Photo credit: Marc Goodwin, Archmospheres.
© Marc Goodwin, Archmospheres

Architecture, neuroscience and the human mind: architect Sarah Robinson in focus

Architecture has a central position as a shaper of our own self image. Our development history has attuned the observational arsenal typical for our species to observe the characteristics of our living environment. Neuroscience, which in recent years has developed in leaps and bounds, is a new field of science that is considered to have much to offer in our understanding of the inter-relationship between mankind and the built environment.

Mind in Architecture – Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design (MIT Press, 2015), jointly edited by American architect Sarah Robinson and Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa presents eleven different approaches to the potential offered by neuroscience. The writers include Professor of Neurology Vittorio Gallese and Professor Harry Francis Mallgrave, both of whom have previously lectured in Finland, as well as architects and an impressive array of experts representing many different branches of science. Anni Vartola interviewed Sarah Robinson, asking her about the objectives of the book and neuroscience as one of architecture’s auxiliary sciences.

Buildings inscribe themselves into us

Your book Mind in Architecture has its origin in the symposium ”Minding Design”, which was held in 2012 at Taliesin West, the home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. How is the book a reflection of the symposium? What particular questions and discussion topics led to the making of the book?

Living and learning architecture in the context of Taliesin made me keenly aware of the fundamental importance of embodiment in architectural practice and education. I experienced first hand that buildings, in this case Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West, inscribe themselves into your body and your mind. I internalized the physicality of those buildings to such an extent that their presence informed my subsequent design practice and thinking on a daily basis.

The capacity for architecture to work this inner transformation is very rarely acknowledged, much less discussed. We would pay more attention to how we design and what we build if only we could recognize the shaping capacity of what we make.

The symposium I designed and organized was the first to bring together a neuroscientist, a psychiatrist exceptionally versed in neuroscience and philosophy, practicing architects, theorists and historians to the same table to discuss such matters. Affirming how architecture shapes our minds and bodies is a vast, multidimensional topic whose tentacles stretch into many fields. The book was an attempt to open the dialogue further by introducing more contributors from more disciplines.

We must be generalists who listen to and depend upon the expertise of our collaborators. What we make matters. Our responsibility is ethically grounded in our human past, and only in honoring our bio-historical roots can we hope to design a sustainable future.
— Sarah Robinson, ″Survival through design″. In Mind in Architecture, p. 7.

Mind in Architecture picks up on many of the themes that you discuss in your essay collection titled Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind (William Stout Publishers, 2011). Likewise, some recent books – such as The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture by Harry Francis Mallgrave – deal with similar topics. How would you describe the scope of discourse and the differences between the purviews of neuroscience within architecture?

The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture ANFA has been around for more than a decade and they hosted their first conference in 2012. I would say that the conversation has been slow to get off the ground because it just seems too remote to both parties, its relevance awaits articulation to a broader audience. But if you really take seriously the findings of the cognitive and neurosciences, at some point you have to deal with the impact of the environment.

Contemporary philosophers like Andy Clark, Alva Noë, Mark Johnson, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, Evan Thompson, to name just a few, have been leading the way in reminding us that the brain cannot be understood apart from the body and the body cannot be understood apart from the environment. Our sensory and neural systems have evolved to adapt to very particular environments in very particular ways, but this very obvious fact is never discussed in design.

My training in philosophy has helped me appreciate how truly groundbreaking the discoveries in the neurosciences are, and how they have the potential to heal some of these old Cartesian divides. One of the problems has been that neuroscience as applied to architecture has tended toward a rather reductionistic approach, and is not sufficiently versed in the humanities. I hoped our book might add some of this missing dimension.

A different picture of the human subject

In Mind in Architecture, much of the commentary seems to stem from criticism towards digital design, egoistic star architecture and an architecture media wrongly concerned with images and novelty. Both the practice and education of architecture are claimed to be in crisis. Are we speaking of architectural aesthetics, professional ethos, the architects’ morality, design intelligence, the building industry, contemporary lifestyle or what? Could you give some practical examples and some reasons for the perceived situation?

Fed up with the intellectual excesses of the architecture theory of recent decades, we architects have been swept into the mandate for sustainability without a coherent philosophical framework. So far, our only tools for addressing the climate crisis have been technological in nature.

Hopefully we are finally accepting that we can no longer afford to indulge in intellectual games and dead-end distractions―there seems to be a general consensus that the ethical soul of architecture must be restored. The interest in socially oriented architecture is one such indication, and though we aspire to such an ideal we do not understand how architectural design influences the very interactions we hope to provoke and nurture. We know that truly sustainable architecture is that which is cherished, but are not sure why we fall in love with certain places and not others.

We are embodied beings who experience the built world primarily on emotional terms, but do not yet understand the designed qualities that elicit our feelings, evoke empathy and engender community. Our buildings must not only respond to site, program and budget, but also to human sensory and perception systems and the whole of our body and mind. Our understanding of how design influences our mental and physical states is very crude; the imperatives of the body have thus far been a footnote, only mentioned in terms of thermal comfort in classes that deal with mechanical systems, rather than fundamental motivating factors in our work.

In terms of human-environment interactions in architecture, the topic was discussed already during the postmodern turn, within the philosophical frameworks of semiotics and phenomenology, and within plain old environmental psychology. Today, environmental psychology, which was introduced into architecture by, among others, Kevin Lynch and Steen Eiler Rasmussen already at the turn of the 1960s, is being successfully used, especially in urban design. How does the neuroscientific framework as a mode of thinking differ from earlier critical attempts or other knowledge-based programmes to improve the quality of architecture?

Neuroscience is a constantly evolving body of knowledge that is rife with internal debate. The consensus that does emerge from the neuroscience community however, paints a very different picture of the human subject than Western intellectual traditions have thus far allowed. Our advanced technologies have expanded our understanding of what it means to be human, it is no exaggeration to say that we have learned more about ourselves as biological beings in the last three decades than we have in last three centuries.

The old dichotomies of body vs. mind, and nature vs. culture are giving way to a far more subtle understanding of human interdependence. We now possess the tools and the skills to explore and understand our relationship with the built world as never before. While no one is advocating jumping on the neuroscience bandwagon, we cannot afford to ignore the refined understanding of human interconnectedness that is emerging from this research.

We are mentally and emotionally affected by works of architecture and art before we understand them; or, indeed, we usually do not ″understand″ them at all. I would argue that the greater the artistic work, the less we understand it intellectually.
— Juhani Pallasmaa, ″Body, mind, and Imagination: The mental essence of architecture″. In Mind in Architecture, p. 65

Owing much to the rapid technological developments in research techniques, the groundbreaking findings of cognitive neuroscience give more and more evidence for physicalism. Our thoughts, feelings, memories, even our conception of the self, are ultimately nothing but electro-chemical reactions. How does this comply with the metaphysical reading of architecture as a dwelling for existential being-in-the-world which, if I read correctly, forms the gist of the book?

What you have just described, the notion that, “Our thoughts, feelings, memories, even our conception of the self, are ultimately nothing but electro-chemical reactions,” is really the crudest form of reductionism, and not at all the consensus among neuroscientists. Let’s take emotions as an example: describing them at the neuronal level is obviously only one aspect of richly multi-dimensional relational process.

At the beginning of the last century, when the physical and biological sciences were achieving considerable success through narrowing their field of observation and theoretical interest, John Dewey cautioned that, “Physiology can no more, of itself, give us the what, why, and how of psychical life, than the physical geography of a country can enable us to construct or explain the history of the nation that has dwelt within that country. However important, however indispensable the land with all its qualities is as a basis for that history, that history itself can be ascertained and explained only through historical records and historic conditions. And so psychical events can be observed only through psychical means, and interpreted and explained by psychical conditions and facts.” (John Dewey, “The New Psychology,” Andover Review (1896), 2, 278–289.)

Understanding emotions solely in terms of their electro-chemical components deadens them―we cannot understand emotion without considering their equally valid psychological, sociological, cultural, poetic and environmental dimensions. Leading cognitive neuroscientists, like Vittorio Gallese, are not afraid of contextualizing their research in this interdisciplinary way. Gallese connects his neuroscientific findings to film, language, philosophy and architecture. We are situated beings, and electro-chemical reactions make no sense when torn out of their given contexts.

The more we understand the real nature of human emotion, for example, the better equipped we would be to design places that are emotionally engaging. We are learning, for example, that physical places can serve as surrogate emotional support systems. And this leads us into a complete different conception of architecture. Building are not inert objects, but potentially active agents in human flourishing. I am not suggesting that buildings assume this stature by becoming amped up with more technological features, but rather that buildings become animate because of the exquisite care, attention and delicacy with which they have been designed and executed.

Towards generally valid scales for judging design

The architectural criticism embedded on the pages suggest that contemporary architecture has forgotten many of its fundamental esoteric tasks, mostly because of adopting new computational methods of design and manufacture. How should architecture deal with technical progress, artistic experimentation and all the available, quite awesome possibilities in construction and materials in your view?

Only a few of the essays in the book questioned computational methods―and their concern stems from the fact that those methods, because they are becoming farther and farther removed from the tempering and patterning forces of the body, are creating buildings unconscious of natural limits. Tools shape the mind, as much as they shape the work they have been enlisted to perform.

The predominant architectural criticism, I think, was succinctly summarized in the Neutra quote from ″Survival through Design″ that opened the book:

A growing number of us . . . are convinced that generally valid scales and gauges for judging design . . . can be found and must be applied. To deny it would seem nihilistic.” Architectural design criteria have long been and remain quite arbitrary, aside from basic building and planning codes–anything goes. We have failed to comprehend the inherent boundaries that guide of our craft.

Accepting certain natural and biological limits need not obviate artistic freedom; but it does change our commonly held idea of what freedom is. We need to consider freedom according to the facts of our embodiment. Just because we can design or build virtually anything, does not mean that we should―disregarding limits is not freedom, it is nihilism. A more mature and sustainable understanding of freedom is closer to Robert Frost’s idea that, “Freedom is being easy in your harness.”

In terms of the most urgent pragmatic issues such as global urbanization, lack of decent housing and infrastructure, especially in the developing countries, and ecological concerns, what is the core message of Mind in Architecture for a disquieted architect?

In our rush to discover the next new thing, we have forgotten the basic fact that you can change the world, but you can’t change the human being, this is something Juhani Pallasmaa emphasizes repeatedly. We have evolved over the course of millennia to adapt to the natural world, and only in the relatively recent past that we have come to spend 90 percent of our lives inside buildings. Perhaps I should be more precise and say that we can change the structure of our worlds relatively quickly, but our bodies change, evolve and adapt at a much slower rate. We are naturally attuned to adapt to our environments, for better or worse, and the long term mental and biological consequences of what we build will not visit us but future generations.

In the 1960s the urbanist and housing expert Charles Abrams coined the term human nidology to describe the study of human habitats and argued that zoo architects gave more attention to building the right environment for animals than planners and architects did for people. Gaston Bachelard criticized philosophers who tried to understand the universe before they understood the house. We can crack atoms and fly to the moon, but we have paid very little attention to how the design of our habitat must respond to deeper human needs.

Architecture is not one pole of the opposition between nature and culture, but an important feature of a larger continuum. This is missing dimension of the sustainability dialogue―the more we understand the functioning and interconnectedness of our body and mind, the better able we will be to design buildings and cities for long-term survival and flourishing. We are ready for this more sophisticated integration, which does not require more space, more materials, or more cost — it requires more thought and cooperation.

Anni Vartola
The interview with Sarah Robinson was conducted by email between 16 September and 5 October 2015.