a few moments ago in his life that rise to the level of unforgettable experiences. Marriage is one, the birth of a child is another. I wrote a few years ago about a wonderful singing performance on New York’s High Line that struck me as indelible and worth telling my grandchildren about. For an architect, meeting a widely known and “famous” favorite designer might qualify. (I’ve never met Lou Kahn, although I heard him speak once.)
Two weeks ago I returned from a conference of architects, scientists, planners, medical professionals and psychologists that will remain one of the most profound experiences of my life. Before I left, I had planned a memorable event, but I’ve attended many conferences that turned out to be less memorable once the microphones were turned off. If participants present their research with the aim of gaining notoriety or impressing their colleagues, there may be advances in knowledge, but not necessarily changes in beliefs, opinions and worldviews. Rarely, then, does a disparate group of experts on multiple topics come together to form a community of like-minded activists who want to improve the world for all, not just the chosen few. Moving Borders 2022 created such a community.
I wrote about the new alliance between the humanities and architecture in several pieces for common edge, so that readers understand my enthusiasm. A some writers challenged the idea that beauty and humanist values are legitimate issues in a world where climate change, war, inequality and urban decay are front-page news every week. I disagree with these Malthusian, reductionist notions of human progress, and am far more optimistic about the future of our species than many others in our profession. It’s no surprise that many humanities researchers refuse to bend under the heel of our technocratic, late-capitalist, blithely materialistic society.
There are generally two types of criticism directed at social and cognitive scientists who study the built environment and at companies that claim to use their research. The first is that “human factors” are no different from other design considerations that influence how architects think about their designs. Alas, this may have been the case at the beginning of the 20th century, but today the most published architects of my generation have no humans in their formulas for creating “meaningful new form”. They have only one compulsion to make massive sculptures and tortured interior spaces that reviewers and developers will see as innovative. The other common complaint, even from socially progressive thinkers, is that “architectural determinism” used ideas from behaviorism and Pavlovian conditioning to socially design buildings in the 1950s and 1960s, with disastrous results. History shows that this was not just bad politics based on the modernist ideologies of the 1920s, but also bad science. Changing moral and ethical behavior with four walls and a facade is impossible using any kind of science, but that doesn’t mean that buildings and landscapes don’t influence how people act. All organisms shape and are shaped by their environment, and science has come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s to prove this fact.
Nearly 100 participants from around the world gathered on July 21 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, to begin two weeks of dialogue on issues that concern all designers and stewards of our built environment. The list of participants is available here, so I will not mention specific individuals in this brief report. The impact of such a diverse gathering of world-renowned intellectuals, scientists and artists will be evident once the results of the conference are disseminated in publications and videos.
The conference organizers were Sergei Gepshtein, neuroscientist at the Salk Institute and the University of Southern California, and Tatiana Berger, professor of architecture and urban planning, architect, entrepreneur and founder of Moving Boundaries Collaborative. Both were incredibly effective in bringing together so many great minds during a difficult time in the world and when travel was difficult for everyone involved. A neuroscientist and an architect who shared a passion for the subject of architecture and neuroscience, the merging of disciplines, created one of the most powerful alliances of scientists and designers ever assembled. They deserve our gratitude and admiration. Everyone who attended the conference is indebted.
Although many of the participants were leaders and members of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, an organization founded 20 years ago in San Diego, the majority of participants had no affiliation with each other except shared interests and values. There were young architects and researchers in their twenties and early thirties, landscape architects in their mid-careers, interior designers, design professors in several disciplines, as well as senior scientists and directors of cabinets. of architecture across Europe, South America, North America and Asia/Pacific countries. The generational mix was key, as older, experienced people had the opportunity to mentor their younger colleagues in breakout sessions and workshops. And, although most ‘faculties’ are well established and well known in their fields, and there are fewer women on the podium than desirable, the distinction between ‘students’ and ‘faculty’ has collapsed from so that true sharing was possible. outside the amphitheater during the day and evening.
The program covered four major themes: the phenomenon of place, the dynamics of experience, the world of the senses, and perception and emotion. There was coordination in the lectures after the faculty planning sessions, so that topics overlapped in a way that gave participants a chance to synthesize as they learned. The first topic on site was a fitting baseline for everything that followed, even though the lectures there were largely philosophy-related. Once cognitive neuroscience and orientation entered the discussion, the debate was heated, with some architects disagreeing with brain researchers on how place could be described in precise neurological terms. . This problem will no doubt take years to fix, but it was just the beginning.
The word “dynamic” has many meanings, but in the context of environmental awareness and perception, it is essential. Humans actively perceive the world around their bodies, and the elements of space around them appeal to their senses in various ways. “Embedded cognition” is now an established theory in cognitive science, and many architects have embraced it to explain how buildings and landscapes engage our imaginations. In fact, there is significant evidence that we have multiple fields of perceptual awareness around our bodies that connect us to objects on multiple scales as we move. The so-called “sixth sense” or “eyes behind the head” is not just a myth – there are more than five senses and less than 100, as a scientist in Santiago put it.
Of course, great architects such as Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright and Luis Barragán were acutely aware of these things, and their buildings constantly engage all of our senses as we move around and through them. The world of the senses is truly the world of architecture and environmental design if we understand them as our predecessors did, for millennia. The myopia that has infected our architects and scholars for the past three decades has simply blinded us to the truth, and that truth is now emerging from the humanities, and among a group of enlightened designers who follow new discoveries.
When the course moved to Casa da Architectura in Matosinhos, near Porto, Portugal, the workshops and lectures focused more intensely on how perception can be tuned to inform the design process. Participants were provided with more concrete methodologies and study tools that could guide their own work, in its particular contexts around the world. Although all research was in its preliminary stages, many members of the group were confident that science would provide clear direction for improving the built environment over the next decade. There were successful case studies affecting the lives of Alzheimer’s patients, elementary school children, the elderly, and residents of social housing. Experiments on the aesthetics of paint, sculpture, and elements of proportion are also underway in laboratories around the world. Many involve measuring emotional and physical responses to art, buildings and landscape.
The idea that certain “boundaries” between the humanities, architecture, urbanism, object design and digital design could be brought together was implicit in the objectives of the course, and perhaps some of the participants doubted that this was possible. The vast majority who left Porto in August felt deep down that their own beliefs had changed, and that indeed the boundaries limiting communication between science and design had shifted, giving hope and active enthusiasm. for a reform of our beleaguered professions. A website and ongoing programs will be made available to the general public in the coming months.
Featured image: Moving Boundaries participants in Santiago de Compostela at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Moving Boundaries Collaborative.