In recent years, smart cities have dominated the talk about the built environment with terms like IoT, big data, and digital twins. But there is a much greater need when it comes to improving our cities – the one of people and communities in place. And we call the approach which addresses this need – Conscious Cities.
Conscious Cities are not separated from smart cities though. They improve smart cities by emphasizing inclusion and wellbeing, supported by a scientific understanding of the psychological and social aspects of the person-place interactions.
Itai Palti is a practicing architect and researcher focusing on designing with the human experience in mind. He is Director of Hume, a science-informed architecture and urban design practice. In 2015, Itai founded the Conscious Cities movement. For his work in advancing changes in the design profession, he was named by Metropolis Magazine as one of 2020’s ‘Game Changers’.
Itai is the Director of The Centre for Conscious Design, a think tank focused on using design to address urban challenges facing society. He is also on the Advisory Council of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. An alumnus of The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, Itai has worked alongside the late visionary architect Jan Kaplicky at Future System on projects such as the Ferrari Museum in Modena.
Natalia Olszewska: Let’s dive into the topic of Conscious Cities. I think that our readers would like to find out more about your movement and the motivations behind it.
Itai Palti: In my opinion Conscious Cities have always existed if you think of cities as the accumulation of human decisions and intent. When I first thought about Conscious Cities I didn’t think about new types of cities, but rather a new way of reflecting on how we shape our environment, and how our environment shapes us. The latter is a matter of consciousness. How aware are we of this process?
The profession of the architect holds great responsibility towards the citizens of our cities. After a century of denial, we are starting to recognize again that experiencing beauty and pleasure from our environment is one of the fundamental elements of a good life. This denial has been caused, among others, by many deficits in architectural education, led by authority figures spreading ideas that were not based on a deep understanding of human beings, but rather on futuristic, mechanistic visions.
Because of this, topics like aesthetics or theory of proportions and forms have been mostly abandoned, or in the case of architectural psychology, not even adopted in the first place. The knowledge of building with natural, local materials while still adhering to modern requirements and regulations, has met a similar fate. Added to that, a credo of “form follows function” has been the leading idea of modern architecture for a long time, neglecting that buildings don’t only have technical functions, but emotional ones too.
Julia Hanuliaková studied architecture at Slovak Technical University, as well as historic preservation at the University of Oregon. She started focusing on zoo design, which she practiced at renowned studios Jones & Jones Architects and The Portico Group. In 2012, she has founded her own studio Zoo Design Inc, which worked on projects for zoos in USA, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Russia, Finland and others. In 2020, she became a director of the zoo in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Natalia Olszewska: I’ve seen your website, I’ve read about your professional experience, and I’m looking forward to exploring the intersections between human and animal design! How did you get into this field?
Júlia Hanuliaková: I went through the classic architectural education and what I’ve noticed is that the school did not provide me much background on the human experience. I got confronted with psychology only when I started to work with animals. Pretty much all the ideas about how we can create better spaces for animals came from human psychologists that over time switched to animals.
Michal Matloň: When you think about a design of a zoo, what part of it is about designing for animals and what part is designing for humans?
Michael Diamant studied society planning at Stockholm University and has a great interest in architecture, city planning, urban sociology, demography, history, and social anthropology. In 2013, he started a Facebook group promoting new traditional architecture, which has since grown to over 25 000 members. One year later, a member of this group started a group Arkitekturupporet (Architectural Uprising) that has grown to over 50 000 members, transformed the debate about architecture in Sweden, and spawned multiple local groups in Norway, Finland, Denmark, and other countries.Portuguese translation of the article can be found here.
Natalia Olszewska: Welcome, Michael! Could you tell our readers about what you are interested in and how this interest started?
Michael Diamant: I studied society planning and urban sociology at Stockholm University. I’ve always been interested in architecture and city planning, specifically classical city planning. I am very interested in urban sociology, demography, history, culture, and social anthropology. I am also interested in architecture but I don’t have deep architectural knowledge other than that I know the different styles and the key to a good facade.
A long time ago, I noticed that old buildings usually seemed very beautiful to me, and the new ones didn’t. What I also noticed is that the majority of people see it the same way, and they vote with their feet. Maybe people don’t always dare to say that they find most modernist buildings ugly, but where people spend vacations, where people want to hang out, tells you a lot.
Today there is overwhelming evidence that environments containing qualities of nature foster human well-being. Richard Neutra fused his early training in landscape design with his lifelong study of psychology – disciplines that proved a quantitative relationship between the senses and the environment. Neutra’s genius was in recognizing that these two disciplines were often saying the same things from vastly different places. His architecture harnesses that convergence. While his cool, sleek forms are canonically Modern, his is an ideology of biology.
At the start of his inaugural speech to the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1970, he asked the audience a question. “Why is Uganda, this country in central East Africa, important to landscape architects?”After a short pause, he continued: “Because as we now know, from Mr. Leakey and Ardrey and others, this is the country of origin of the human species. Humans came down from the crowns of the trees, walking over the meadows of Uganda.”
Neutra was referring to what is known as the Savanna Hypothesis, which argues that components of the landscape in which humans have evolved are part of our genetic ancestry. That landscape, which included broad, open views extending to the horizon line, copses of trees, expanses of brush and grasses, and bodies of water, was associated with survival.
The prevailing values ingrained in the minds of many designers and architects are originality and creativity. This stress on creativity results in many architectural decisions being made based on either experience, reference, or intuition, rather than evidence, which could shed light on human responses to design products. But as this month’s interview guest Colin Ellard says:
If you can show the possibility that bad design might do psychological harm, then design becomes a matter of public health. Then arguments about creativity only go so far’
The cult of creativity
Creativity is certainly important, but it shouldn’t go against human needs. Buildings and spaces have a big impact on the quality of human life. They can strengthen or weaken the sense of belonging, maintain or violate our boundaries, promote or reduce mobility, or even influence mental health.
Colin Ellard is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory. Colin works at the intersection of urban design and experimental psychology. He is a practicing scientist but he also works in collaboration and partnership with architects, museums and other NGOs on projects meant to enrich public debate about the built environment. He is a member of the advisory committee for the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, an Urban Design and Mental Health Fellow, and a Salzburg Global Fellow. Ellard’s most recent book is Places of the Heart.
A Sudden Twist
Natalia Olszewska: In your TEDxWaterloo talk, you mentioned a sudden twist in your scientific career. You said you weren’t interested in human-environment relationships from the beginning. Something happened around 2005 and you isolated yourself on an island. Could you tell us the rest of the story?
Colin Ellard: Oh man, that was a tumultuous period in my life. You know, some like to call it a ‘midlife crisis’. But then one of my colleagues said: ‘You don’t honestly think you’re only halfway through your life. How long do you think that you’re going to live?’
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?