Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2018
Sarah Williams Goldhagen Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 384 pp. Cloth $40.00 (9780061957802)

Critics lamenting the sorry state of today’s built environment are legion. Only a few recognize that many of those responsible for this situation are members of a professional and academic establishment that emerged during the past quarter century, virtually controlling the discourse in the design professions throughout the world. Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a distinguished architectural historian who taught at Harvard for ten years and was the architecture critic at the New Republic for eight, begins her new book by suggesting that she is one of these enlightened few.

In previous books about Louis Kahn’s monumental architecture and Moshe Safdie’s global influence, Goldhagen has argued persuasively for a more catholic view of modernism than many historians of her generation. Writing here for a popular audience, she confronts the malaise of contemporary design, a situation so corrosive that “boring buildings and sorry places are nearly everywhere we turn” (30). The book begins with a litany of failures. Contemporary stars such as Daniel Libeskind and Jean Nouvel design spaces that are nerve-racking, stressful, and even bad for one’s health. Developers build houses in suburbs that promote obesity and alienation. Instead of learning necessary design skills, architecture students compete for their professors’ attention and are “usually rewarded for dramatic, gestural, attention grabbing forms” (34). Millions of people in developing countries live in substandard dwellings and endure life-threatening pollution and unsafe habitation, harming children and families. The world’s population will reach nine billion before 2050, and we are ill prepared to house the additional billions in our cities.

Goldhagen presents a bold message for those who control the production of buildings and infrastructure. Design matters, and we now have the science to prove why bad buildings—ugly, discomfiting buildings—affect our emotions, physical health, and sense of identity. Much of the book lays out a sensible argument about the importance of neuroscience and cognitive psychology for the design professions, especially the provocative theory of “situated (or embodied) cognition.” As Goldhagen explains this new concept, “our minds and bodies—actively, constantly, and at many levels—engage in active, and interactive, conscious, and unconscious, processing of our internal and external environments” (47). The science behind embodiment gets short shrift, so it is sometimes hard to understand what she is talking about when tossing out terms such as “allocentric,” “primes,” and “canonical neurons.” But there is a lot of useful research that could help direct designers and builders find better solutions to society’s need for healthy, attractive environments.

There is some urgency to Goldhagen’s message, as the world’s leading thinkers are rapidly assimilating discoveries about the human mind and leaving architects in the dust. The revolution in neuroscience began in the early 1990s and continues to produce astounding research every year in dozens of specialized journals. Many in the healing professions, social sciences, and public policy follow these new developments closely, but almost nobody in architecture has written positively about them. Either leaders in design are ignorant of one of the most significant scientific revolutions of our time, or architects simply do not want to acknowledge new theories of the mind because they threaten entrenched ideologies.

Alas, Goldhagen does not explain that paradox in her introduction to cognitive neuroscience and new experimental data on environmental awareness in humans. The central chapters in her book explore topics such as “blindsight,” sensory adjuncts to rational thought, the haptic experience of spaces, “affordances,” mirror neurons, social psychology, and new discoveries about visual perception. But her case studies, often taken from personal experience with places around the world, do not always illuminate the difficult scientific concepts that she wishes to explicate. Some of her observations are merely clichés: “people need nature” and “people . . . live first of all in bodies, in bodies that stand on earth.” Others stretch credibility by claiming more significance for one theory over another, or citing sources that are outdated or generalized. Indeed, her reading on neuroscience and cognition is superficial, if one consults the endnotes that occasionally provide glosses for the text.

As this is a book aimed at a general audience and not at academics, these shortcomings might be excusable. Unfortunately, the author constantly reminds her readers that she is from an elite world far removed from theirs (she is the daughter of a Princeton professor, attended Ivy League schools, and spent many years traveling in Europe). Time and again throughout her narrative, Goldhagen cites examples from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), its faculty, and her experiences there. Longtime GSD professor Rem Koolhaas, an architect unlikely to garner praise from cognitive scientists, gets preferential treatment in her title page and elsewhere. Other contemporary architects in the university’s pantheon escape criticism, though their buildings are not generally seen as successful. The Scottish Parliament Building by the late Enric Miralles (at Harvard in 1993) gets lavish praise for its “visual appeal and experiential playfulness” and even strikes the author as well suited to its surroundings. It would be hard to find a resident of Edinburgh who agrees with that assessment. The project was delayed for years due to the architect’s dithering over design details, and a ceiling beam collapsed into the main debating chamber only a few years after its completion. A government inquiry into its design and construction concluded that neither the architects nor the construction company fully understood the complexity or probable costs of the project, resulting in an 800 percent increase over the initial estimates.

Goldhagen goes even farther out on a limb when she offers a neuroscientific interpretation of Harvard’s design school facilities. The universally disliked “trays” in John Andrews’s Gund Hall become “action settings” that promote healthy competition among graduate classes. Her experiences in the building trigger a mind-numbing exegesis on teaching, society, and mental states. She concludes her tour of the school by assuming her readers’ comprehension of all she has said, ergo: “the composition of our constructed worlds must spark appropriate emotional and cognitive associations” (218). Most Harvard students, though they appreciate the school’s offerings and high ranking internationally, do not have her fond memories of Gund Hall.

Harvard faculty (and the majority of those teaching architecture nationwide) will agree with the author’s choice to avoid discussion of traditional, classical, and vernacular architecture, except in distant historical cases such as Amiens Cathedral and the Parthenon. Experiments have shown that humans prefer symmetrical façades, human proportions, buildings with ornament, and places with texture and variety—things generally found in traditional buildings throughout the world. Moreover, while much contemporary design would qualify for condemnation under the lens of cognitive science, Goldhagen maintains that her favorite architects (Brad Cloepfil, Marlon Blackwell, Jeanne Gang, and Herzog & de Meuron) are exempt from such scrutiny. The contradictions in her arguments about what constitutes good design go unrecognized in large portions of the text, as she cites examples that do not comport with her observations from neuroscience.

As one reaches the concluding chapters of Welcome to Your World, it is not hard to agree with the author’s contention that a lot needs fixing in the architecture and planning professions as well as in development and land use policies. A reader informed about science might also conclude that embodiment offers a new position from which to reform the design professions, if enough leaders study and understand its implications. Those messages are not articulated in most popular books about architecture, and this text states them forcefully.

To those in the academic and design communities who are aware of the powerful tools and methods emerging from neuroscience, Goldhagen’s book will be a disappointment. The recent anthology from MIT Press, Mind in Architecture, is far more persuasive and informative, though less accessible for the general reader (see my September 2017 review for, Its many examples, illustrated with poor photographs, do not make a case for better buildings, cities, and landscapes because the great buildings by Louis Kahn and Alvar Aalto receive the same approving assessments as those of minor contemporary designers. When she walks through beloved neighborhoods in New York, Seoul, Jerusalem, and Paris, Goldhagen sounds like a genial tour guide, not a neuroscientist. It is not clear how these places stimulate the brain, because no one has yet done the research to assess their effects scientifically.

None of this should suggest that architects and planners cannot learn from brain scientists, or that collaboration between disciplines will not be beneficial. It may be premature for environmental designers to trumpet the wonders of MRI scans, VR simulations, and experiments with primates. But it is clear that, when introducing new paradigms to designers and the public, writers should make careful use of existing research and provide consistent examples that are linked to it. Goldhagen’s efforts show how good intentions can go awry without a thorough grounding in an emerging scientific discipline, especially one that even scientists find hard to define. 

Mark Alan Hewitt
FAIA; Department of Art History, Rutgers University