Salk Institute via mark hewitt

A↔N: The Architecture-Neuroscience Divide Appears to Be Narrowing

Last month, a group of architects, designers, and neuroscientists met in San Diego, at the NewSchool for Architecture and Design, to present new research under the auspices of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA). Although ANFA’s biennial meeting will occur in 2020, this intersession—“Neuroscience for Architecture, Urbanism & Design”—enabled students from around the world to sample some exciting developments.

Judging from an extensive report on the meeting by Michael Arbib, a neuroscientist heavily engaged with architecture, new research is emerging that may change the tenor and content of what is now labeled “A↔N,” to emphasize that the nexus between architecture and neuroscience works both ways. With an almost equal number of studies coming from scientists and from architects, there is evidence that a significant gap is narrowing between the two cultures; ANFA is nearing its goal of bringing evidence-based research on the brain, and cognition more generally, to the attention of academics in design, planning, landscape, urbanism, and architecture. Three years ago, when I wrote an editorial on this topic for The Architect’s Newspaper, I was not hopeful about such a development. But things are changing rapidly.

What, exactly, are the changes? First, new questions are being asked about familiar subjects such as evidence-based design; core issues in neuroscience that bear on the environment, biomorphism and aesthetics, memory and creativity; how “neurocentric” design helps humans read their environments; what constitutes robotic and cybernetic architecture; and the basis of empathy in humans when they experience buildings. Second, scientists are refining their understanding of how to use technology to empirically test for significant responses among human subjects in both virtual and real environments, calibrating insights from the two approaches and modifying expectations on the character of data. Third, members of the design community are recognizing the need for collaboration among previously unconnected disciplines. And finally, perhaps most significantly, beauty is a central concern of everyone involved, not only as perceived, but also as felt

When Thomas Albright of the Salk Institute suggested that “architecture may be an applied science of biology,” his audience knew something special was afoot. One of the world’s leading experts on visual perception, Albright has been a participant in all previous ANFA meetings and contributed to Mind in Architecture, edited by architects Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa, the 2012 book surveying the state of the art in A↔N. Many of Alright’s previous papers suggested that he was skeptical about using hard science in evaluating buildings, but recent work with Sergei Gepshtein and John Zeisel, on homes for people with impaired memory, is producing testable improvements in patients’ health. Along with architect and board member Allison Whitelaw, these scientists were seeing the clear advantages of modifying healthcare facilities, schools, prisons, and even health and wellness clubs to benefit their users. (Albright actually gave a talk to the national AIA about his work, a big step for such a conservative organization). Eduardo Macagno of the University of California, San Diego, also a board member, has been developing a protocol for addressing Winston Churchill’s famous dictum: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” We could restate the question as: How does science test buildings for their impact on behavior and health, while also supporting designers’ efforts to change these buildings to offer similar benefits? A↔N must be a two-way street. 

Alvar Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall. Photo by the author.


One way to address motion in both directions is through embodied cognition, a subject explored by several speakers, but particularly important to Harry Francis Mallgrave, an architect and historian who has often contributed to ANFA in the past. Mallgrave spoke about “empathy” in German philosophy and aesthetics, tying this essential human quality to mirror neurons and the brain’s normal cognitive activity. Arbib stressed that perception is active: we move about the environment using “action perception loops” to assess not only our position in space but our feelings of well-being. He also maintained that symbols and language extend our capacity to understand the world.

Several senior scientists presented current work that continues to produce significant results: on the effects of light on circadian rhythms by Satchin Panda; Arbib’s upcoming study of “how brains meet buildings”; and Albright’s work on the aesthetics of visual perception. Eli Al-Chaer presented “responsive” architecture driven by digital algorithms. Several faculty from the NewSchool gave papers. Sadly, the school is one of only a handful of U.S. programs to offer a certificate in neuroscience and architecture, but its faculty are leading research in this area. Both Macagno, who spoke on a lab to help architecture students measure bodily responses, and Gephstein, who spoke on phenomenology in relation to architecture and vision research, teach there. 

Much of the most exciting work came from young researchers with new approaches to technology, theory, and design. In their paper “Rethinking Architectural Methods with Neuroscientific Modalities,” Biayna Bogosian and Kris Mun (who directs the NewSchool certificate) shared professional projects and student work. Rather than relying only on VR and high-tech methods, the instructors and their students also interview users, draw by hand, and gather data by any means possible. Dane Clemenson studies human navigation and creativity using games such as Minecraft in concert with brain imaging. Guvenc Ozel, a new voice, reported that it is hard to get VR displays that properly match the human visual system, but also noted that VR offers the ability to create new spaces that can be used productively in cognitive testing. 

Enaz Farahi presented her work on body-mounted sensors that read emotions and are coupled to new materials that offer fascinating new media for emotional expression. Ilaria Mazzoleni’s talk on creating fully ecological relationships between buildings and the landscape headlined the middle of the conference. Instead of lumping biological metaphors in with nostalgic paeans to the vanishing natural world, these researchers fully embrace the deep relationship between embodied cognition in humans and the opportunities opened up by new developments in digital testing. Many more like them are publishing work across the globe.

The stark intellectual division between researchers who maintain ties to pure technology and those who are skeptical of those ties came in papers by Neil Leach and Marcos Novak, the final symposium presenters. Dangling the trendy terms “extended mind” and “homeostasis” in his title, Leach argued for inviting machines into the psyche, getting rid of the “artificial” in AI, and accepting “deep learning” in cutting-edge programming as a way forward. Phillip K. Dick’s “dreaming” machines are almost a reality, Leach suggested, and perhaps they are more “creative” than architects in devising solutions to building better buildings and cities. If one equates novelty with human creativity, and algorithmic solutions with timeless designs, the answer may be yes.

Novak, taking his audience on a “wild ride” evocative of Mr. Toad, disagreed: “If I take a robot to the gym, it could lift weights, but that would miss the whole point.” Turning the metaphors around, Novak used the nature of thermodynamics to examine the most organic aspects of architecture and its relationship to the environment. His examples ranged widely, as is often the case in a lecture on design, and dealt with poetics as well as pragmatics. Beginning with a sample from Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” and inviting his audience to tour his transLAB, he ended with an image of Constantine Brancusi’s studio. Ultimately, his subject was beauty: why some civilizations, such as the Ancient Greeks, create it, and others, like our own, seem incapable of doing so. Neuroscience may help give us an answer, and get us back on track.

Feature image: Kahn’s Salk Institute, in La Jolla, CA. Photo by the author.

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