Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 22, 2017
Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa, eds. Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 264 pp.; 47 color ills.; 24 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780262028875)

In 2015 a book of edited conference papers appeared that could have a widespread and profound impact on both architectural practice and education. Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design is a persuasive introduction to research in brain science and its application to environmental design that stems from the founding of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (AANFA) in 2003, an outgrowth of the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows research program.

Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect and teacher well known for his work on multiple sensory awareness and architecture as a craft, is one of the two editors of this volume; the other is the architect and pedagogue Sarah Robinson. The two organized a 2012 conference at Taliesin West, home of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, which asked neuroscientists and scholars to reflect on the implications of this new research on the design professions. Most, though not all, of the papers presented are included in Mind in Architecture, which was augmented by a few additional essays.

The only art historians in the collection are Harry Francis Mallgrave and Alberto Pérez-Gómez—both scholars with unusual and diverse publications. The remaining authors include a philosopher, three architects, a psychiatrist, a graphic designer, and several neuroscientists. At the heart of the collection are two essays from eminences grises who underline both the pragmatic and the poetic aspects of buildings in their appeals for more collaboration between neuroscience and the design professions. John Paul Eberhard, the founder of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) and a former dean at Carnegie Mellon, connects the most sophisticated principles of proportion to the most basic graphic explorations by young children, arguing that brain science has much to teach about creativity and aesthetic judgment. Pallasmaa (also a former dean) writes passionately about embodied knowledge—the kinds of art practiced by humble craftspeople in traditional societies—and the disdain shown by many architects for things involving the senses and not the intellect. As he writes, “I believe that neuroscience can reveal and reinforce the fundamentally mental, embodied, and biological essence of profound architecture against current tendencies toward increasing materialism, intellectualization, and commodification” (52).

If these pieces form the nucleus of the book’s cellular structure, its walls are framed by two fascinating essays by Mallgrave and Pérez-Gómez, whose previous contributions to the field were in the history of architectural theory during the Romantic and Enlightenment periods. Each offers an interpretation of the cultural context in which the sciences of the mind came to influence architecture, leading to the present moment in which architecture faces an existential crisis while neuroscience promises exciting discoveries about how people perceive their environment. Both scholars are critical of their colleagues in design education, art history, and architectural practice.

Mallgrave has published two recent books that look directly at brain science and its potential impact on design. Drawing from this work, he reminds those architects who believe themselves to be conceptual artists that at no other time in history have building designers so blithely divorced themselves from the technical and social aspects of their profession. Here we first encounter the discovery of “mirror neurons” by Italian neuroscientists during the 1990s: the extraordinary brain cells that fire when monkeys look at the actions of other hominids. Experiments on humans have confirmed this phenomenon in the brain as well (though not without skepticism). For Mallgrave such discoveries press architects to attend to their own emotions and sensory experience of the environment, and to follow the human sciences more closely in their approaches to design.

Pérez-Gómez pursues a similar theme by sketching the Enlightenment philosophical armature that, he contends, led architecture to its current obsession with “architecture as a ‘sign’ whose meaning was articulated as the intellectual ‘judgment’ of exclusively visual qualities” (219). He succinctly presents a progression of post-Cartesian philosophical positions that underpin the current debate about consciousness, mediated perception, and a computational mind. His gift for explication compresses some quite complex ideas into a compelling narrative that eventually arrives at what he calls “enactive cognition,” or embodiment. Invoking the work of Antonio Damasio, one of the most published neuroscientists in both scientific and popular literature, he admonishes architects to become “attuned” to their bodies, the environment, and their own emotional responses to the physical world.

Philosophical implications of the new brain science figure prominently in several other essays, but none more forcefully than in “The Embodied Meaning of Architecture” by Mark L. Johnson. His theory of meaning in architecture adheres to some propositions in the work of John Dewey and James J. Gibson, American thinkers not often cited in today’s philosophical discourse.“My hypothesis is that architectural structures are experienced by humans as both sense-giving and signifying” (40) he writes, expressing a view shared by Pérez-Gómez, Mallgrave, Pallasmaa, and several other contributors. Johnson extends and enriches concepts of “a pervasive unifying quality” in experience (Dewey) and the “affordances” presented to an organism by its environment (Gibson) by looking at the conditions of balance, motion, containment, structure, and space around the human body, and comparing these things to buildings.

Robinson uses the metaphor of “nested bodies” to explain similar connections between the sensory-motor system and the conscious mind, while Vittorio Gallese and Alessandro Gattara make a case for neuroaesthetics research in citing “four reasons why cognitive science matters to architecture” (162). As an architect and educator, Robinson sees her role as a kind of troubadour for the marvelous, world-shaking discoveries of neuroscience and psychology. Working together at the University of Parma, Gallese and Gattara have followed on the heels of their famous colleagues who worked with capuchin monkeys to measure mirror neuron activity during the early 1990s. Their current research features EEG scans of humans in office environments, and promises to flesh out hypotheses about pleasure and aesthetic sensibility in the brain.

Thomas Albright and Michael Arbib are also prominent neuroscientists working in a major research nexus—Southern California. Each presents a report on recent research in his field, tailored to the nonspecialist reader with an interest in architecture. Albright focuses on visual perception and its mysteries, including illusions, color, motion, directionality, and geometric patterns. Like other contributors he brings in the work of humanistic scholars such as Ernst Gombrich and artists such as William Morris to illustrate his points about brain science. This is not a technical paper in a scientific journal, but it gently outlines some important principles about visual stimuli and their processing in the visual cortex.

Arbib begins with a good primer on how the brain functions. He, too, mentions Giacomo Rizzolati and the Parma studies on mirror neurons. He, too, invokes embodiment as presented by Robinson and Pallasmaa. He, too, mentions Gibson’s work on the environment. But, like most neuroscientists, he is cautious about any work that really illuminates what he calls “the neuroscience of the design process” (84), and that is a disappointment to those who have spent careers studying architects, drawings, and the practice of architecture. Architectural historians have published case studies that might well tie into the work that neuroscientists do in their laboratories. But, as Arbib makes abundantly clear, few of the thirty thousand who attend annual conferences in the field have allied themselves with architects to study how design is done in the studio or on the computer. Arbib is active in ANFA, and this essay is more than four years old, so there are far more instances of collaboration today than there were then, as was evident at the ANFA San Diego conference in 2016: Connections: BridgeSynapases. Still, what Arbib says about the gaping void in his awareness of humanistic scholarship should sound an alarm in the art-history and design communities, prompting historians to share their work with brain researchers.

The remaining two essays, by Melissa Farling, Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and Iain McGilchrist, have more specific and narrow purviews. Farling has worked extensively with environmental psychologists in identifying design standards for schools and criminal justice facilities. She focuses on the ways in which outcomes and user studies can be enhanced by neuroscience, and has worked as an ANFA fellow on such linkages.

McGilchrist is something of an outlier in the group, as he is a practicing psychiatrist and professor of medicine who has nonetheless written on a wide range of subjects. His lively and provocative essay is nominally about attention and its mechanisms in the brain, but manages to cover a spectrum from Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major (1828) to facial musculature in Augustan-era Roman portrait sculpture. He challenges architects to learn about the brain but not to forget that experience of the environment is the most important laboratory available to any human.

Mind in Architecture is indeed about the future of design and packs into its 257 pages a lot of information about where the field is heading. Neuroscience will undoubtedly continue to advance at a dizzying pace, regardless of whether architects, social scientists, or humanists tag along. Like any science, its revelations can be quickly supplanted by new research, so outsiders must proceed cautiously in employing findings, even in closely related fields like sociology and psychology. If the authors in this book are correct, the rapidly advancing discoveries in brain science could upset the status quo in more disciplines than just architecture and visual art.

Mark Alan Hewitt
Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; Department of Art History, Rutgers University