Your brain on architecture

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Lauinger Library at Georgetown University. (blog.thehoya.com)

Here’s another scientific study about architecture. Look through the methodology and your eyeballs may roll furiously at its conclusion that “contemplative” buildings cause contemplative activity in the brain.

Showing pictures of such buildings (old and new) to a dozen architects while they undergo a brain scan in the expectation that “their critical training and experience would make them sensitive to features of the buildings that a lay person might overlook” sounds doubtful at best. After all, early training for students in architecture school aims to purge their innate feel for beauty as traditionally conceived. Still, “What Architecture Is Doing to Your Brain” by Emily von Hoffman in CityLab (The Atlantic) is not without its titillations.

Von Hoffman and her source, Dr. Julio Bermudez, who performed the study, spend a good portion of the article assuming a defensive crouch, anticipating objections. Bermudez asserts that “though everyone encounters architecture, studies on the built environment struggle for funding because,” as Bermudez remarked with a sigh, “it’s difficult to suggest that people are dying from it.”

Personally, I believe studies on the built environment remain rare because the architecture establishment doesn’t want to generate publicity for what it recognizes is the public’s widespread disdain for modern architecture.

Von Hoffman began her article with an amusing take on the Lauinger Library, a Brutalist concoction at Georgetown University. The school paper, The Hoya, had an article on Von Hoffman’s piece entitled “The Atlantic Calls the Lau ‘Soul-Crushing,’ Confirming Everything We Already Knew.” Here is Von Hoffman’s lede (as journalists call the opening of their stories):

At a particular moment during every tour of Georgetown University’s campus, it becomes necessary for the student guide to acknowledge the singular blight in an otherwise idyllic environment. “Lauinger Library was designed to be a modern abstraction of Healy Hall …,” a sentence that inevitably trails off with an apologetic shrug, inviting the crowd to arrive at their own conclusions about how well it turned out. Much of the student population would likely agree that the library’s menacing figure on the quad is nothing short of soul-crushing.

One shot shown to the 12 architects undergoing brain scans was the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, Calif., a modernist set of research buildings designed by Louis Kahn along an allée concluding with a view of the Pacific Ocean. I will grant it is lovely, but if the Salk were placed in a typical urban setting, unable to focus the eye on the Pacific, would it be so revered today? I do not quarrel that some modern architecture is extraordinarily contemplative. And yet, as is not the case for traditional architecture, genius is definitely required.

The author concludes with a roundup of the sort of more useful, less “contemplative” things about architecture that scientific researchers are looking into: “optimal ceiling heights for different cognitive functions; the best city design for eliciting our natural exploratory tendencies and making way-finding easier; the ideal hospital layout to improve memory-related tasks in patients recovering from certain brain injuries; the influence of different types and quantities of light within a built space on mood and performance.”

Very interesting piece.

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Image of Salk Institute used in study. (Rex Boggs/Flickr)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Your brain on architecture

  1. Steven Semes says:

    What would interest me would be to know if there was any difference in the responses of the participants between the modernist and the historical examples. Since only architects were asked, perhaps there wasn’t, but if non-architects (or non-architectural historians) had been asked, there would most likely be a notable difference between the Le Corbusier and the Pantheon, for example. That would be interesting to document.

    Like

    • I doubt there would have been much funding available for a study designed to investigate questions like that. In any event, they should have done the experiment on lay people who are not trained to disregard and deprecate conventional beauty.

      Like

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