Moving Boundaries: The New Alliance Between the Human Sciences and Architecture

There are few moments in one’s life that rise to the level of unforgettable experiences. Marriage is one, the birth of a child another. I wrote about a wonderful singing performance on New York’s High Line a few years ago that struck me as indelible and worth telling my grandchildren about. For an architect, meeting a favorite widely known, “famous” designer might qualify. (I never met Lou Kahn, though I did hear him lecture once.)

Two weeks ago I returned from a conference of architects, scientists, planners, medical professionals, and psychologists that will remain one of the truly profound experiences of my life. Before going I anticipated a memorable event, but I have attended many conferences that proved less than memorable once the microphones were turned off.  If participants present their research in order to gain notoriety or impress colleagues, there may be advances in knowledge but not necessarily movements in beliefs, opinions, and world views. So it’s rare when a disparate group of experts on several subjects comes together to form a community of like-minded activists who want to improve the world for all people, not just a chosen few. Moving Boundaries 2022 created such a community. 

I have written about the new alliance between the human sciences and architecture in several pieces for Common Edge, so readers will understand my enthusiasm. A few writers there have taken issue with the notion that beauty and humanistic values are legitimate issues in a world where climate change, war, inequality and urban decay are in the headlines every week. I differ with such Malthusian, reductionist notions of human progress, and am far more optimistic about the future of our species than many in our profession. Not surprisingly, so are many in the human sciences who refuse to buckle under the heel of our technocratic, late-capitalist, blithely materialist society.

There are usually two kinds of criticism leveled at the social and cognitive scientists who study the built environment and firms that purport to use their research. One is that “human factors” are no different than other design considerations that influence how architects think about their designs. Alas, that may have been the case during the early 20th century, but today the most published architects of my generation do not have humans in their formulas for creating “significant new form.” They have only a compulsion to make massive sculptures and tortured interior spaces that critics and developers will see as innovative. The other common complaint, even from socially progressive thinkers, is that “architectural determinism” used ideas from behaviorism and Pavlovian conditioning to socially engineer buildings during the 1950s and 1960s, with disastrous results. History shows that this was not only bad policy based on modernist ideologies from the 1920s, but also bad science. Changing moral and ethical behavior with four walls and a façade is impossible using any kind of science, but that does not mean buildings and landscapes do not influence how people act. All organisms shape and are shaped by their environments, and science has advanced significantly from the 1960s and 1970s to prove that fact. 

Almost 100 participants from all over the world assembled on July 21 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, to begin two weeks of dialogue about issues that concern all designers and stewards of our built environment. The list of participants is available here, so I won’t mention particular individuals in this brief report. The impact of such a diverse gathering of world-renowned intellectuals, scientists, and artists will be obvious once the results of the conference are disseminated in publications and videos.

The organizers of the conference were Sergei Gepshtein, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute and the University of Southern California, and Tatiana Berger, a professor of architecture and urbanism, architect, entrepreneur, and founder at Moving Boundaries Collaborative. Both were astoundingly effective in bringing so many great minds together during a challenging time in the world, and when travel was difficult for all involved. A neuroscientist and an architect who shared a passion for the subject of architecture and neuroscience, the melding of disciplines, created one of the most powerful alliances of scientists and designers ever assembled. They deserve our gratitude and admiration. All who attended the conference are in their debt.

Though many of the participants were leaders and members of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, an organization founded 20 years ago in San Diego, the majority of the participants had no affiliation with each other except shared interests and values. There were young architects and researchers in their 20s and early 30s, midcareer landscape architects, interior designers, design professors in several disciplines, and senior scientists and principals in architectural firms throughout Europe, South American, North America, and Asia/Pacific nations. The generational mix was essential, as older, experienced people had a chance to mentor their younger colleagues in breakout sessions and workshops. And, although most of the “faculty” were well-established and well-known in their fields, and there were fewer women than desirable on the podium, the distinction between “students” and “faculty” broke down so that real sharing was possible outside of the lecture theater during each day and evening. 

The program covered four large topics: The Phenomenon of Place, The Dynamics of Experience, The World of the Senses, and Perception and Emotion. There was coordination in the lectures following faculty planning sessions, so subjects overlapped in a way that gave participants a chance to synthesize as they learned. The first topic on place was a fitting baseline for all that followed, although the lectures there were largely tied to philosophy. Once cognitive neuroscience and wayfinding entered the discussion the debate was lively, with some architects disagreeing with brain researchers on how place could be described in precise, neurological terms. That issue will no doubt take years to sort out, but this was a beginning.

The word “dynamics” has many meanings, but in the context of environmental awareness and perception, it is critical. Humans are active perceivers of the world that surrounds their bodies, and elements of the space around them engage their senses in various ways. “Embodied cognition” is now a settled theory in cognitive science, and many architects have embraced it to explain how buildings and landscapes engage our imagination. In fact, there is significant evidence that we have several fields of perceptual awareness surrounding our bodies that link us to objects at several scales as we move about. The so-called “sixth sense” or “eyes in the back of our heads” isn’t just a myth—there are more than just five senses, and less than 100, as one scientist put it in Santiago.

Of course, great architects such as Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Luis Barragán were acutely aware of these things, and their buildings constantly engage all of our senses as we move around and through them. The world of the senses is really the world of architecture and environmental design if we understand them as our predecessors did, for millennia. The myopia that has infected our starchitects and academics during the past three decades has simply blinded us to the truth, and that truth is now emerging from the human sciences, and among a group of enlightened designers who follow new discoveries. 

When the course moved on to the Casa da Arquitectura in Matosinhos, near Porto, Portugal, the workshops and lectures focused more acutely on how perception can be tuned to inform the design process. Participants were given more concrete methodologies and study tools that might guide their own work, in its particular contexts throughout the world. Though all of the research was in its preliminary stages, many in the group were convinced that science would provide some clear directions for improving the built environment in the coming decade. There were successful case studies affecting the lives of Alzheimer’s patients, elementary school children, elderly people, and residents of public housing. Experiments on the aesthetics of painting, sculpture, and elements of proportion are also underway in laboratories throughout the globe. Many involve the measuring of emotional and physical responses to art, buildings, and landscape.

The idea that some “boundaries” between the human sciences, architecture, urbanism, object design, and digital design could be moved closer together was implicit in the goals of the course, and perhaps a few who attended doubted that this would be possible. The vast majority who left Porto in August felt deep down that their own beliefs had changed, and that indeed boundaries limiting communication between science and design had shifted, providing hope and active enthusiasm for a reform in our beleaguered professions. A website and continuing programs will be available to the general public in the coming months.

Featured image: Moving Boundaries participants in Santiago de Compostela at the Contemporary Art Museum. Photo: Alisa Marina Laengle. 



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