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Are These Four Walls Causing You Pleasure—or Pain?

Neuroscience is illuminating old truths about our buildings and ourselves.
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In many happy cases—humoristic medicine, miasmatic theories of disease, bloodletting, and animal magnetism—science has swept away theories that were well established despite being nonsense. But it has also frequently confirmed the wisdom of traditional methods, proving that some longstanding practices aren’t just stale accretion but actually good sense. One such domain—in which the most contemporary of sciences are increasingly buttressing some of the oldest human practices—is in the flourishing exploration of the intersection of architecture and neuroscience. The emerging field is bringing new attention to old questions about how buildings can affect us as people.

There’s a long tradition of scientists testing which changes to an environment produce anxiety, interest, or relaxation—in animals. For example, there have been experiments with rats in mazes and enriched or drab environments, discovering that they could be bored or lulled by patterns and physical arrangements, or also enticed or frightened by them. In the early 2000s, researchers at University of Parma in Italy made an important discovery involving mental imaging in macaques: simply observing other animals engaging in an activity caused brain activity essentially the same as carrying out the activity itself. As Harry Francis Mallgrave, author of Architecture and Embodiment, explains, “This systemic firing of specialized neurons means that we mentally simulate or embody most of what we apprehend through the senses, whether we are aware of it or not.”

Now these methods are catching up to humans. Research has confirmed that tools—and more importantly for our purposes, usable surfaces, such as stairs or door knobs—prompt an immediate neurological response that’s equivalent to actually engaging with these items. Humans happily haven’t been locked in many mazes, but some have been placed in increasingly sophisticated simulations, sometime featuring virtual reality headsets, and recent testing has confirmed that many variables prompt us to respond to our surroundings not merely rationally but emotionally; these can prompt stress or fear or relaxation or comfort, can wake us up or exhaust us, and more.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue.

This disjunct between rational theory and lived experience goes to the heart of the way architecture is practiced. “Space” is the great theoretical canvas of contemporary architecture. But people don’t live in space. They exist in real places. As Sarah Goldhagen wrote recently in Welcome to Your World, “most of the time when people encounter the voids and objects that constitute our built environments, they do not direct their attention on space per se. Instead, what people register nonconsciously and what they consciously choose to focus on are the experiential opportunities offered by a place’s affordances.”

Advances in neuroscience have confirmed that the brain has stages of processing. There are early glosses designed to make sense of a space that we do not understand before some gradual modes of comprehension offer us a fuller picture—as well as persistent perceptions of environments that can be individually altered but are widespread. A Churchill quote is perhaps surprisingly common in such literature: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

The proposition neuroscientists advance is often even stronger. As Goldhagen continues, “To say the built environment is us is but a slight exaggeration. And it is certainly no exaggeration to say that the built environment shapes who we are and how we move through the world physically, socially, and cognitively, as well as in the sense of how we construct and reconstruct our identity.”

This research is not, as you may already suspect, confirming the wisdom of our common architectural practices today. You’re likely not looking out the window at a neurologically satisfying building, you may not be in one right now, and you might not be returning home to one either.

An overwhelming criticism of the architects and neuroscientists at work in this burgeoning field is the last century’s etiolation of a rich and complicated field to simple dimensions, lost in the intellectualized formal experiments of Modernism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, and other varieties of prestige architecture. A conjoined problem has been the unreflective, impoverished domain of mass architecture and its vast domains of cheap surfaces, from the big-box store to the McMansion.

This new research seeks to question the manipulation of space as a mere geometric exercise, but also the increased prevalence—in the age of photography, Instagram, and computer modeling—of scenographic conceptions of architecture. It’s nothing new to declare that these modes have often dissatisfied their users and residents. But recent research has offered more concrete evidence that they might even prove to be unhealthy and out of sync with human nature.

Illustration by Michael Hogue


Many of the most prominent architects and neuroscientists working in this frontier gathered in Chicago this past fall at a conference organized by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, “Architecture as Experience: Human Perception and the Built Environment.” [Disclosure: The American Conservative‘s New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation]. Perhaps most prominent among the distinguished group was Juhani Pallasmaa, Finnish architect and critic, who has argued for decades for an architecture that is “interactive and embodied … rather than from an inclusive theory and fully rationalized processes.”

In his keynote address Pallasmaa observed that contemporary architecture is not formulated as such: “Modern Architectural theory education and practice have regarded architecture as visually idealized and aestheticized spaces.” One of the field’s great oversights is the “failure of modern architecture to address the divide between thinking and feeling.” Feeling is not, in the conception of most involved with this field, a superfluous or even a grudgingly necessary element—it is vital.

Another architect, Sarah Robinson, invited the audience to consider the experience of entering a building:

Moments upon entering a space we sense its ambience. Its whole atmosphere conveys itself wordlessly. It is an experience that is immediate and total. The space that surrounds us can intrigue and beguile us, confuse or overwhelm us, or provide us with a sense of warmth and invitation. The mood that permeates the space seems to permeate us, whether we will it or not. Experiencing architecture, and more broadly speaking, engaging places, involves far more senses than the usual five.

Robinson continued, considering what happens in substandard construction:

More often than not the spaces that surround us are deprived of any such qualities. Their surfaces are flat, monotonous, their reflections brooding, their bodies, lacking in contour, leave no place for our imagination or feelings to rest. The indifference of most places leaves us feeling indifferent. If they involve any feeling at all, it is one of boredom.

Also missing from the traditional picture is the the human ability to move through space. As Pallasmaa wrote in his essay “Stairways of the Mind,” our encounters with structures “consist, for instance, of approaching or confronting a building rather than the formal apprehension of a facade; of the act of entering, not the static appreciation … To live in something is different than to survey it from stately points or to pass through, and involves a deeper sense of engagement with a location in all of its multisensory aspects.”

A portion of the problem is the enduringly indeterminate status of architecture as both art and practical necessity. You don’t want a watercolorist to design your home, but you’re not likely to hire a civil engineer either. It is a field of art that lends itself to comparison to all others but it is distinctly different; we don’t live in movies or paintings. Goldhagen has made this point elsewhere: “Our relationship to the built environment differs from that of any other art. It affects us all the time, not only when we choose to pay attention to it.”

If we had formerly ignored this essential truth, neuroscientists are now confirming it in the lab. As Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons in the University of Parma study, explained in a videotaped address to the Driehaus symposium, “Former dichotomies such as mind/body, nature/nurture, perception/cognition have given way to the belief that minds, bodies, cultures, and environments interact with each other on different levels of organismic expression over the course of generations.”

Now what does this all mean? Neuroscience hasn’t just revealed that if a room is full of door knobs we will be entertained for hours imagining using them—or if there are staircases present that we will end up on another floor in our minds. There are a variety of preferences for which we’ve had initial encouragement. Human preferences are malleable and variable, and many are what you would expect—but heretofore they had not been proven with scientific methods. As Mallgrave noted, “Aesthetic theory, which survived the last stages of the postructural era in the intensive care ward, has a significant resurgence with the rise of neuroaesthetics.”

Suggestions of the architecture and neuroscience field may appear to be proxies for collective or individual subjective aesthetic judgments. But some human responses—if unquestionably embodied—are less variable, such as stress, rest, concentration, or relaxation. The “boring places” and “places of anxiety,” discussed in Colin Ellard’s Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, are more concrete sensations.

Ellard has conducted a variety of virtual reality experiments at his lab at the University of Waterloo. One featured a few simulated home environments, including a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design and a model contemporary suburban home. “When we tracked the route that people followed during their explorations of the houses, we were surprised to find that there were certain rooms that were not entered at all. Most prominently, the large formal living room in the suburban house was peered into from both its entry points but was not explored at all.”

Caryatids on the Erechtheion, Athens. (Thermos/Wikimedia Commons)

Featureless places reliably bore humans; blank walls or empty spaces induce anxiety or produce quickened paces in a variety of tests. Preferences for traditional bounded space and other New Urbanist planning techniques are common. In general, environments that lack easy opportunities for a human presence, such as the suburban landscape of highways and sprawl, are associated with stress. In studies of these phenomena, bilateral symmetry is a frequent preference of test subjects, while jagged or impossible forms are often a deterrent. Ellard discusses research conducted by Humboldt University and University of Haifa researchers that simply involved monitoring gameplay in a room featuring two different collages, with “one room sporting sharp, angular shapes while the other room displayed shapes with curves.” Players were quantifiably more aggressive in the game overlooked by the angular collage.

Architectural historians have been finding faces in architecture for centuries, and humans value these. Building compositions of base-shaft-top that resemble the human form also resonate.

Beyond human likeness, research into our perception of architecture often finds a strong link to the obvious products of our labors. This point has been made before: Modernist architect Richard Neutra summarized its essence perfectly in his 1954 work Survival Through Design:

Viewing hand-formed pottery, or the lines of a draftsman, or the lettering of a calligraphist, we unconsciously identify ourselves with their makers: We seem to follow vicariously the imagined muscular exertion in the nervous experience of the craftsman as if experiencing it ourselves. In the same way, our tongue is slightly innervated when we only think of a word; our muscles tighten while we watch a wrestler or a tightrope walker, however comfortably we ourselves may be seated. Our empathetic experience of the pains of creation, unconsciously inferred when we look at a product, may add or detract, heighten or reduce, our enjoyment of it.

Of course, there’s always more to humanism in architecture than Greek caryatids or gargoyles or hand-hewn elements. A human taste for patterns seems amply confirmed by neuroscience. Virtual-reality experiments in a classical as opposed to a modern environment have confirmed boredom in the latter. Testing of environments of office parks or blank, overly uniform walls yielded disinterest.

Parliament of Bangladesh by Louis Kahn (Wikimedia Commons)

The antidote is a “patterned complexity” resembling the adornments of nature. Neutra wrote in opposition to famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s dictum that “form follows function.” On the contrary, “sometimes function follows form,” with natural elements seeming to reliably yield lower stress levels—not merely the presence of trees, but the use of wood as opposed to unnatural elements. Reflective glass is often unwelcome. If testing of these propositions is in coeval stages, a number of authors speculate on the comfort provided by the natural aging of materials: In Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty observed that concrete’s seemingly unnatural process of aging is disorienting and serves as an active deterrent to the appreciation of Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and ’70s.

There may also be, beyond natural materials, some inherent archetypes within architecture. As Thomas De Monchaux describes Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, building on a description provided by Sarah Goldhagen:

The shapes of these facades derive some of their uncanny homeyness, the theory goes, by conforming to intersections and accretions of about forty universal geometrical templates—weird “viewpoint-invariant” configurations called geons—that we have wired into our brains. These configurations serve as perceptive shortcuts to apprehending the bewilderingly complex shape of the world. Our preconscious use of geonic forms—wedges, boxes, barrels, donuts, cones—is reinforced by our associative memories of all the built places that have convened those templates.

These responses of the brain are not rigid universal preferences. Testing also suggests that humans crave some things at some times and some at others. Red walls and daring shapes might stimulate both performance and stress. Comforting and familiar shapes might stimulate rest, comfort, or boredom. Bright or variable light is desired at some times, soft and indirect light at others. Mallgrave stresses the importance of both “parasympathetic places of retreat or recuperation” and more active locations, “stimulating compositions in their social and spatial values that also demand significant energy expenditure to take in and understand.”


Most of these observations about architecture and embodiment are hardly new. The question is what we are supposed to do now that these truths have been reconfirmed with new technology.

The importance of light and space was a familiar impulse from the progressive era and in many forms of social housing, zoning codes, and tenement clearance projects across the globe. But the idea that simple mathematical formulas could produce utopia was disproved by the typically featureless housing developments that sprang up according to their specifications.

As with many fields, the majority of evidence we have concerning neuroscience and architecture has tended to arise either in areas of common societal concern or  those where profit is involved. School design has increasingly internalized evidence about the role of minimizing distraction in design, both by limiting external noise and rearranging classrooms. There was a 1984 study that showed hospital patients with a view of nature healed faster with fewer complications; subsequent work has reinforced this conclusion. Blue light reduces neonatal jaundice. Prisons have experimented with varied colors in order to reduce both inmate and guard stress. As Robinson explained at the Driehaus conference, generational increases in depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders may have something to do with where we are living: “It would be difficult to deny the coincidence that we now spend 90 percent of our lives inside of buildings—and if the built environment fails to nurture our capacities for emotional intelligence,” it may bear some responsibility for the rise in mental health issues.

There have been some parallel bodies of work that touch upon questions of health. The rise of the open office plan has offered quantified evidence of increased stress and distraction—and reduced productivity levels. Some fields of design are excellent at accomplishing other easily quantified but questionable goals: Casinos and shopping centers, for example, are constantly redesigned in accord with the quest for increased sales. Ellard classifies them as “places of lust.” These projects are often the equivalent of engineering tastier fast food—in which science brings us the benefit of more superficially irresistible yet unhealthy choices.

Who is to blame for the presence of so much architecture that is insensitive to the human condition? While many of the thinkers in this emerging field fault modern conceptions of architecture, most are not hostile to modernism in general or in part. Plenty of modern architects are praised. Many modernists devoted tremendous attention to the holistic questions of satisfying spaces for living. Even Philip Johnson, who was responsible for high-profile promotion of architecture’s most avant garde movement, Deconstructivism, declared that “All architecture is shelter” and that “All great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.”

Much of the problem is not in the occasional asymmetrical and often structurally confounding commissions of Deconstructivists, who don’t typically design the buildings where you work, live, or shop. It is more widespread. The rest of our environment is often built to the most banal standards of mass specification and economy, of faceless suburbia and prefabricated life. And this lack of attention to the built environment has consequences. As Richard Driehaus commented at the Chicago symposium, “Some speculate that by 2030 half of the buildings in which Americans live will have been built since 2006. Decisions about how they are designed can’t be left to chance.”

However evanescent architecture has often become, we won’t be rid of that soon either. As Goldhagen comments: “Once finished, a new urban area or park or building will likely outlast every person who designed, engineered, and built it. It will survive too the people who wrote and adjudicated the codes that dictated its permitting. And it will remain in use long after those who commissioned and paid for it are gone.”

It’s surely worthwhile to question the orthodoxies of the so-called “starchitecture” of the most elite and visible designers. And yet the insights of neuroscience and architecture must come to bear on the far wider practices of construction, which have very little to do with contemporary art museums, big libraries, or new university arts centers. The problems of one-dimensional architecture are more diffuse, all the way down to the plastic and other artificial materials that now dominate so much of contemporary construction.

Neutra noted early in Survival Through Design that this unexpectedly important element of building, the materials in our spaces, is at the core of our development from an early age:

Strange as it may seem, my first impressions of architecture were largely gustatory. [As a child] I licked the blotter-like wallpaper adjoining my bed pillow, and the polished brass hardware of my toy cupboard. It must have been then and there that I developed an unconscious preference for flawlessly smooth surfaces that would stand the tongue test, the most exacting of tactile investigations, and for the less open-jointed, and also more resilient flooring.

Richard Neutra (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing over a half century ago, Neutra predicted present developments, and offered a cri de coeur to design that is more mindful of the whole body—and not merely the photo or the drafting table: “Designers of the future will neither cater to harmful habits nor gratify arbitrary desires. Their decisions will abide by ever-increasing physiological information.”

Criticism of architectural education is mounted in virtually all literature on the topic, both at the elite pinnacle and broader, more banal reaches of architecture. As Robinson confirmed, “With some notable exceptions… Human bodily experience has been effectively eradicated from architectural education right up to the present day.”

Neuroscience may be a field in which technological developments have the potential to rehumanize architecture. But Mallgrave noted that the rise of computer imaging in architecture has likely rendered it arid. “We are, for the first time, training a generation of architects with little or no proficiency in drawing. In some schools, in fact, students are trained exclusively through the keyboard of a computer from their first design studio forward.” He praises Swiss architect Peter Zumthor for banishing the computer until later stages of design and architects who spurn the lifeless simulations of 3D computer modeling.

More broadly, many at the symposium commented that the building industry, whose interests are quite distinct from high-brow architecture, tends to incorporate some types of improvements rapidly—materials or surfaces that provide for energy efficiency, greater water recycling, and the like. Yet insights that provide for a better lived experience are not nearly so rapidly applied to everyday construction projects.

Many of these findings in neuroscience are in early stages, so it’s welcome that many writing on the topic are restrained in their expectations or arguments for sweeping change across the practice of architecture. None are pressing to discard the traditional or recent concerns of architecture. None wish to simply hand control of architecture to neuroscientists, or to prescribe red breakfast nooks and blue bedrooms. The repeated argument is for offering neuroscience a reliable place among the multiple concerns that shape architecture, not in seating it at the head of the table.

Architect Robert Lamb Hart summarizes perhaps the most helpful attitude towards this body of work in his book A New Look at Humanism. “The important point is an ancient one: Ultimately the most useful learning is an educated awareness of the sources and consequences of our own thinking, feelings, behavior, and experience.” We should still ultimately be doing whatever we wish to our buildings, but equipped with a full sense of what they’re doing to us.

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.