Neuroscience of Architecture

The topics contained in the Architecture and Neurscience reader bring many questions to mind about the application of ethical principles to architectural experimentation, the responsibility to preserve a continuous built expression of a culture, the difficult task of shifting the science of architecture onto firmer ground while acknowledging and incorporating the experiential and emotional aspects of the practice. Each one of these avenues is important enough for individual examination, but since I tend to favor application the most pressing question is this: how can the understanding of neuroscience serve to inform and improve our built environment?

Although there is much to be said about the subject, and many other people that have said it, it is always useful to condense and restate for a clearer picture of the matter. Theoretical and scientific work tends to be (correctly) long winded in an attempt to precisely convey a message. As Arbib says when using the imperfect collection of associations and assumptions that is language, it takes more than a simple statement to convey the richness of an idea (p. 60). However, architects are in the business of distillation and it never hurts to improve your elevator pitch.

Arbib mentions three areas of interest within this topic as neuromorphic architecture, neuroscience of the experience of architecture, and neuroscience of the design process.  Although knowledge of the self is important, I think it is best to leave neuroscience of the design process out of practical discussion until there is more study into the area. Currently there simply isn’t enough information to say anything meaningful.

Neuromorphic architecture is a subject of particular interest to me because developments along this line seem to be the next logical step in the evolution of the built environment.  Buildings that respond to occupancy and conditions would have amazing implications, but it seems that researchers in this area are perhaps being too hasty. Arbib asked the question “what if a building had a brain?” (p.49). Solutions are often sought that rely on robotics and complex systems of electronics, and although fascinating, these systems come up short in large part because they begin from an incorrect starting point.

People don’t need buildings with brains, they need buildings that act like plants. Plants respond to multiple external stimuli, adapt to ideally perform in a variety of situations and conditions, and make efficient use of resources to create resilient systems that withstand destruction and stress. These actions are achieved by layering small amount of discreet systems (bark, heartwood, roots, leaves, etc) that combine to facilitate a variety of actions through their material properties. If architecture can achieve a similar feat, it will change how we live immeasurably.

Neuroscience relating to the experience of architecture is the area that is likely to have the greatest impact on the way in which the majority of us practice. Similar to the study of psychology or sociology, neuroscience helps to inform the practicing architect on how to better understand the goal of their work. People are the priority and above all, the architect must build in ways that improve the life of the inhabitants; the architect is a servant to the common good. Certain works achieve that, are difficult to use as teaching tools with the assistance of only direct observation. Though experiential qualities and effects are relatively understandable through analysis, achieving a similar product is nearly impossible to teach because it has traditionally required a level of intuitive analysis that ultimately separates timeless achievements from passable temporary structures. Through a more thorough understanding of the processes of perception, this gap can be somewhat narrowed to improve the merely passable into enjoyable.

This all leads to my final summation and perhaps most important takeaway.  Neuroscience guidelines for design (2014 edition):

  • Examine the situation without simplification and acknowledge any shortcomings in your understanding of it (this includes site, climate, program, culture of users, etc)
  • Start by identifying the feelings you would like to evoke and work backwards
  • Evoke emotional response to temporarily delay rational analysis of an experience (overwhelm through scale, disturb through incongruence, trick through illusion, connect through empathy, overload/alter through sensory input i.e. subaudible frequencies)
  • Focus on experiential qualities using a multisensory approach
  • Use subtle clues to engage mirror neurons and increase connection to the building (tool marks, etc)

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