academy of sciences sf

Reinvigorating Architecture With the Sciences: It’s Time To Get On With It

“Architectural curricula remain one of the few programs in the humanities on campus without any serious examination of its underlying tenets….[specifically] how we engage with the built environment and how the built environment in turn shapes us.”  Harry Francis Mallgrave, Prof Emeritus, IIT, Hon. FRIBA.


What’s happened to common sense in architecture? Our primary audience is human beings, yet few architects study how human minds and bodies actually experience and respond to the places being designed for them.


This disconnect starts with professional education. We prepare for a career by studying individual architects, styles, and design and construction technology. All of that’s essential, of course. We learn, too, and often come to believe passionately, that we shape the lives of everyone who encounters our work. We’re indeed in the business of tangibly changing the world. Yet, surprisingly, we learn little about the lives we expect to shape. We leave school as performers who don’t understand their audience, and much of what we have learned is wrong.


Sadly, the reason is not a lack of available knowledge. Thanks to advances in the humanities and the human sciences—especially evolution, ecology, psychology, and the neurosciences—we now know enough about what’s going on in a human mind and body, with all its interwoven emotions, memories, meanings and action, to enable architects to readily enlarge their perspective. We have the potential to design our projects both as we do now, in terms of the physical qualities of places, but at the same time, and equally reliably and confidently, in terms of our audiences’ emotional, whole-organism experiences, the ones that are most likely to shape their lives.


This scientific understanding of how our environments shape human experience has been accumulating and applied successfully in entertainment, marketing and other professions for decades. But why not in architecture?


This scientific understanding of how our environments shape human experience has been accumulating and applied successfully in entertainment, marketing, and other professions for decades. But why not in architecture? Is it because “the evidence is still thin” or “design is not science?” Or is it because, secure in our personal “design sense,” we’re facing the reality that our hard-earned intuitions may be becoming obsolete?


Well, the evidence is not thin to get started, and the sciences permeate design. The problem is a different one. Today’s research results—organized and introduced, naturally, in scientific and academic venues—are not being translated into the concepts and vocabulary of a design office and client meetings, the places where design decisions are made. That can and will only happen when this growing world of empirical, experimental knowledge is integrated, step-by-step, project-by-project, in effect “plugged-in,” to enlarge and adjust what we already know and believe. It won’t happen by confronting a new scientific paradigm head-on. And just as we did when challenged by so-called sustainability, we can start by first taking a step back.


Since architect Geoffrey Scott wrote The Architecture of Humanism—still in print after 100 years—a series of smart architects, drawing on their own observations and the sciences of their time, have been explaining the links between the places we design and human biology. As a practical matter, Scott introduced what has turned out to be one of today’s mainstream scientific concepts, but he did it in architectural terms.


“The whole of architecture,” he wrote, “ is invested by us with human movement and human moods…[we spontaneously look for] conditions that are related to our own, for movements which are like those we enjoy…and recognize their fitness when created. And, by our instinctive imitation of what we see, their seeming fitness becomes our real delight.” In other words, we feel an arch “spring,” a path “lead,” a line “soar,” and sense a cohesive order among forms, and when we do, the body responds before we grasp cultural or intellectual messages and meanings. He called this response an “unconscious mimetic instinct.”    


This is not a new idea. Essentially all of us tend to experience and then describe our environments largely in terms of human qualities. But today’s brain research has been sorting out what underlies Scott’s “mimetic instinct,” especially the recent discovery of “mirror neurons,” and the organizing concept of experience as ”embodied simulation,” and the significance of new models of perception as a continuous multidimensional process. Those are in the mainstream of current neuroscience, and they’re implicit in Scott’s insights. They’re at the core of Classical architecture, as well, and the point is that they can open-up and strengthen architects’ personal styles, and then, because they are pervasive and real, they reinforce the ability to lead a design team with confidence.


Here’s another. In a pioneering study called The Image of the City (1960), MIT urban design professor Kevin Lynch, analyzing mental maps that individuals used to orient themselves in the city of Boston, found overlaps, apparent human propensities, clear, practical patterns of perception that they used to make the city “legible.” His work and vocabulary, starting with geometric mapping (edges, paths, nodes, landmarks, etc.) and then expanded to cover social factors, nature, and more senses, were adopted, built upon, and absorbed into the conventional wisdom and creative practice of generations of designers.   


It seems likely that Lynch, like the Gestalt psychologists and their successors, were discovering patterns that come to us naturally and easily because they’ve evolved as preparation for orientation and navigation as survival skills. Today’s research is enlarging enormously the understanding of similar inborn patterns and body chemistry built into the structure of a brain and body that architects can rely on.


About forty years ago, Charles Moore and Kent Bloomer in Body, Memory and Architecture spelled out how architecture is most usefully conceived as a “body-centered art,” an idea at the core of today’s thinking.


About forty years ago, Yale professors, architect Charles Moore and Kent Bloomer in Body, Memory and Architecture (1977) spelled out how architecture is most usefully conceived as a “body-centered art,” an idea at the core of today’s thinking. Using the science of their time and essentially talking one-on-one to students and designers at work on their projects, they added levels of practical, design-office detail to Scott’s insights.


Then the influential pioneering professor-architect, Christopher Alexander, in The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language (1992), cut through popular theories of his time and described architecture, again in design-studio detail, as a nuanced language of patterns that we spontaneously find within ourselves, essentially “the fundamental order which is native to us.” He spells out 253 patterns (elements of built environments) at all scales, from towns to buildings, details and landscapes. Thousands of designers have followed the lead of Alexander’s early work, and today, finding that the updated sciences are able to explain effectively that “fundamental order native to us,” are both fine-tuning and enlarging the human experience of their design work.


In another extraordinary book, The Origins of Architectural Pleasure (1999), University of Washington professor-architect Grant Hildebrand, like Scott, Lynch, Moore, and Alexander, working at a student and design studio level, distilled the enormous complexity of evolved minds, bodies, and behavior into concepts usable in day-to-day design. Whatever architectural theory or style may guide a project’s design, whatever the sensory experience or aesthetic pleasure, he shows that the most likely responses of most people, as well as the motivations that lead us to build places—and then their meanings and the stories they tell in our lives— have their origins in human evolution.


Finally, the actual human habitats we are designing can only be understood clearly when we see architecture as an integral part of a changing, living ecosystem. And in The Language of Landscape (1998) Anne Whiston Spirn points out that landscapes are our native language, overflowing with messages both “pragmatic and poetic,” that hold the key to human survival and prospering. E.O. Wilson’s “Biophilia” concept is being used today as the way to “plug-in” updated ecological sciences into day-to-day practice, And the landscape architecture way of thinking is advancing and thriving’


Currently, Common Edge is helping to provide similar architectural language bridges to the sciences for our generation: most recently a series of posts about Christopher Alexander’s work; posts by Ann Sussman and Justin Hollander, authors of Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment (2014);  interviews with consultant Steve Orfield and educator Sarah Williams Goldhagen, author of Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (2017). They’re excellent translators, with an important exception. The dramatic claim that we’re faced with “completely rethinking our way of looking at architecture” will simply delay the adoption of enormously useful updated knowledge. That may be true, but it’s the kind of change that happens over time.


In other words, we have at hand what amounts to a running start, in architectural terms, of a workable “rough sketch” of human beings engaging and responding to built environments. That’s why a student or designer doesn’t have to struggle through the changing internal paradigms of the sciences themselves. Instead, like our smart predecessors, we can advance in parallel with the sciences of our own time, continuing to translate their insights, enlarging and refreshing our own work with rich veins of new experimental evidence, step-by-step. That’s what other disciplines “on campus,” and the professionals who lead our culture have been doing for years, and it works.


Drawing of the California Academy of Sciences by Albrecht Pichler.



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