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Architects on the brain

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A recent conference examined the relationships between architecture, aesthetics and fields of scientific knowledge

'Building Bridges of Knowledge' was an unusual symposium held at the Royal Society in April, charged with identifying fields of knowledge that might help architects 'build bridges' across scientific disciplines.

Sponsored by the Bartlett School of Architecture, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Architectural Foundation, the event was the brainchild of John Eberhard, director of Research Planning at the AIA.

The three fields up for discussion were neuroscience, information technology (IT) and climate research.

Introducing the event, Philip Steadman from the Bartlett noted that despite 'the promiscuous and compulsive connection-making' that goes on in architecture, neuroscience will be new to most architects.

Neuromantics Quite so, but then it was not immediately obvious what architects have to gain from it. Professor Semir Zeki, co-director of the Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology, for example, spent a long time explaining that when things look different from their surroundings, they seem to 'pop-out' at the viewer. This may be true, but it is hardly rocket science, or indeed brain surgery. More modestly, Rita Carter, author of Mapping the Mind, suggested that neuroscientists can explain the mechanics of what seems obvious to others.

Zeki showed brain scans demonstrating 'activity' in different parts of the brain when people are looking at different kinds of things. Movement excites one area, colours another, and so on. This is all very intriguing, but the truth is that nobody - even among those working closely in the field - yet knows what it all means.

Carter explained that, rather than taking in everything, the brain selects data and interprets it according to context and personal dispositions or expectations.That is, there are syntactic and semantic stages of perception;

the first being when we recognise forms or patterns, and the second when we attach meaning to them.

When we look at a building, our brains pick out a few key details and refer them back to pre-existing ideas about buildings in order to form a mental picture of what we are looking at.

Carter concluded that since we can only fully take in what we already know, architects ought not to defy convention altogether, but simply stretch expectations within existing traditions.

Challenging this view, some suggested that it is possible to appreciate pure form. Zeki had already likened Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the paintings of Paul Cezanne, arguing that both are about form and not simply recognisable meaning. For Zeki, this is 'the art of the receptive field'; it is about the physical brain as much as it is about culture.

Similar points were made about what has been called 'ecstatic architecture', buildings that elicit feelings without the need to engage the intellect. In art, such direct, 'pre-semantic' effects have long been a holy grail. But how can we be sure that our respons even to 'pure form' are not in fact co ditioned by culture?

Stress levels Links between IT and architectu are rather better established, an probably less controversial. Daniel Bobrow, of the Palo Alto Researc Center in California, divided th subject into three parts: smart mat rials, smart buildings and sma communities. The first of these quite straightforward: for exampl bridges can be built using materia fitted with fibre-optic cables so th engineers are alerted when stress le els are becoming dangerous.

Smart buildings are basically full gadgets. But smart communities a less obviously related to architectur Bobrow talked about communities expert systems, citing the Eureka sy tem, which rewards individuals wh share knowledge with a group, whic is really about the 'architecture' information itself. Gerhard Schmi professor of architecture and CAD the Swiss Federal Institute of Techno ogy suggested that IT depends much as architecture on the Vitruvia qualities of commodity, firmness an delight. The analogy is intriguing, b it is still hard to see any practical ben fits for architects.

Climate change, perhaps, pu more demands on architects. Profe sor Vivian Loftness of Carneg Mellon University in Pittsburg attempted to bring together clima research with neuroscience and I arguing that architects need to consi er a range of issues, from temperatu and ventilation to light and colour. O course, the sustainability agenda com plicates this. Can air conditioning b justified if it creates massive heat loa that disrupt the climate?

Ultimately, the conference mad the reasonable suggestion that arch tects should build for the huma mind, as well as the human body. T that end it was well worth explorin some less obvious scientific conne tions; to examine the gains bein made in other intellectual fields even if the results sometimes cam across as being highly eccentric.

Dolan Cummings is a representati of the Institute of Ideas, www. institu ofideas. com

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