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Interviews

Michael Diamant: We have changed the Scandinavian discourse on architecture

Michael Diamant

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. 

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“The Landscape Architect Cannot Come Later!”

Richard Neutra Young – so many images show him old. Barbara Lamprecht, Richard Neutra: Complete Works, Taschen, 2000, 12; original source listed as Liska Archives, Vienna.

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. 

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Inclusive Design: Why Facts and Feelings Go Hand in Hand

woman in glasses with reflection of lights
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

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.

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Interviews

Colin Ellard: I’ve had people shout at my face to get lost

Colin Ellard
Colin Ellard, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory. Image: Colin Ellard

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?

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Articles

Built Beautiful: A New Documentary on Architecture and Neuroscience

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.

Architect, researcher and educator Tiziana Proietti, featured in the film. Picture: Built Beautiful

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. 

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Interviews

Harry Francis Mallgrave: Let’s begin every project with the design of a garden

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?

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The 5 Principles of Human-Friendly Facades

Positive space - old town square
Positive space: It forms a closed whole. In the book “Soft City”, Jan Gehl and David Sim describe reasons to return to buildings cities this way. Source: Unsplash / Thomas Konings.

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.

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Interviews

Meredith Banasiak: Person-centered design means each person’s experience matters

Meredith Banasiak
Meredith Banasiak: Director of Research for BA/Science at Boulder Associates Architects.

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?

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In-between Spaces: Living Cities Need Voids and Edges

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.

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Interviews

Upali Nanda: I’ve never thought about breath as much as during 2020

Upali Nanda
Upali Nanda, director of research for HKS Inc. Image: hksinc.com

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?