Excerpts from Chapters 2 and 4 of Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, by RECORD contributor Sarah Williams Goldhagen. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The story of our relationship to our surroundings is revelatory, rich, multilayered, and, owing to the changing rhythms of the day and the operations of human memory, temporally complex. Experiencing the built environment involves more than how we process the swirl of sensory cues and impressions at the moment that we apprehend them. It also involves the prior knowledge we use to interpret these cognitions, as well as the way that we subsequently store them as memories, since, although what we think and experience usually seems wholly independent from the particularity of the place, when we remember such events, we unfailingly access something about the environments in which they took place. So we need to understand some fundamentals about the complex architecture of cognition—how people initially process sensory and mental impressions, as well as how we recall them. Through these fundamentals, we come to appreciate how pervasively the built environment permeates and shapes human experience.
A new account of cognition is emerging from the combined fruits of many research fields. At its core is knowledge derived from two powerful new scientific disciplines, cognitive neuroscience and cognitive neuropsychology, both of which have benefited from the spate of technological innovations that allow us to study the human brain and its functions with unprecedented insight and precision. Knowledge from these sciences is cross-pollinating with research in myriad fields, including environmental, social, and ecological psychology; artificial intelligence; behavioral economics; cognitive linguistics; and neuroaesthetics.
This still-evolving account of cognition already has begun to fundamentally transform the common understanding of our experience— that unified impression we take away from those moments of what we see, hear, and smell, as well as what we think, touch, feel, and do. Experience is grounded in our sensory perceptions and in our internal thoughts, which together govern how we make sense of the information that comes to us from being in the world. And when something happens in the world or in our minds, that “something” is always situated— in our bodies, in a given time, and in place.
We need to recognize three precepts to properly explore the nature of cognition and its role in built environmental experience. First: what our minds think is largely shaped and profoundly influenced by the human body. Second: this, along with the fact that our bodies are shaped by the environments in which we live and have evolved, suggests that much of our internal cognitive life takes place outside language and below the level of our conscious awareness. Third: these factors transform our understanding of how humans live in the world by making us less the sovereign agents over our experiences that we often believe ourselves to be. We are thoroughly environmentally embedded beings.
The body is not merely some passive receptacle for sensations from the environment, which the mind then interprets in a somewhat orderly fashion. Instead, our minds and bodies—constantly, and at many levels—engage in active and interactive, conscious and nonconscious processing of our internal and external environments. The term nonconscious as we use it here, then, does not mean “not verbalizable”; it simply means “not in words, thought or spoken.” Nonconscious cognitions about the built environment incorporate visual impressions in combination with impressions from other sensory faculties—such as cold feet, a breezy room, a knobbily textured rug—and fleetingly perceived patterns— a geometric figure, voids playing off solids. They also include the full battery of emotions and feelings—the comfort of a small window nook that embraces us. And they include patterns of associations, called schemas, which we mentally construct through our experience of growing and living in our bodies in the world. All of these nonlinguistic cognitions come to us nonconsciously, at least at first, transpiring beneath that ongoing verbal monologue inside our heads.
Perception is intersensory, and besides well-known sensory impressions, such as vision, touch, hearing, and smell, are less familiar ones including thermoception, which relates to the discernment of temperature and the sensory response to it, imagined or real. The architect Alvar Aalto, building in his northern, native Finland, painted the staircase floors bright yellow and encased the handrails of his metal banisters in wood sleeves, because he correctly intuited that people need only look at a wood handrail in a sunny-yellow stairwell to feel warmer. Proprioception gauges your sense of your body and its parts in space, and helps you monitor its location relative to the objects and spaces around you; it is the difference between visual and proprioceptive perception that creates the aesthetic power of the famous Palazzo Spada gallery in Rome, in which Francesco Borromini, the Italian architect, used forced perspective to make us anticipate that our promenade would be longer and more arduous than it actually is.
Even when we pay no conscious attention to the built environment or focus only on selected aspects of it, our surroundings function, in our lived experience, as a never-ending concatenation of what psychologists call primes. A prime is a nonconsciously perceived environmental stimulus that can influence a person’s subsequent thoughts, feelings, and responses by activating memories, emotions, and other kinds of cognitive associations. Our built environment is riddled with primes, and because that is so, a design can be deliberately composed to nudge people to choose one action over another. A change in a visual axis, or spatial sequence, or the way solids are massed and volumes composed could ignite very different cognitions.
Grids provide a telling case study. Pragmatism largely explains why rectangular and square grids recur so extensively in the history of design. Before digital computation, designing with straight lines and right angles greatly reduced the complexity of construction and facilitated engineering and systems of construction. The arrangement of rooms and paths and corridors, of solids and voids, could all follow from the grid’s transparent logic—even city plans in the Midwest or Manhattan proved its ease and efficiency.
Architects have championed the practicality of the grid since the early 1800s, when the influential French pedagogue Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand taught generations of students that a building of nearly any size and complexity and program could and should ideally be designed along a modular square grid. Early modernist architects such as Walter Gropius, entranced with the possibilities of mass production, reinterpreted Durand’s design for the fabrication and construction of model projects for affordable housing, such as his houses Numbers 16 and 17 at the Weissenhof- siedlung in Stuttgart, Germany, which opened in 1927.
Yet right-angled spatial sequences don’t resonate seamlessly with the techniques our brains use to navigate spaces. In order to get us safely from one place to another, our brains rely on the collaboration of place-recognition cells and grid cells in the hippocampus and parahippocampal region; these help us to continuously update our position vis-à-vis the objects around us, a system poetically referred to as “dead reckoning.” But the grids that our brains construct in dead reckoning are not right-angled. Cognitive neuroscientists Edvard and May-Britt Moser and John O’Keefe have demonstrated that human spatial navigation is organized around our practice of nonconsciously, imaginatively triangulating the location of our body in space with two other proximate points. To navigate our bodies through space, our brains nonconsciously imagine a hexagonal lattice of points, and locate the place of our body with reference to two objects in space, forming triangles within their hexagonal grid.
Armed with this knowledge, compare Gropius’s Weissenhofsiedlung houses to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House in Stanford, California (1936). Wright, who was concerned with the problem of creating welldesigned housing for people of limited means, eschewed the simple rectilinear grid in the residence for Paul and Jean Hanna, employing an unconventional geometry of equilateral triangles arranged into a hexagonal field. He believed that because these shapes echo those in natural forms such as honeycombs and soap bubbles, people would find them intrinsically—in other words, nonconsciously— appealing. Perhaps. But it is likely that Wright adopted the hexagonal grid also because he intuited that people would be drawn to spaces arranged according to hexagonal geometries because they are consonant with the dictates of human visual perception: they facilitate a more effortless spatial experience.
While right-angled grids will always have an important place in the built environment, recent developments in the technology of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing enable designers to execute designs that are not just mass-produced but also mass-customized around the exigencies of human experience. A project’s overall composition and component parts can be more complex and more specifically tailored to the site, the users, and the functions housed than what had been technically feasible in the past.
Louis Kahn and Nature
Our long evolution in earth’s varied habitats and ecosystems, each with its own climate, topography, and greenery, has imbued us with sensitivities to and proclivities for certain environmental patterns and ways of being in the landscape. People are drawn to enclosed areas where we can take refuge, coupled with views of and access to open, expansive terrain where we can “prospect” for opportunities.
Even if systematic and individual variations exist in our affinity with nature, we have evolved as a biophilic species, meaning that we are drawn to nature: we like to feel a connection to it in our homes, our offices, our communities. Our very genes are encoded to link our wellbeing— our being well and our feeling well—to sustaining an intimate connection with the natural world.
At least one reason why regular access to nature reduces crime rates and stress is that it improves people’s cognitive faculties. We know that the ability to concentrate and think clearly and effectively is easily depleted. According to environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, enjoying a natural landscape promotes what they call effortless focus. The greater a city dweller’s access to greenery, light, and open spaces, the better she or he will solve problems and understand and take in new information.
To explore the range of ways that the natural world can inform a project’s design, we can visit one of modern architecture’s greatest and most beloved icons, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, by Louis Kahn (1965). Jonas Salk, the client for the eponymously named institute and the developer of the polio vaccine, believed that major breakthroughs in scientific research necessitated both the rigor of method and the freedom of creativity. He worked closely with Kahn to bring to fruition a complex of research laboratories and private offices sited on the crest of a sandy cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The Salk Institute (altered in 1996 by a much needed, though grievously banal, addition) deliberately appeals to people’s inherent biophilia in obvious and less than obvious ways. Kahn gracefully integrated the complex into the existing site and invoked schemas of “prospect and refuge,” introducing different aspects of our human connection to nature in carefully sequenced stages. The result is an enthralling architectural experience that synthesizes both moment-by-moment actual perceptions with evocations of nature’s enduring infinitude.
We come upon the Salk Institute in one of two possible ways: from the south (an approach mirrored on the north, but rarely used) and from the east. From the south, our first glimpse of the building, across a grassy knoll, presents a blank concrete monolith of a wall, punctuated by four projecting concrete prisms, each housing the deep shadow of a small entrance. It’s a bit like stumbling upon the walls of a ruined medieval fort, simultaneously forbidding and intriguing. We cannot but wonder what’s behind that wall. In the more heavily used approach from the east, Kahn’s restrained laboratories are slung low, hugging the cliff, framing the horizon, while the symmetry of the two blocks, like the A:B:A:B pattern on the south facade, quietly reassures us of a human presence.
These initial views of the original Salk Institute offer easily comprehensible images and patterns because they are attuned to the mechanisms and—especially—the limitations of human visual cognition. The visual field in which human eyes perceive things as sharply etched is a tiny region known as the fovea. Because our face and feet are oriented in a direction we call “forward,” to see what’s behind or even at a 60-degree angle from that focal point in front of us, we must turn our heads, our bodies, or both. Outside that cone of vision, the resolution of our sight becomes astonishingly poor, though you may not be aware of this because your brain, using details gleaned from rapid scanning and based on memories of past scenes, supplies information your eye fails to capture. At any moment, much of what a person thinks he sees of the world in his peripheral vision—patterns, rhythms, and general compositional elements—is little more than an imaginative filling in of the blanks. As a result, human sight excels at rapid gist extraction, our efficient ability to take essential visual information from our environments so quickly (20 milliseconds) that the speed is literally within the blink of an eye.
In our initial approaches to the Salk complex, the buildings convey a sense of order that is obviously man-made, through the repetition of its simple rectangular volumes on the south and north facades, and through the symmetry of the laboratory blocks on the east facade. But at first, it’s not the forms of the architecture that command our attention. In the symmetrical arrangement of the light gray concrete volumes, Kahn minimizes the distractions that interrupt the sweep of our eyes toward the visual center of the composition, the Pacific’s glistening horizon. Views of staircases, windows, corridors, doors—ordinary architectural indicators of human presence and movement—are mostly suppressed. These approaches insist upon the architecture’s unobtrusiveness: through design, as Kahn doggedly draws our attention away from the buildings, redirecting our gaze to the light-drenched, wind-swept land, the dark horizontal line of the Pacific, and the clean grandeur of La Jolla’s blue skies. By designing the complex to both meld into the topography and create a sense of mystery as to its identity, Kahn skillfully manages our initial emotional response to this place. It is as though he is saying directly to us, forget the road. Come, enter this world within a world. This entire first part of the entry sequence is designed to slow us down and train our focus on the substantive essence of the Salk Institute’s mission: biological research, which is nothing less than an inquiry into the profound mysteries of nature.
As we cross into the central plaza, Kahn breaks the quietude of our initial ingress at first with sound: water gurgles into the channel embedded in the plaza’s travertine pavement, with the fountain that feeds it emitting far more noise than its small size might suggest. The channel fountain measures only slightly wider than a human foot, tempting us to literally take its measure. As a result, our auditory and proprioceptive faculties are put on alert: hearing the water’s gushing, intrigued by this narrow, watery “line of light” (as the Salk’s scientists call it) at our feet, we are determined to explore this fountain and the plaza surrounding it.
As we make our way into the plaza’s center, the importance of the site’s topography and the overall composition of the buildings diminishes. Once we are deep into the central plaza, Kahn leaves behind the obvious use of reassuringly simple geometries and the emphatic attention to nature—greenery, topography, light—to orchestrate a more conventional architectural experience. Now we focus on the buildings that define that plaza, the laboratories introduced by the staircaseoffice blocks and, especially, on their surface materials and their interaction with gravity. In pulling our attention to the building’s surfaces, Kahn ensnares us into an engaged, indeed interactive physical relationship with the buildings and—by extension—with the institution they embody and house.
Materials and surface details command our attention. In order for us to make sense of surface-based cues such as texture, density, color, pattern, and so on, our visual impressions are primarily processed through a pathway that involves the medial temporal lobe and the hippocampus, necessitating that—in contrast to form-perception— we call up our memories of prior experiences with similar surfaces. Such memories will draw up a lot of other varied information, not only from vision but also from our emotions and from other sensory faculties: tactile sensations, smells, sounds, and more. Our responses to surfaces, consequently, are more likely to powerfully contribute to our holistic experience of place than our responses to forms. In short: form has wrongly been crowned king, because form-based cues elicit less of a whole-body, intersensory, and emotional response than surface-based cues do. Surfaces we experience emotionally and palpably.
Richly textured materials and surfaces—like the Salk Institute’s travertine, concrete, and teak—elbow their way into our peripersonal universe by eliciting multisensory, emotionally rich, nonconscious and conscious cognitions. Take the teak panels in the Salk’s staircaseoffice blocks. People like wood. They are drawn to it for countless reasons. In comparison with metal, wood maintains a more consistent temperature. The teak’s visible grain and hues of reddish-orange browns exhibit an appealing tension of pattern and irregularity. Wood simultaneously elicits associations of nature on the one hand and—because it so commonly appears in residential architecture— domesticity on the other. Travertine, too, links to a rich associative trove, echoing some of what we glean from wood (nature, incident, texture) while also evoking an almost pathos-filled coupling of hard permanence with porous fragility and the creamy, rich, pockmarked stone of ancient Rome.
When a building’s surfaces advertise the traces of their construction, they offer us opportunities to mentally simulate the process of their making. This simulation involves the brain’s system of canonical neurons, and perhaps also mirror neurons. Canonical neurons control motor actions; located in the brain’s frontal and parietal lobes, they fire when we are doing something such as hand-building or throwing a clay pot, and even when we do nothing more than look at an inanimate object, which we imagine ourselves manipulating with a certain goal in mind. Mirror neurons (also located in the frontal and parietal lobes) go off when we execute a given action such as sculpting clay and when we mentally simulate that action; they also fire when we observe someone else executing that action. The brain’s canonical and mirror neuron mechanisms indicate that in our experience of built environments, obviously human-made surfaces as well as manipulable objects really do prompt us to simulate the process by which they were crafted.
The discovery of the canonical and mirror neuron mechanisms supports the emerging cognitive neuroscientific view that the human motor system may not be distinct from our sensory faculties, and that they may be two components in a single unified system. Perception is never passive. Perception is perception for action, imagined or actual.
Because people are nonconsciously susceptible to environmental primes, and because our perceptions of the built environment are enmeshed in our human embodiment, skillful design rests on foundational knowledge about the operations of how we think and perceive. The way we apprehend our built environments—and their relationship to nature—is profoundly intersensory. Not only that: it also involves our motor systems as we interact, or imagine interacting, with the things and places around us. A principal reason the Salk Institute design succeeds is that Kahn understood that one of the architect’s principal tasks is managing users’ attentional resources. He orchestrated an entry sequence that first emphasizes nature’s monumentality, then draws us into a relationship with the buildings through intersensory stimulation—vision, touch, sound—that also invites us to interact and imagine interacting with them. Understanding such fundamentals of human cognition can help designers create places that will long resonate in our memories, and become a treasured part of who we are