Perception (and experience) is reality
A presenter at AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 is helping architecture students find the link between cognitive theory and design
We all live in a constant negotiation with environments created by architects. It’s why homeowners renovate their houses, why a roiling debate about open-office plans seems to have no end, and why plazas and greenways in many American cities have become as prominent as the newest skyscrapers, opera houses, and arenas. Some architects have begun to work closely with brain scientists and neurobiologists to unlock just how environments—spaces and buildings alike—affect our sensibilities, and how our perceptions of our environments can influence design thinking.
And, Milton Shinberg, AIA, is helping architecture students learn how cognitive theory applies to actual buildings and spaces.
Shinberg, an instructor at Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning in Washington, DC, for more than 40 years, has developed a graduate seminar called “Beauty & Brains” that explores how the things we find delightful and appealing can be analyzed in cognitive neuroscience terms.
“Like physicians, [the students] diagnose what’s good and not so good in cognitive neuroscience terms, and then propose effective fixes,” he notes. The analysis focuses on form, but according to Shinberg it is important to also explore the gut-level connection to space, which is more rooted in the brain’s limbic system.
"The way a space smells tells so much about it." - Brett Koenig Greig, AIA
So how do architects experience environments? Harry Kendall, AIA, looks at the whole picture before considering details.
“As a contemporary designer with a commitment to environmental sustainability, and as an advocate for historic preservation, I try to be particularly observant about contextual issues,” Kendall says. “For example, I experience a modern home differently if it is encountered as a renovation within a traditional envelope, rather than as a freestanding new structure. Similarly, I experience any space, whether conditioned or open air, quite differently depending on its orientation and quality of natural light. Basically, as an architect, I am affected by my perception of what has been built and what preceded it. I respond, both intellectually and viscerally, to any heightened sense of a dialogue between the architecture of different eras, or a spirit of integration between the built and the natural.”
Former Naval Special Warfare officer-turned-architect J.J. Puga, AIA, works in the opposite direction, first focusing on specific details, especially in workplace environments, before considering the big picture.
“For me, it is extremely important to allow for vulnerability,” Puga says. “People need space to express themselves and talk. I think a lot about privacy, transparency, and acoustics.”
Providing spaces that are separate from an open-office environment and acoustically isolated enables trust between leaders and team members that can be difficult to create without doors to close. “I am very much attuned to how clients will use specific rooms and how they share information throughout their organization as we are going through the design process,” he says. Puga notes that he makes sure to ask what kinds of conversations are happening in each space and then works closely with engineers to ensure that acoustics facilitate the design intent.
"As an architect, I am affected by my perception of what has been built and what preceded it." - Harry Kendall, AIA
Sometimes the immediate reaction to a space is much more intangible, even for architects. “The way a space smells tells so much about it,” notes Brett Koenig Greig, AIA. “Things like a building’s age, what it is made of, and how it has been used are all there.”
Greig says she was particularly aware of this when she visited the Twin Sisters Dance Hall in Blanco, Texas. “I've only been when the hall was empty, but the cedar groves outside, the tannins of the old oak floor, the sweet staleness from the room, all conjured images of the space tightly packed with twirling revelers.”
Shinberg notes that people generally focus on the most impactful aspects of an environment, which often are only tangentially related to architecture: safely crossing the street; identifying who other people are and what they’re doing; finding the front door; looking at what’s in a shop window; and a nearly infinite list beyond. He notes that some of this is informational—what’s there—and some of it is emotional—how does it make you feel. “They’re not easily separable as science would hope. Architectural experience is rich, complex, and interwoven.”
Are you an architect who wants to know more about the brain? Milton Shinberg, AIA, will host a session at AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 entitled "Effective Design for Real People: Seeing Design Through Neuroscience Insights" on April 27 from 7 to 8am. Register now and learn more at conferenceonarchitecture.com.
Getty Images/Dan Kitwood