Our Buildings, our Bodies
Book Bim Dept. | Exploring…
Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design, edited by Juhani Pallasmaa and Sarah Robinson, MIT Press 2015
Essays by Thomas D. Albright, Michael Arbib, John Paul Eberhard, Melissa Farling, Vittorio Gallese, Alessandro Gattara, Mark L. Johnson, Harry Francis Mallgrave, Iain McGilchrist, Juhani Pallasmaa, Alberto Pérez-Gómez, and Sarah Robinson
“A must read,” — The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA)
NOW I must confess to being a sucker for all things revolutionary. Nose hair trimmers, multi-cat kitty litter, sensor-embedded basketball sneakers, all and everything promising revolutionary new technology.
Where I find myself pausing as a consumer is at the aisle stocked with Revolutionary Building Technology. I’m not sure I want to put any of that in my cart when constructing my dream house, dream community, and dream world. What if the revolution proves to be a lot of hype and the final result should fall like a house of cards?
I’m not arguing that building technology and AEC culture must change disruptively in light of global warming and over-population. BIM is already making the unfathomably complex routine, setting the stage for a host of revolutionary new technologies: 3-D printing, active, programmable building materials, neuro-architecture and neuro-aesthetics based on fMRI brain scans of people in places and spaces.
While these developments excite me more than a dozen pairs of sensor-laden sneakers, I have become more skeptical lately, as have many of my journalist friends on the economy beat.
What they are saying is this: how come for all our revolutionary new technologies, production has remained flat for the past fifty years? Where’s the big payoff in improving living standards, especially here in the West?
Optimists respond that those longed-for benefits await us just around the corner and counsel us not to despair. Just recently, The MIT Technology Review listed ten mind-boggling examples of revolutionary, world-changing technologies including Nano-architecture (“A Caltech scientist creates tiny lattices with enormous potential. Availability: 3-5 years.”), along with mega-scale desalination, DNA-sequencing machines, and supercharged photosynthesis leading to an all-you-can-eat world. The pessimist response to this is the same as always: hope for the best, expect the worst.
Meanwhile, you don’t have to be an optimist or a pessimist to appreciate what neuro-architecture has already accomplished. By linking cognitive science to the experience of the built environment, the designers of hospitals are helping people heal measurably faster. Emphasis on measurably. In a data-driven world, this is important. And yet the promise goes much further than hospitals, is, in fact, immeasurable. The collaboration between neuroscientists and architects has opened the door to cross-disciplinary explorations in throughout the design and AEC communities. Evolutionary biologists, psychiatrists, poets—they’re all changing the way things will get built in the future. Some quietly, some disruptively.
One of the leading advocates for this architectural sea change is Sarah Robinson, an architect based in Milan. Together with Juhani Pallasmaa, Robinson recently published a collection of cutting-edge essays (there I go again!) by herself and thought leaders in neuro-architecture, and the architecture of embodiment, or how the mind, brain, and body and the environment are all interconnected.
I found Mind in Architecture exceptional for its lack of hype, its display of expertise in various fields, combined with an enthusiasm for much-needed significant change.
We spoke on Skype last month:with co-editor Sarah Robinson, an architect trained in philosophy based outside of Milan.
Louis Postel: What’s more important for architects interested in the future to understand: neuroscience or embodiment?
Sarah Robinson: Where we live and work influences our minds and shapes our bodies, quite literally. Knowing how this works in practice, adds a whole dimension of importance to our architectural work and valorizes it.
That’s why in our title for Mind in Architecture I added “Embodiment” in the subtitle because I didn’t want it to get washed away with latest findings of neuroscience.
I think there’s this band-wagoning about neuroscience and design, which is losing sight of the fact that the brain is in the nervous system. It’s a part of the nervous system, which is part of the body, which is part of the world. And so the notion of embodiment is key.
Louis: Do you think people could accept what you’re saying about embodiment because, now at long last, embodiment is the subject of many scientific inquiries from all directions: cognitive science, evolutionary biology, anthropology to name a few?
Sarah: Absolutely. In fact, it’s made many things obsolete. A lot of university departments are in a state of transformation. New disciplines are emerging, and other ones are fading away. Architecture deals in the material world, so ours is more a stable profession, but change needs to happen. And it feels like it finally can.
Louis: So, what if I were to argue that, “Look, what makes my body feel good is form follows function” That the building I am in works, it’s a machine for living, that’s what makes me feel good.
Sarah: I have nothing against machines, but I prefer a machine that has some intuitive function. I like getting in a car whose seat receives me in a certain way. Apple computer, those Apple products, do this brilliantly. And I would argue that they tap into neural substrates if you will, that have adapted to natural settings over time.
Louis: What are the steps to go from where we are now to where we need to be?
Sarah: The one big obvious one is the fact that architects have been designing, predominately, for vision for a very long time. Western culture is very ocularcentric. Vision is important. I want to see beautiful things, beautiful shapes, but the eye, the visual system, is so intricately involved with every other sensory system. We’re beginning to understand, through neuroscience, how inextricably linked these different sensory systems are—not just the five obvious senses, but also imagination and creativity and empathy. We name five senses because they are five actions that we do, but that doesn’t mean there are only five senses.
Sarah: In studies on greenery in cities, there’s the vision part, but there’s also the rhythm and the sounds, where you have green, you have birds, and the sounds are different. You also have phytochemicals, which trees and plants emit and which we absorb through our skin. Such phenomena are amazing. Think about the multidimensionality of any one design decision.
Louis: You learned to make some of these decisions by spending a night in a storm at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, in Arizona.
Sarah: Taliesin started out as a winter camp, where Wright escaped harsh Wisconsin winters. We wintered there; it was intense in the beginning, but I think to understand Wright’s philosophy, living in a desert is essential. If you understand the desert viscerally, you’ll understand why he did the things he did with his buildings there. Desert living brings you in contact with the elements in a profound way.
Louis: True, the wind’s blowing, and there’s not much between you and the wind.
Sarah: So the wind was blowing. The shelter had a hearth. Having a roof over your head and fire, that’s dwelling right there. That’s so primal. It’s those two things.
Louis: I love your description of one such a primal night. “The raindrops beat on my metal roof like a drum. From below, veils of canvas draw the line thinly between outside and in. The south-facing wall arches against my back like the cupped palm of a giant hand, exhaling its stored heat into the length of my spine. The wind outside howls. The fire inside cracks and pops. During a storm, we experience dwelling most intensely.”
Sarah: I’d say Alvar Aalto and Frank Wright were the two greats of the 20th century, for me, at least. And for them, in the end, architecture was a way to experience the cosmos. It connected the human body and mind to the cosmos. So, it’s all about relationship. Frank Lloyd Wright, who I know the best because I spent so much time in his buildings, connects you so completely to nature, embracing one deeply. You can’t spend time in his buildings without undergoing some sort of transformation. This mind-body-cosmos connection in design and architecture is coming to the fore now. Take a basic interaction with the environment. For example, your feet on the street. There are 170 nerve endings in every square inch of the soles of your feet. Studies show that older people maintain their balance longer if they walk on uneven surfaces, such as European cobblestone streets. Because, if you think about it, your body needs to adjust constantly to the irregularities in the path of walking. Use it or lose it, that’s the rule in the brain and the body. This plasticity of the body and mind is fundamental.
Louis: European cobblestones…reminds me off walking around the Hagia Sophia.
Sarah: When you go into places like that, you think, “Okay, the stone is a hard surface. But, no, marble’s soft and marble absorbs all your footsteps and, over time, it records every footstep. If you look at it, it’s shaped according to the path of movement, and so if we use materials in a way that accommodates the body, if we learn about how the senses are interconnected with all of our mental capacities, then we can start designing them better. Not just buildings, but entire cities and the simplest things, like furniture and just everything we touch, all of our material world, the things that surround us. Another example is light. It’s beautiful, it’s pleasant to be in, but light also changes body chemistry. Hormones are tuned to light levels. If you have to stay up all night, you tend to get more cancer. You need darkness and light, shadow. It’s not just the glass box. It’s also the cave. There’s a fullness here that we’re missing.
Louis: And now would you say cognitive science is coming up with verification on what’s missing?
Sarah: I don’t want to sound boring and say architectural practice must be verifiable and “evidence-based” because I’m not from that school either. I don’t want to identify myself with different schools, but if we know something is hurting us, why would we keep doing it?