comes to contemporary architecture. Today, it’s easy to silence any discussion about this topic with one argument: “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” 

One of the groups which certainly benefit from this lack of agreement on what might appeal to a majority of people, are property developers. This way, they are offered a mandate to build almost anything, anywhere. It’s far more convenient to operate in a society where there is no confidence in people’s ability to make judgments about whether things are beautiful or ugly.

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Interviews

Oshin Vartanian: The wellbeing of a person is central

Oshin Vartanian

Oshin Vartanian received his PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Maine. He is the Co-Editor of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, and past Editor of Empirical Studies of the Arts. His co-edited volumes include Neuroaesthetics, Neuroscience of creativity and most recently The Cambridge handbook of the neuroscience of creativity. His main areas of interest include the cognitive and neural bases of aesthetics and creativity.

We spoke to Oshin about his path towards studying people in relation to architecture and the knowledge he gathered. We wanted to know what architects and urban planners can learn from his and his colleagues’ research. During our conversation, we also discussed whether architects truly know their own tastes and what is today’s meaning of beauty.