Changing spaces, urban planning and neuroarchitecture

Seminar Commentary by Stacey Smith, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

 

At first glance, it seemed odd to put neuroscience and architecture in the same sentence, let alone the same discipline. A natural cynic, it was this ambiguity that first attracted me to this seminar and I was eager to explore the interdisciplinary links. Chief organiser Dr. Jessica Pykett opened the workshop with similar remarks, questioning how might we think about the links between the plastic brain and affective atmospheres which are shaped, or designed by the spaces we live in every day. The buildings we see on our way to work, the schools, the hospital corridors, our own homes even, are often taken for granted. However, this seminar opened up a critical space where a collection of thinkers from various backgrounds could come together to try shed some light on the political, ethical and social significance of these engineered spaces. Through five papers, this workshop aimed to investigate how psychological and neuroscientific approaches are becoming ever more employed in modern architectural design. In addition to this, this session discussed how design could be linked to techniques of governing – who is the target of neuroarchitecture? How can that person be conceptualised? What politics of embodiment are at play? The opening discussion began with a brief explanation of how, (broadly put) neuroarchitecture had come into being. Jessica Pykett spoke about how the discipline of neuroarchitecture has its roots in ecological psychological and behavioural geographies. More importantly, Pykett pointed out that neuroarchitecture should be thought of as neuroscience for architecture – where architects applying ideas from neuroscientific approaches rather than stemming from neuroscience itself. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of these was discussed in the first paper of the morning by Dr. Margaret Tarampi from the University of California.

Dr. Margaret Tarampi (University of California) – The Promise and Challenges of Neuro-Architecture

salk instituteArchitects don’t want to admit they are manipulating people’s behaviour but that’s what we do.We’re trying to create spaces that are for a function’ (Tarampi, 24/3/14)

Margaret Tarampi began her talk by unpacking the very definition of architecture. It is a science and an art, as well as a function or a structure. Architecture can be a taken for granted space or it can be part of a learned perception, for example, how we come to view our houses as homes. Reflecting on the famous design of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (which she claims was a big inspiration in her architectural career) Tarampi outlined a key question – how does architecture elevate the human spirit? Commenting on Winston Churchill famous declaration of ‘we shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us’, Tarampi discussed how as neuroscientific knowledge increases, architects are eager to investigate how and why architecture ‘shapes us’ and affects human perception and experience. She also claims that this intersection has the potential to engage and amplify the imagination in the design process and in turn, working spaces. Interestingly, Tarampi compared the influence of neuroscience to that physics; in the past, it was physics that changed how architects and engineers addressed issues such as acoustics, lighting, structures and building performance. Now we are seeing a turn to neuroscience, which Tarampi argues, is driving the ‘what’ of the design process whereas physics drove the ‘how’. She then talked us through an example of a space designed for people with low vision and how space was measured for effectiveness using neuroscientific computational models. It is no easy process as there are many different behaviours that need to be considered when looking at visual accessibility. In fact, Tarampi freely admitted that you cannot tell if it is the architecture causing certain effects on the individual’s movements even if the design seems solid. She cautioned us from thinking of the process as a deterministic relationship and to be aware that 1) there is not an all-encompassing ‘neuroscience’ that provides the answers 2) there is always the question of individual taste and 3)there are always limitations and restrictions in any methodological approach.

 

Professor Eve Edelstein (University of Arizona) – Translating Neuro-Architecture from Cell to City

I knew this was going to be an interesting talk when Eve Edelstein opened by describing her diverse background; beginning in anthropology at Berkeley before undertaking doctoral work in neuroscience at UCL and working in public health, then moving on to architecture and design. Her presentation centred on her project on virtual reality CAVE stimulations; put very simply, participants’ brains are hooked up to EEG monitors and are mapped as the subjects navigate through life-sized building or urban simulations. A fascinating experiment – I’d love to visit! The CAVE is 4-dimensional experience, which Edelstein argues offers a new paradigm for the study of spatial cognition which later on, she applies to workplace and healthcare settings. Key questions for Edelstein surround what creates a ‘healthy’ environment and the tension between ‘controlling’ the environment vs. neurological empowerment through the manipulation of space.

Edelstein began her talk with a theoretical discussion by outlining a common framework taught in architecture:

Stimulus > Response > Outcome

She explained that at first glance, this equation certainly seems reductionist. However, she wants to unpack that very term. For Edelstein, each element in this framework has equal complexity and she ‘wouldn’t suggest for one minute’ that one thing can determine everything else.

maslows hierarchy of needsReferring to Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ as seen on the left, Edelstein instead turned the triangle on its side and added feedback loops to each layer. She explained that she has no problem with a ‘reductionist’ approach (by which she means the standard scientific model which is evidence-based and focuses on measurable impacts) but ‘we must admit we don’t know everything’. This resonates with Tarampi’s earlier comments on determinism.

Edelstein employed these ideals to her practical work and spoke about how results from studies like the CAVE can help redesign critical care spaces. She gave examples of a 2.4 million square foot hospital in China and a 1 million square foot medical campus in Canada have been designed with neuroarchitectural principles. Edelstein’s work focuses on the role of ‘sound bending’ and the role of light for patient wellbeing. Constant sound or dimly lit spaces can be very stressful she said, especially for mental health patients. For Edelstein, the purpose of neuroarchitecture is empower subjects, so it should not be prescriptive. This wouldn’t be feasible in the first place she asserted, as a building can hold different meanings for different people; for example, a hospital can be thought of as a living space, a spiritual space, a workspace and a personal space to name a few. However, the question of ‘empowerment’ is a tricky one because ‘people need to be more aware’ of the built environment before they can begin to question it. Edelstein sees this element as a future challenge for the discipline.

 

Dr. Monica Degen (Brunel University), Dr. Clare Melhuish (UCL) and Professor Gillian Rose (Open University) – Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy.

The third presentation was by Dr. Monica Degen, who spoke on behalf of a research team (see above). In this provocative talk, Degen outlined how computer generated images (CGI) have become a common tool for architects and developers to visualise and market urban developments. The team’s case study is the Msherieb Project, based in Doha. Degen talked us through the proposal process and explained how architects are becoming increasingly concerned with atmosphere and use digital images to emphasise the affective capacities of new buildings and environments. Degen attributed this to the rise of the ‘experience economy’ and commented on the importance of digital technologies in shaping Geographer Nigel Thrift’s (2012) definition of ‘expressive architecture’. Her main argument was that CGI is far from disembodied; its value lies in its unspoken sensory capacities. In the case of Msherieb, which Degen says was ‘digitally led from the start’, CGI was crucial for communicating ideas to clients, potential investors and planners. Using notes from fieldwork, Degen explained that there is a basic formulae to constructing atmospheric images, based on what she described as the ‘memorable moment’; a smiling child in the middle of an activity, lovers sat down to dinner or the start of a celebration. In her experience, marketers focus on presenting a ‘felt place’ and use an anti-spectacular approach, using images of ordinary happy people as much as impressive buildings. Degen also remarked on the use of blended colour and blurred hues to create a sense of ‘luminosity and evocation of mobility’. However, in the design process, these embodied regimes are highly subjective and require a lot of labour from multiple actors. Degen gave an example of how a client wanted more ‘magic’ in the image but the designer had a different idea of what this ‘magic’ might entail. Furthermore, Degen’s critical stance centred on how the CGIs are ‘based on a Westerncentric literary and sensory palette’ so we must always question the politics behind these sorts of images; a sales technique is not politically neutral. This then promoted much discussion on cultural imperialism in a supposedly ‘post-colonial’ world.

 

Dan Lockton (Royal College of Art) – Determinism, Cybernetics and Co-Design: Smart Cities and even smarter citizens.

After lunch and some lighthearted conversations, we returned to hear Dan Lockton’s charming and funny talk on ‘naughty’ behaviours, as he asked ‘what happens when people don’t behave how the designers planned?’ Lockton began by commenting on how designed or governed spaces often have negative connotations; it is usually about stopping people doing something. He gave the examples of arm rests on airport chairs so people don’t lie down or co-ordinated pathways so people don’t step on grass. Lockton reminded us that all design is intended to influence human behaviour in some way, and referred to the tradition of heuristics and the task-artefact cycle. More importantly however, Lockton argued that ‘behaviour change’ has become a political buzzword but there is still a lot to be learned from a sort of anti-determinism – people do not always react in the expected way but we should learn from this, recognise what he calls ‘workarounds’ and examine what people are trying to do rather than avoid. He gave many examples of people using space productively albeit in unintentional ways – improvised cigarette stands, creating amusing road signs and makeshift bins. At this point, Lockton also referred to cybernetics and the idea that a purpose of a system is what it does. In part, Lockton reflects this ideal as his talk was clearly more interested in the effects architectural design has on society rather than simply the reason behind it. Lockton then went on to discuss what ‘Smart’ meant for him, using an example of the ‘invisibility’ of energy consumption. He described ‘Smart’ as ‘being able to adapt’ and understanding complex systems that surround us. His definition here reminded me of how brain plasticity is commonly depicted in social scientific literature; malleable, flexible, self-aware. Here is also where the question of governance came into play as discussion centred around how people’s actions (compliant with design or resistant) are negotiated. Several questions from the audience queried whether Lockton simply wanted to leave people to ‘do what they want’ and if so, where was the democracy? It turned into a really animated discussion around the very definition of behaviour change studies – are ‘people’ the problem or should we be focusing on solving people’s problems?

 

Professor Graeme Evans (Middlesex University) – Accessibility, Urban Design and the Social Production of Space.

Concluding the day, Graeme Evans’ presentation took us in a slightly different direction as he discussed the different ways in which urban space is experienced ‘from below’ vs. top-down urban development processes and professional guidelines which outline what a ‘good’ space is supposed to be. Evans described how in recent years, the term ‘urbanicity’ has had a negative slant; ‘our cities seem to be bad for us, or at least for our mental health’. In conjunction with the policies of the Labour government, there has been an increase in spatial modelling and ‘urban design and accessibility’ toolkits which can model variables such as pedestrian movements or crimes per metre. However, Evans importantly points out that measuring quality of life is no simple affair. His main critique of this ‘quasi-scientific modelling’ is the lack of user involvement and local knowledge factors. He urged policy makers to consider the quality of access to these ‘healthy’ environments and the barriers of participation to spaces of wellbeing. For example, a map may depict lots of green space in an area (a key factor to a ‘healthy’ living space) but Evans pointed out how house prices around green spaces are usually far too high for the majority of the neighbouring population. Furthermore, transport links and prices should be taken into consideration – if people can’t get to these spaces, how beneficial are they? And for whom? Using Henri Lefebvre’s work, Evans’ point was that space is not only socially produced but perceived quite differently by different groups in society. For future empirical work, Evans proposed a shift away from solely relying on evidence-based policy and advocated building knowledge over time and drawing on local experience where possible.

Conclusions

To sum up the day, Professor Joe Painter from Durham University provided the final comments. He began by suggesting that the day’s talks ‘scattered the ashes of the rational actor model’ and that the richness of human experience could not be captured by this framework. Scholars should always remain critical and ‘talk back’ to theoretical debates but it is important not do away with personal anecdotes and stories as he stressed the importance of ‘co-design’. Painter also commented on the questions of who benefits from developments as described in Degen’s presentation and Evans’, which opens up questions on urban politics more generally. Referring back to Tarampi and Edelstein’s discussions about the multifaceted nature of interdisciplinary work, Painter also prompted questions about what would be an acceptable level of uncertainty? How much do we need to know about other disciplines (i.e. neuroscience) in order to apply it to our analyses? What struck me most about the end discussion is how even though most of the participants were from different backgrounds, we tended to use the same terminology when explaining our points. However, what we meant by certain terms differed and this is a key challenge when embarking on interdisciplinary work or collaborative activities.

Bio:  Stacey Smith is a PhD student at the University of Bristol. Her proposed thesis title is ‘The Neural Event: Plasticity through Practice’ which focuses on the ways in which the concept of neuroplasticity is employed in rehabilitative care practices after a traumatic brain injury. More broadly, Stacey is also interested in bioethics, public health policy, feminist theory and geographies of embodiment.

 

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