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Light and Neuroscience: A Combination that Looks to the Future

Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash

Originally published in Officelayout magazine No. 186, July-September edition, 2021. Published with permission of the Officelayout editorial board.

With contribution of Martina Frattura & Natalia Olszewska.

The combination of neuroscientific research findings exploring neuronal processes behind mental states, and new approaches in lighting design, becomes an important strand of innovation that truly places an individual’s well-being at the center of the lighting and product design

Neuroscience has become a key innovation factor in the field of lighting design as it makes it possible to correlate human physiological and neurophysiological characteristics, with the architectural features and environmental conditions of the context in which a person is located.

Understanding of brain workings can make an enormous difference in architectural design and, also so, in lighting design, because the possibility of identifying more clearly the factors affecting people’s psycho-physical states, leads to the definition of new evaluation criteria on which design choices can be based. 

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Conscious Design: What Guides Our Thinking at Conscious Cities Festival

conscious design

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.

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Cities Can Be Beautiful. If We Dare to Listen.

Traditional and modern building in Berlin
The author mourns the loss of identity of the Berlin’s districts he knew since his childhood. Berlin, Budapester Straße. Image: Author’s archive

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.

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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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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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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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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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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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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.