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Understanding the Experience of Architecture, Part 1

Image: Kai Dahms on Unsplash

This article was originally published in Polish language, in the IARP magazine (Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland), issue Z:A 86.

The twentieth century was a time of progress in structural engineering. It resulted in taller, more solid, and technologically innovative buildings. However, recent decades have seen an increased interest in the human experience of space.

Today, people spend about eighty to ninety percent of their lives indoors. This fact makes it crucial to investigate the relationship between the experience of architecture and its impact on human health and well-being.

Until recently, the study of the effects of architecture on humans was the domain of environmental psychology. But in the past few years, we have gotten new tools to study the neural mechanisms underlying the perception of art and architecture.

The overarching goal of this interdisciplinary approach to architecture is to build a living environment, and spaces contributing to the flourishing of humans.

Among these tools were advances in neuroscience and the development of imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG).

The combination of neuroscience and architecture offers new insights into spatial design and helps us to understand how buildings affect the biology of our bodies, especially the nervous system.

After all, it’s the part responsible for cognitive functioning, the synchronization of our biological cycles, coordination of internal organs, secretion of hormones, and the functioning of the immune system.

The overarching goal of this interdisciplinary approach to architecture is to build a living environment, and spaces contributing to the flourishing of humans.

Portable imaging methods like this EEG cap are making it easier to measure the brain’s responses to real environment. Image: cognionics.com

Since 2003, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) has been operating globally from the United States. This pioneering organization brings together researchers and practitioners interested in the relationship between neuroscience and architecture. ANFA organizes workshops and conferences connecting these two areas.

However, applying neuroscience research to architecture is still new to the design world. Still, research groups are popping up every year. For example, there’s the Lise Meitner Group at the Institute of Human Development, Max Planck in Berlin, the Environmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago (USA), and the Urban Realities Laboratory, led by Colin Ellard at the University of Waterloo in Toronto (Canada). Basic research in these laboratories will create theoretical foundations for this new field.

The world’s first consultancy firms specializing in applying this knowledge are also emerging. They translate neuroscience and behavioral research into architectural design language to increase users’ well-being.

In addition, many architectural theorists draw from the discoveries of neuroscience and combine research findings with design theory. We can mention names like Sarah Robinson, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Harry Mallgrave.

The team of the Environmental Neuscience Lab at the University of Chicago. Image: uchicago.edu

The first educational programs were created in the last decade in this field. For example, the New School of Architecture & Design in San Diego (United States) organizes a four-day course on Neuroscience in Architecture. The IUAV University in Venice, one of the oldest architectural schools in Italy, also created a complete master’s degree program in Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design.

Apart from neuroscience in architecture, there’s also the new field of “neuroaesthetics.” The term was coined by Semir Zeki, a world-renowned neuroscientist at the University College of London.

He devoted several decades to studying neural correlates of beauty perception. Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University (USA), says: “To put it simply, neuroaesthetics is the study of how our brain and biology change when exposed to art. “

The terms “neuroscience in architecture” and “neuroaesthetics” are often used interchangeably. However, the scope of neuroscience in architecture is broader, as it covers issues related to perception, emotions, and cognitive aspects of architectural experience and topics such as decision-making processes, building navigation, and design for user groups with specific needs. 

Experience In Motion

To illustrate the main factors of architectural experience in neuroscience, we use a model called the “neuroaesthetic triad,” proposed in 2017 by three neuroscientists: Alex Coburn, Oshin Vartanian, and Anjan Chatterjee.

This model assumes that architectural experience is a product of three physiological systems: sensorimotor networks, the knowledge and meaning system, and the emotion and evaluation system. Of course, this neuro-aesthetic triad, like many other scientific models, is a simulation of reality and will probably evolve with the progress of basic research. Let’s take a closer look at each of its elements.

Diagram showing the neuroaesthetic triad. Source: A. Coburn, O. Vartanian, A. Chatterjee, Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2017, 29 (9)

1. Sensomotoric Networks

The first element of the triad is sensorimotor networks, which can be considered “keepers” of architectural experience.

The built environment stimulates our external and internal senses. Traditionally, architecture has attached great importance to visual experience. Juhani Pallasmaa, Finnish architect and architectural theorist, writes about the “hegemony of sight.”

The non-visual experience of architecture is shaped mainly by information flowing through sensory channels such as hearing, touch, and smell.

The sensorimotor network. Image: Bi, Bo & Che, Dongfang & Bai, Yuyin. (2022). Neural network of bipolar disorder: Toward integration of neuroimaging and neurocircuit-based treatment strategies. Translational Psychiatry. 12. 143. 10.1038/s41398-022-01917-x, CC BY 4.0

During our contact with architecture, however, other internal senses are involved. For example, there’s the “vestibular sense” – the sense of balance or the “sense of proprioception” responsible for the so-called depth feeling, transmitting an impulse about the body’s position in space.

The experience of architecture is dynamic, so to understand it, we need to understand the relations between the senses and the human motor system.

And from the point of view of “embodied cognition,” a paradigm used in cognitive science, human cognition is always the result of an interplay between the senses and the body’s motor skills. How we perceive the world depends on the context in which we find ourselves. This is its dynamic character.

2. The Knowledge And Meaning System

The neuro-aesthetic triad’s second component is the knowledge and meaning systems based on personal experiences, culture, and education. They shape our interactions with the built environment. 

It’s known, for example, that expertise affects our aesthetic experience. Results of studies using fMRI (magnetic resonance) suggest that when architecture students look at buildings, different areas of their brains light up than in students of other disciplines.

Another experiment showed that architects, compared to non-architects, showed greater activation of the hippocampus (a part of the limbic system essential for memory and learning) when looking at buildings. However, when they looked at human faces, this area didn’t activate. 

This finding suggests that education and work experience contribute to developing strong emotional responses to architecture. And that architects and designers need to be mindful of this difference. The architecture users rarely have architectural education, after all, and their reactions to it will differ from industry peers.

The architecture users rarely have architectural education, after all, and their reactions to it will differ from industry peers.

Cultural significance can also shape expectations and change the experience of space. For example, people tend to give a higher rating to expensive buildings designed by famous architects, to those perceived as “green,” or to objects related to a specific historical period, event, or style.

Knowing the intended function of a building can also influence the expectations of experience – preparing for a visit to a hospital puts us in a different state of mind than the anticipation of entering a Gothic church.

Another way our brains change through experiencing spaces is the creation of so-called “cognitive maps.” As we experience and move around a space, our mind creates cognitive maps by activating site cells and mesh cells in the hippocampus.

Creating these maps helps us navigate more efficiently when we come back to the same space in the future and becomes the basis of some learned responses to the built environment.

3. System Of Emotions And Evaluation 

The neuro-aesthetic triad’s third element is the emotion and evaluation system. This system handles the feelings and emotions evoked by buildings and urban spaces.

People’s emotions in the presence of architecture, such as beauty, seem to be caused by the activation of the reward centers and circuits in the brain. Research findings suggest that building interiors with curvilinear (curved) elements are judged to be more beautiful and pleasing than those with rectilinear (angled) geometric lines.

Interiors with smoothly curved elements seem to be judged as more beautiful and pleasing than those with sharp-angled elements. Image: Jason Wang on Unsplash

The limbic system in the brain, responsible for the regulation of emotions, then influences the secretion of hormones and the action of the so-called “autonomic nervous system.” This system innervates the organs of our body, and we can’t control it consciously. This means that the emotions we experience because of architecture can affect how our bodies work.

The close interaction of the limbic system with the autonomous nervous system is responsible for the stress response. This is how we know chronic exposure to an unsuitable built environment can adversely affect health.

In the second part of this article, we will look at how architects can use this knowledge to design spaces that enable human flourishing. We will touch upon the topics of biophilic design and designing for neurodiversity and look at inspirational examples of applying these approaches.


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Marta Wierusz

Marta Wierusz is an Architecture and Town Planning graduate at the Łódź University of Technology. She studied Art Therapy at the Academy of Special Education in Warsaw and received an Erasmus scholarship at the Fachhochschule Mainz in Germany. Marta is a laureate of the competition “Good Innovations,” organized by Zamek Cieszyn, and runs the interior design team at APA Wojciechowski architectural studio. She specializes in sustainable and inclusive design, especially for neuro-divergent people and the elderly. Her purpose is to expand and promote knowledge in the field of design that puts people in the center and positively impacts users’ health and well-being. She cooperates with the A / typowi Foundation dealing with neurodiversity.

Natalia Olszewska is a Researcher and Practitioner in Neuroscience Applied to Architecture. Being a graduate in medicine (Jagiellonian University & Tor Vergata), neuroscience (Sorbonne Université & ENS), Brain and Mind studies (UCL) and ‘Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design’ (IUAV university) she works between disciplines and creates insights for people-centered environments.
At work, she combines her deep care for people and their well-being with her passion for architecture and design. Natalia is a co-founder of Impronta, behavioral science and neuroscience consultancy for architecture.

References

A. Coburn, O. Vartanian, A. Chatterjee, Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience, “Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience”, 2017, 29 (9).

E. Colin, Spaces of the Heart. Psychogeography of Everyday Life, GSA Publishing House, 2021.

EE Dickinson, Beauty and the Brain, “Johns Hopkins Magazine”, 2019, online: https://hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2019/fall/neuroaesthetics-suchi-reddy-ivy- ross-susan-magsamen(accessed 07/23/2022).

JP Eberhard, Applying neuroscience to architecture, Neuron, 2009.

JP Eberhard, Architecture and the Brain: A New Knowledge Base from Neuroscience, Greenway Communications LLC, 2007.

JP Eberhard, Brain landscape: The coexistence of neuroscience and architecture, Oxford University Press, 2008.

S. Kaplan, The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework, “Journal of Environmental Psychology”, 1995, 15 (3).

U. Kirk, M. Skov, MS Christensen, N. Nygaard, Brain correlates of aesthetic expertise: A parametric fMRI study, “Brain and Cognition”, 2009, 69 (2).

H. Mallgrave, From Object to Experience, Bloomsbury, 2018.

J. Pallasmaa, Eyes of the skin. Architecture and senses, Fundacja Instytut Architektury, 2012.

VS Ramachandran, W. Hirstein, The science of art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience, “Journal of Consciousness Studies”, 1999, 6 (6–7).

S. Robinson, J. Pallasmaa (eds.), Mind in architecture: Neuroscience, embodiment, and the future of design, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015.

RS Ulrich, R. Parsons, Influences of passive experiences with plants on individual well-being and health, [in:] The role of horticulture in human well-being and social development, Timber Press, Portland, OR, 1992, pp. 93–105.

RS Ulrich, RF Simons, BD Losito, E. Fiorito, MA Miles, M. Zelson, Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments, “Journal of Environmental Psychology”, 1991, 11 (3).

O. Vartanian, G. Navarrete, A. Chatterjee, LB Fich, H. Leder, M. Skov et al., Impact of contour on aesthetic judgments and approach-avoidance decisions in architecture, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, 2013, 110 (Suppl 2).

M. Wiesmann, A. Ishai, Expertise reduces neural cost but does not modulate repetition suppression, “Cognitive Neuroscience”, 2011, 2 (1).

EO Wilson, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1984.

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Articles

All the Theses I Hadn’t Written: My Journey With Environmental Psychology

Image: Daniel Seßler

I started as a psychology student at a university in Wales. I enjoyed the course a lot, but I had no idea where it would lead me. I have always been drawn to topics not yet categorized into specific subfields, to phenomena not yet explained.

At that time, what interested me most were seemingly random questions. Things like why the Vietnam War veterans addicted to heroin stopped quickly after returning to the US. Or why working in a cozy café might be more productive for some than at a tranquil library.

In my third year, when we started designing our own research, I came across the term “environmental psychology.” And it turned out that this field perfectly captured all the questions I found intriguing but couldn’t categorize. Discovering that it had a name allowed me to dive deeper. 

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Places of Pause: Why Should We Build for Wakeful Rest

Image: Egor Myznik

We now know that the way we design places can influence how attached people will get to them. Multiple factors take part in this. For example, the meaning of the place for a specific person, the level of emotional connection, and the quality of what we call “cognitive maps”.

These maps are built in our mind through physical exploration of an environment and the activation of “place cells” within the hippocampal formation, located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. Cognitive maps are both the basis for our understanding of spatial relationships and drive our ability to navigate our environment.

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Therapeutic Design: Living by Ethics to Build Better Buildings

The way we think about designing our cities and about the purpose of architecture is changing rapidly. In the Anthropocene era, where human activity is now determining the health of our planet, we face new challenges to solve every day. 

Compared to the past, building our environments in this age is more complex in some respects and simpler in others. Here we refer to simplicity in ethics as simplicity for conscience, drawing on the philosophical teachings of the Iranian religion Zoroastrianism with its threefold path to follow ‘good thoughts, good words, and good deeds as an example for generating simplicity in conscience.  

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My Experience at Chesa Madalena: An Architectural Story

Ruch & Partners architects Ltd. Chesa Madalena. Image: Ruch & Partners architects Ltd.

Some time ago, I participated in an architectural educational trip to Switzerland. Starting from Saint Etienne, France, we would travel to a large part of the country to visit several architectural works. Among them, the Thermes de Vals by Peter Zumthor, the Rolex Learning Center of SANAA, the Kirchner Museum of Gigon / Gruyer, and the work of the Swiss Hans Jorg Ruch, in which the architect himself would guide us.

We started our tour at Mr. Ruch’s small architectural office, where 4 or 5 people worked calmly against the backdrop of the mountainous Swiss landscape. During the day, we visited his various local works, mainly in the Swiss countryside. At the end of the day, we arrived at a historic residence in a small Swiss village, Zuoz.

I still did not suspect that this would be one of the most intense architectural experiences of my life.

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When Brains Meet Buildings

when brains meet buildings
Michael Arbib: When Brains Meet Buildings

When Brains Meet Buildings: A Conversation Between Neuroscience and Architecture is a book published by Oxford University Press in August 2021.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in understanding how we are affected by the built environment, on various scales from rooms to buildings, all the way up to the largest cities.

When Brains Meet Buildings argues that cognitive and neuroscience can greatly increase that understanding – learning through both neuroscience in its strict sense of the study of brains and through cognitive science, the study of mind and behavior without a necessary concern for “how the brain does it.”

The book offers a riff on a famous speech by John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “Ask not only what neuroscience can do for architecture, but also what architecture can do for neuroscience.”

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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.