From Brain to Building and Back: Two Conferences on Architecture and Neuroscience

Neural networks, courtesy of  a lot of white pantyhose and even more creativity.

Neural networks, courtesy of a lot of white pantyhose and even more creativity.

Two conferences on neuroscience and architecture, the first in September and oriented to science, the second in November more weighted in architecture and architectural theory, are a comment itself on the growing recognition of the potential connection between the two disciplines.

It’s difficult not to compare the two gatherings. Both venues were seminal works designed by great masters of architecture: the first, the ANFA-sponsored symposium at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1966; the second, a collaborative effort between ANFA and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, held at Taliesin West, Wright’s western home and school in Scottsdale, Arizona, established in 1937. At the first, the horizon meets the sea; at the second, the horizon meets the desert. At the first, we met in one large, air-conditioned, meticulously detailed concrete volume; at the second, we moved among low, stone-and-wood,0 hand-made buildings set into the landscape, bundling up or taking layers off, always aware of the changing sun, the earth, the wind … and the temperature, mostly falling.

For many, including myself, new to ANFA but not to the topic, the promise of such dialogues between the two disciplines in such extraordinary places among well-known practitioners and thinkers couldn’t be more alluring.

The Salk event unfolded as a real attempt to find common ground between the two disciplines, finding points of discovery on an arc that spans from the cellular level of the brain to the far cruder metric of a constructed building. There were a couple of talks by young neuroscientists that were beyond me (perfectly acceptable, as part of the reason for going was to be confounded sometimes.) Some findings that to many architects would be familiar from required courses in environmental psychology or through their métier—intense observation and acute awareness of their environment—were treated as new discoveries, which was somewhat alarming. For example: incorporating natural scenes and daylighting in hospital spaces accelerates healing: in Book I, Point 10 of his Ten books on Architecture, Vitruvius, the great Roman architect (approx c. 70 b.c.e. – 15 c.e.), includes medicine as requisite to the education of an architect for “questions of climates, air, and the healthiness and unhealthiness of sites,” and in Book VI, he instructs his readers to orient houses correctly to capture the sun and air to ensure a healthy dwelling. However, there was no doubt that in one collaborative project, armed with new and far more nuanced findings in circadian rhythms and the visible spectrum, not only added authority to the architects’ decisions —thus helping to justify a move they might have already come up with—but also appeared to propel the design process, sharpening the designers’ creative prowess in arriving at an elegant solution, demonstrating dialogue at its most productive. In the afternoon, architectural historian Harry Francis Mallgrave, renowned in architecture circles for his exceptional scholarship, proffered a different kind of bridge between neuroscience and architecture through his latest book. The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture, is startling because it so fluidly weaves together recent advances in neuroscience with the work of historic figures in architecture, such as the Renaissance architect Alberti (1404 – 1472), or the brilliant French architect of the Enlightenment, Claude Perrault (1613 – 1688), applied creative and original thought to how long-standing rules might be broken on behalf of the architectural experience … in which of course all the senses are complicit. Using the lens of cognitive science, Mallgrave interprets great architecture in history and the intuitive leaps their architects made, in turn illuminating the deep relationship between the two disciplines. The book goes back and forth between the two quite easily, the ease alone underscoring Mallgrave’s facile immersion into both worlds: only five pages separates one of eight diagrams of the brain and a picture of a famous Alberti façade, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1470. I know of no other historian to take up such serious grappling with the connections among neuroscience, the senses, perception, and the built environment, let alone do it so well.

Logistically, the ANFA conference couldn’t have been more beautifully run. All the trains ran on time: breakfast, coffee quality, lunch choices, were delicious and at the ready. You could choose between blackberries and pastel-colored petit fours, giving you the complete spectrum from health to decadence. If I had to choose an architect based on the choreography and sequencing of the food service, a worthy design problem in its own right, the Salk conference wins hands down. Taliesin caterers, take note.

The Taliesin conference was remarkable because in addition to the conference, it was also Taliesin West’s 75th anniversary as well as the reunion of the “Taliesin Fellows,” those respected honorees who worked for or studied with Wright. Some were in walkers and wheelchairs but were as alive and feisty as ever. The symposium was attended by many of them, in addition to students from the school. And what a privilege to have the run of the place, especially experiencing Taliesin’s magic at sunset and at night. We could visit students in their historic studio space, see what they were working on … I found a small bathroom, clad in beautiful horizontally oriented aged redwood, to claim as my own temporary digs for changing into fancy duds for the evening’s glittering celebration. No such ‘occupation’ would ever be afforded tour-goers, nor would they be encouraged to linger in various places in the compound, to take in the interaction between land, building, and people.

Moderator Sarah Robinson gathered a truly formidable group of speakers, including neuroscientist and USC professor Michael Arbib: architect Jeanne Gang, principal of the increasingly high-profile Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects; Scottish psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist; Finnish architect, professor, and writer/theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa; and architectural historian and professor Alberto Pérez-Gómez, author of one of the watershed books in architectural history, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, published in 1984.

The last three presenters are all accomplished authors who each have addressed the historical division of science and the arts in history and the subsequent loss of humanity as a consequence of those reified dualities. Their attempts to examine and to redress those divisions were reflected in the presentations each made. McGilchrist’s 2011 book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, was the basis for his talk. He argued that society needs to restore the integration and balance between our left (stressing the detail over the whole; more technocratic) and right brains by reviving the less-present right half because it is, he said, more intuitive, and addressed the real “embodied” world and was “wise about the whole,” even if that whole wasn’t altogether known. McGilchrist’s talk reprised many he has given recently on behalf of his book; an amusing version for Ted Talks, an homage to the “right brain,” is at

Pallasmaa, known for his 1996 book The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses and more recently The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, “re-membered” architecture as biologically and culturally grounded, rejecting rationality as the only valid means to apprehend architecture. That is, architecture’s primary tasks go far beyond shelter and visual appearance to housing memories, desires, and dreams through a far richer repertoire employing all the senses, which he summed up as “fast” vs. “slow” architecture. His talk especially resonated with the architects in the audience, especially those aligned with Taliesin West and Wright’s richly sensual compositions, embodied in the body, community, and in the land.

Arbib’s multivalent talk was the only presentation that attempted to bridge the two disciplines, noting “anything which participates in the conscious movement of the body is attached to the mind.” He showed how three different arenas of architecture – the experience of architecture; how neuroscience could equip buildings with “brains” to enable a better, more sensitive environment; and the process of design itself. For this last, he integrated findings that explained  Pallasmas’s “thinking hand,” linking the primitive, intentional grasp to the evolution of language. Arbib’s discussion on “body schema” (how the body and mind work together to arrange body parts, e.g. limbs, in space) according to a task or intent task was fascinating and anchored Pallasmaa’s own. Arbib showed how a monkey’s body schema changed depending on whether the animal had handled a new tool with this image that any carpenter would instantly appreciate:

Body Schema

The body schema fluctuates according to tool use. From Maravita and Iriki (2004), “Tools for the body (schema),” in Trends in Cognitive Science.

While a valiant attempt to address why we had gathered here in the first place, in attempting to cover so much ground the images were densely packed with text, pictures, and terms. Trying to read and listen simultaneously proved challenging, especially for an audience who were primarily architects and new to the discussion.

Architect Gang’s presentation electrified architects because she simply and clearly explained each step of her studio’s process in getting to product, steps that included the engaged imagination of her entire staff. These included the role of history in alerting the team to possibilities; hands-on making and craft; melding cutting-edge and old technologies; harnessing a range of scales, whether urban or landscape, specific to the site and project, all of which fueled the studio’s ultimate design resolutions … which were breathtaking because each result was so tailored to enrich the client’s purpose.

Many of us who attended architecture school in the last 15 years or so may recall being taught this multivalent technique of problem-solving. It originated with philosopher Edmund Husserl’s advice on ways to investigating a hard or potentially hackneyed problem anew. Few, however, have the ability, the freedom, or the budget to take the approach to such thoughtful ends as Studio Gang does. Easily the day’s most memorable image was of a peregrine falcon sitting contentedly at the very edge of a concrete patio so thin it looked like a freshly flattened pancake, one of the patios making up the undulating texture of Studio Gang’s celebrated Aqua Tower. High in space above Chicago’s skyline, the falcon’s  approval of a fine perch, presumably sated after a meal of pigeon, saluted the firm’s desire to preserve biodiversity and avian flight paths in the city. In another project, the studio reconceived a standard architectural element, in this case a reflecting pool, transforming it into deeper fish habitat using runoff water. Still maintaining its role as an inviting, cooling body of water , it gained new functions and affordances for different species. Not all clients are human, Studio Gang seems to say, and some clients pay not in dollars but by staying very much alive. Gang’s combination of modesty, humility, and rigor impressed me, along with the absence of an architect’s predictable uniform of nuanced minimalism.

Jeanne Gang at Taliesin West. Photo by Steve Lamb.

Jeanne Gang at Taliesin West. Photo by Steve Lamb.

All of the speakers were invited because they had explored areas beyond the typical limits of their discipline. Senses, perception, experience, the body, the brain, the mind, mattered. While there were some overlapping areas of agreement, disagreement centered on architectural experience and intuition “vs.” what was characterized as neuroscience’s attempt to supplant such intuition, or that neuroscience only confirmed what architects had known and implemented for centuries, or that neuroscience failed to appreciate the poetry inherent in the Meaning of Architecture. In contrast to the dialogue between the scientists and the architects at the Salk, brokered by Mallgrave’s contribution, the Taliesin conference was much more a series of parallel presentations. All were provocative and elegant, and all rather hermetically self-contained, so that for the architects I spoke with later there was no clear idea about what, exactly, the connection between neuroscience and architecture was, or what neuroscience had to teach them. After all, while architects love to dwell in the esoteric and the senses, only too agonizingly aware of how a slight change in angle or light source or height can inform emotion and perception as well as usability, they have another life: codes, liability, zoning, soils reports, structural analyses, competing user agendas, surrounding context, potential historic significance, budget, a poor economy, public hearings, mercurial clients, and deadlines … to name just a few. On the other hand, it was evident that everyone was engaged and hungry for more information and bridges.

For all the talk about eradicating the historic duality between mind and body, or between science and art, the separation between the two seemed to be irreconcilable at Taliesin West. Even so, the disagreements revealed the very gaps where agreement or collaboration could be fostered, gaps that couldn’t have appeared had the conference, precipitated by Robinson’s clear curiosity about the topic, not been held. Like architects, scientists have those rare moments of thrilling intuition, arising out of a critical mass of neural pathways, the established track comingling with the new connection. Pragmatically, scientists may need convincing research topics, say, in the built environment, to win grants. Architects may need to convince bureaucrats and developers that X design decision is grounded in biology and science, not just their arbitrary will.

I came away being more convinced than ever that neuroscience helps to expand the radius and topography of architecture. I also hope that environmental psychologists—the traditional bridging discipline between neuroscience and architecture—will be invited to speak at future symposia, because they occupy the critical middle range of the spectrum, neither the cellular level of neuroscience or the exponentially different scale of a building. Their absence was peculiar. It might also be helpful to  distinguish between an architect’s process in design — design method — and how a user interacts with a building, two perhaps very different processes.

Both Salk and Taliesin conferences made me think of something John Ruskin wrote in 1885, in The Lamp of Beauty, one of his Seven Lamps of Architecture. He showed how closely he observes his environment to define the rules of architectural composition he proposes. In fact, observation and exploration are not an option but required, something both neuroscientist and architect can agree on:

A man must lie down on the bank of grass, on his breast, and set himself to watch and penetrate the intertwining of it, before he finds that which is good to be gathered by the architect. So then while Nature is at all times pleasant to us, and while the sight and sense of her work may mingle happily with all our thoughts, and labors, and times of existence, that image of her which the architect carries away represents what we can only perceive in her by direct intellectual exertion, and demands from us, wherever it appears, an intellectual exertion of a similar kind in order to understand and feel it. It is the written or seal impression of a thing sought out, it is the shaped result of inquiry and bodily expression of thought.

P1000709Much later, the after-dinner entertainment included a string quartet and piano playing a piece by Schumann, whether Robert or Clara, escapes me. Everyone, young and old, was engaged by the musicianship. Music was long a tradition at either Taliesin. I imagined Wright sitting there, one leg crossed over the other, listening intently.

All the neuroscience in the world can’t create architecture that feeds us. Intuition, skill, and the architect’s synthesizing mind do matter, as Modernist architect Richard Neutra reminds us in his many books — but so does understanding our cognitive and limbic equipment.

As he said,

 “The base of design is the insight that responses are traced into our being, before and after we are born, and run on subtle tracks which we better consider earnestly … or die of a broken heart.”

My thanks to Dr. James Wise, who supplied the pithy title.

Dad and I at Taliesin West, Saturday Nov. 10, 2012. Photo by Andrew Pielage.

Dad and I at Taliesin West, Saturday Nov. 10, 2012. Photo by Andrew Pielage.

2 Responses to “From Brain to Building and Back: Two Conferences on Architecture and Neuroscience”
  1. Steve Lamb says:


    I attended the Taliesin event. It was indeed wonderful to have virtually unlimited access to Taliesin West for a couple of days. I had spoken with you after you attended the LaJolla conference and based on that, finalized my decision to go to the one at Taliesin. I too, found the spaces wonderful and thrilling, Taliesin West has not been in such fantastic Physical shape during my adult lifetime.

    I found each of the presentations interesting, somewhat diconnected from each other, and generally disconnected from the announced subjects. This along was somewhat disconcerting, but MacGilchrist and Pallassma’s talks were well worth the price of admission.

    I was disappointed in Dr. Abib, who seemed to be telling Architects that there was yet another consultant we should hire, as if our incomes are not reduced enough or our list of collaborators long enough. “Buildings that will adapt to the user automatically?” Really? In what world of ever tightening title 24 energy restrictions is such an idea even remotely possible? It seemed also in panel that there was some deep animosity between MacGilchrist and Abib, but what it was all about the audience had no idea…..

    Finally, if Taliesin is going to do events, since the students are no longer apprentices who learn to cook and serve, and Taliesin uses caterers, they really need to find some mimimally competent ones, or they won’t be doing many of these.



  2. Raymond Richard Neutra says:

    I think we are entering an interesting and perhaps poignant time when brain science is leading us to understand subjective experiences (phenomenology), why certain thinks seem to work ( psychological experimentation). Poignant because we are starting to make progress in this area while the world at large is heating up and running out of resources and our many coastal cities are threatened with inundation.
    Raymond Richard Neutra MD


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