A beautiful mind, uncovered
The California-based Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, holding its first symposium next week, believes its research will prompt a quantum leap forward in the design of our built environment. But just how does the brain perceive space and design? And if we knew, how would it affect architects?
ZoÙ Blackler reports
Science has shifted its gaze inward, to the mysterious workings of the mind. Neuroscience is set to dominate the next decade as burgeoning research begins to cross this inner frontier.
On the west coast of the US, one group of enthusiasts is convinced that what these studies have to teach us about how we experience the spaces we inhabit will revolutionise the practice of architecture.
Just as the scientific explorations of the physical world during the 19th century empowered architects to progress in leaps during the 20th century, so the discoveries about our inner world will prompt huge advances in the 21st, they claim.
The source of these predictions is the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, based at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), which is holding its first symposium next week.
The ANA's claims may be extravagant, but its credentials are rock solid. UCSD is one of the leading international research centres for neuroscience and home to the prestigious Salk Institute. The academy's research programme, spearheaded by founding president John Eberhard, has the backing of the American Institute of Architects, which last summer awarded it the $100,000 (ú56,000) Latrobe Fellowship.
Over the next few years, architects and neuroscientists will work together to learn how human beings experience the built environment and how to apply these discoveries to theories of design.
The origin of this unique collaboration began with a moment in the career of one of UCSD's most famous figures - scientist Jonas Salk. During his search for a cure for polio, Salk experienced a mental block and his work came to a standstill. Seeking retreat in the abbey at Assisi, he was inspired by the building in its landscape, his mind was cleared and the answer came to him.
Moved by the power of the built environment to influence the mind, Salk commissioned Louis Kahn to design the Salk Institute, where research excellence would be complemented by architectural excellence.
Last summer the AIA's national convention met in San Diego. According to tradition, the host chapter marks the visit with the launch of a legacy project. Struck by Salk's experience, the San Diego chapter took the opportunity to set up the new academy.
Alison Whitelaw, an English-born, Edinburgh-trained architect now based in California, was one of its founders.
She suggests that initial research will focus on how the mind - the ephemeral facility unique to human beings - uses the hardwiring of the brain to conceive space. Architects will drive the research, posing questions for the scientists to explore.
Whitelaw finds it hard to pin down how the findings might be applied to the practice of architecture, but suggests the results could provide a scientific basis to the concept of good design.
The most obvious areas that could benefit, she suggests, are healing, learning and working environments. 'There is good research that with better daylighting in schools, students' test scores go up, ' she says. 'Good architects have known this intuitively for some time, but we don't know what is actually going on in the brain.'
Theories about the mind's experience of space are worse than patchy at present. 'We are only just defining avenues of study, rather that testing formulated theories. We still have a very long way to go. That's why it's so exciting, so huge.'
Neuroscience for architecture is already on the curriculum at UCSD, and as research results begin to come in, these will be fed through into student courses. 'It's been wonderful to see how this has been received by the design and neuroscience communities, ' she concludes. 'Most of the work neuroscientists do is about how to fix the brain when it's gone wrong, whereas this is about revealing its workings.'
Scientific writer Rita Carter, author of Mapping the Mind, agrees that the application of neuroscience to architectural design is still 'fairly speculative'.
But she argues the developing science can offer a 'hardening up' of observations built up through the 'softer' disciplines of psychology and aesthetics.
Psychology has long understood that people experience discomfort in spaces either too vast or too confined. Neuroscience has discovered that these responses are hardwired in the brain, and that when its minimum and maximum limits are exceeded, the brain begins to behave differently.
'You can tell by examining brain responses alone how near or far an object lies, ' she says.
'In that way you can tell the precise point when an object comes too close for comfort.'
Even with a subject as esoteric as the experience of sacred space, neuroscience can provide some answers, having already identified the specific area in the brain linked to transcendence - the so-called 'god spot'.
Carter's predictions of how this knowledge might be applied, however, are likely to produce an uncomfortable response in the brains of many architects. Brain mapping, she says, could test peoples' true responses to buildings, rather than the feelings they claim to have, which might not be entirely honest.
'It could remove the guesswork in designing, ' says Carter. 'In the not-toodistant future you could get people to look at a number of designs and test their reactions.'
But will this be another blow to the automony of the designer, with box-ticking substituted for art and generations of innovation and experimentation eschewed in favour of architecture by focus group?
Carter, for one, dismisses the danger.
'I wonder if box-ticking doesn't happen already, ' she says. 'We already have soft theories about aesthetics. The question is whether assumptions about what is good and bad in architecture are born out by science. I wouldn't be surprised if the things we've assumed for years to be right turn out to be wrong.'
Equally, though, research may prove that much intuitive design is spot-on, creating finely honed solutions to the needs of the people it serves.
The crucial message for architects is that, like the Academy in San Diego, they must take control of the process. 'Brain imaging has only been going for 15 years, ' Carter says.
'Very little applied work has been done.
'This programme of the future is up for grabs. It's up to architects to make contacts with scientists and to learn about neuroscience, because they are going to be the ones who will be applying it.What exactly they do with the results is up to them.'
Until researchers start to ask the questions, it's impossible to predict the answers they will find or the solutions they could offer.
Indeed: who would have predicted the advance in computer technology that has spawned a generation of buildings that have broken free of the constraints of rectilinear geometry - Foster's Gherkin with its curvilinear twists and turns, or FOA's Yokohama with its complex geometries?
Maybe a greater understanding of how inner and outer spaces influence each other could lead to revolutions in thought and in design that today are unimaginable.
For more information, visit www. neuro scienceforarchitecture. org or read Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson)