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“We Are the Context That Gives a Building Meaning”

Dear Jacob:

I’m one of the many architects who think your recent, wonderful essay about emotion and the sciences describes a promising way to start preparing yourself to enter and to influence the architectural profession. It’s a great beginning, and the notes below—which follow the sequence of ideas in your piece—suggest ideas for how you could keep building on what you’ve started.

The Book of Genesis has another passage (1:28) relevant to what architects do. It’s an admonition to subdue the earth and have “dominion over … every living thing.” We’ve been doing that and seen its positive and negative results, but the fact remains that we co-evolved with our natural setting, and the “dominion over” concept has delayed the integration of ecological thinking in practice. Because we are one of the dominant forces in any ecosystem we enter, ecology—the totality of interrelationships between organisms and their environment—is also one of the human sciences. It parallels the neurosciences as a way to understand why and how we build, and how we can do it better. Recognition of E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia” has been a useful step, but architects have a lot more to learn. If you’re not already up-to-date on the significance of ecology to all built environments, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature is a good place to start. The important point is that a building is never just a building, but a part of its complete environment.

You write about architects’ reluctance to discuss emotion (and beauty, etc.). Our profession has tended to shape itself around the glamor, prestige, and convenience of the cool, cutting-edge building science of the day. But be patient and look around. For millennia, societies have dedicated enormous resources of time and money to create the emotional rewards of aesthetic pleasure. Those impulses have taken different forms in different arts, of course, and they’re not likely to change easily. Evolved structures in our brains seem to lead us into pursuing “the new” and, in Alberti’s words, at the same time leave us “no means of satiating our excessive desire to gaze at the beautiful.”

Regarding emotion and meaning: When we talk about architecture, we’re talking about experience, and as you point out, at the core of experience are emotions. In order to make that insight usable for architects, though, take a close look at what makes them so powerful. The key is probably a combination of their speed (faster than conscious thought) and, more important, their origins in changing body chemistry. That process selectively arouses a body’s and a mind’s resources, drawing on memories and hard-earned intuition. In any case, because of the way they stir the whole body, emotions are sometimes called omens of success and failure or of life and death. It’s the power in the chemistry that makes emotions “central to everything.” However, I think your conclusion that emotion “is our humanity” is overstated and could get in your way as you develop your thinking. While they are a powerful factor in animating essentially all of our thoughts and actions, they are not the thoughts and actions themselves.

E.O. Wilson had the right words: “We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.” 


The concept of “meaning” brings into play another group of sciences, these related to evolution. The specific mind and body structures that have survived over the millennia of evolution have become the foundation of continually evolving human nature, the sapiens of Homo sapiens. A useful way for architects to think about sapiens is as a network of inborn survival strategies. These are the source of most motivations and meanings in our lives. E.O. Wilson, again, had the right words: “We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.” 

In practice, we experience those strategies as innate predilections or preferences to think, feel, and act in certain ways and not in others. A good example is the pervasive desire, conscious and unconscious, to compete to win and to prosper in the day-to-day struggle to survive. Another example is seen in that Genesis passage, to subdue and have dominion over something else. Another is to explore. Another, to imagine, create, and transcend limitations. Those, and many others, permeate design decisions, and they also power public responses to architecture, no matter what the theory-of-the-day might call for. Ultimately, they’re about defending fundamental human values related to protecting life and health, families, friends, and colleagues, protecting what we are or have and the autonomy to control, and to continually advance our own interests, which our ancestors translated into “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

There’s an excellent book on applying insights into evolution in architectural practice: Origins of Architectural Pleasure, by Grant Hildebrand. He explores deep-seated urges as they impact design, such as the desire to explore, learn more, analyze complexity, and simplify it to find patterns and create order. And he shows the evolutionary basis of such familiar ideas as “refuge and prospect” and taking risks. It’s fascinating. And because he deals with specific, real-world buildings, his ideas are ready to be put to work in a design studio or in client meetings, the places where design decisions create architecture.

Regarding the integration of science-based insights into design, you mention only neuroscience, and many of the sciences covered by that name can be enormously useful in helping architects understand how a mind and body work. As you see, I believe you’ll find the ecological and the evolutionary sciences are also important. They’re generally more accessible for now because practicing professionals and professors have written about how they can be applied in practice. Equally important, they can prepare you, as you say, to combine the fast-moving “scientific research and principles with pre-existing architectural practices,” as they both develop. Too many people are delaying the introduction of the sciences into design practice by dwelling on what they’ve discovered or invented and trying to hold onto the specialized scientific terms, rather than “combining.”

Two excellent examples of combining are Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, and Christopher Alexander’s early works, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. Both authors have discovered that there are structures in a brain that shape our perception and experience of the physical environment, Lynch starting with “wayfinding,” and Alexander with what he calls “the fundamental order which is native to us”—essentially, “what we know already.” Underlying their work, and Hildebrand’s, and others who have built on these ideas, is a simply stated but exceptionally complex concept: What we call architecture is both a building and our interaction with it. We experience the places we build through the lens or filter of ourselves. We are the context that gives a building meaning in the restless networks of our inner worlds.

Some believe that architecture doesn’t “speak,” but it’s much more useful for us as designers to realize that every place we’ve built tells a story—actually, many stories.


These notes are, of course, just a quick sketch, but to return to the beginning of your essay, my intent was to outline some thoughts about your wanting a language for “the emotional impact of design.” It seems to me that there are two languages here: the verbal language that we use to describe architecture in a design process or in criticism, and the language in which the architecture itself speaks to each of us. Some believe that architecture doesn’t “speak,” but it’s much more useful for us as designers to realize that every place we’ve built tells a story—actually, many stories. The best of them brilliantly evoke emotions, and arrays of visitors spend significant measures of their energy, time, and purchasing power just to experience being there.

The profession needs more thinking like yours—especially your optimism and your understanding that large scale changes are built on changes in intricate neurological structures, and that’s worth learning more about. I wish you well on your architectural journey.

Featured image: A new residential neighborhood on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay.  Courtesy of Hart Howerton, the projects’ architect.


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