Monday, June 28, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Architecture

The German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) famously described architecture as “frozen music.” Though evocative, this description is wrong. Architecture is anything but frozen. Architecture is a full-immersion experience. Architecture is a matrix of sensory information that stimulates the brain in ways that make the experience interesting, enjoyable, and intellectually challenging. We experience architecture over time (it takes time to walk through any building) employing our sense of hearing (fountains bubbling in a courtyard, a breeze wafting through a colonnade), our sense of smell (wood burning in a fireplace, flowers blooming in a garden), touch (the grasp of door hardware and the texture of materials), and -- most obviously -- our sense of vision. Of the five physical senses, even taste becomes a part of the experience: we may enjoy a meal in a beautiful architectural setting or surround ourselves with architecture while lingering over a cup of coffee.
1. This is your brain on architecture.
The experience of architecture is also mutable. It inevitably changes over time. The hour of the day and changing seasons alter our perception of architecture. Lighting conditions and seasonal variations affect how we respond. A building looks and feels different under a blanket of snow than under the saturated light of summer. Years add patina to materials and changing times alter the meaning of architecture. A musty, old building has qualities that are different from those of a bright, new building. Our perception of architecture is affected by subtleties. A musty building affects our sense of taste, smell, and touch. An old building affects our thoughts about its history and, perhaps, safety. It takes time to learn the secrets of great architecture and we employ all of our senses and mental acuity to do this.

2. Architecture changes with the seasons.
Kinkaku pavilion, Kyoto, Japan.
Architecture is anything but frozen because it engages every aspect of our brain in a continuous sequence of sensory information. An art that requires movement through space can hardly be called frozen. We feel good in the company of good architecture because sensory input to our brain reminds us we are truly alive. There is even evidence that good architecture may make us smarter. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have demonstrated that mice in interesting cages with opportunities for stimulating challenges do better than mice in plain cages. Mice housed in interesting environments actually experienced measurable brain growth over those in boring environments. Transferring mice from the boring cages to the stimulating environments nearly doubled the dividing cells in their hippocampus regions. (Reported in Nature Neuroscience, March 1999.) One can only imagine what stimulating architecture does to the human brain.

Sometimes input into the brain during an architectural experience can be overwhelming. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the feeling of grandeur and awe we might experience in a great cathedral or in a vast hall of commerce like Grand Central station.

3. Grandeur in architecture.
Grand Central station, New York City.
These experiences are “overwhelming” in a deeply satisfying way. It is an indication of activated brains and, like the smart mice, maybe we benefit physically as well as emotionally. There is no doubt we need this kind of stimulation. When our basic needs are satisfied (being well fed and sheltered) we start to look for more. Author Daniel H. Pink writes in A Whole New Mind (2009): “The paradox of prosperity is that while living standards have risen steadily decade after decade, personal, family, and life satisfaction haven’t budged. That’s why more people – liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it – are resolving the paradox by searching for meaning.” This search may be spiritual or esthetic or both. Clearly, though, architecture is not important to a starving, homeless individual. Architecture is only meaningful when other needs have been satisfied. You might call it a luxury. Or – a definition I prefer -- you might call it a necessity in a successful life. The existence of architecture is a sign that something has gone right for someone. In his 1968 book Toward a Psychology of Being, psychologist Abraham Maslov famously theorized a hierarchy of five levels of basic needs. Once these needs are satisfied, higher needs become like necessities. These higher needs include aesthetic appreciation and spiritual quests. Robert S. de Ropp in The Master Game, (1989) also popularized these ideas. Architecture is a powerful way to address the need for fulfilling experience. That is why we seek it out in our travels and in our lives.

Your mind on architecture can also enrich quiet emotional experiences. It can nurture meditation in monasteries or private sanctuaries. It can enhance recreational and entertainment venues with an injection of theatricality. It can establish warmth in a domestic environment. It is no accident that we link “hearth” and “home” as emblems of domestic tranquility. Every successful work of architecture provides a degree of emotional and mental stimulation. It can happen in endless combinations and variations. Architecture can be as richly varied as human experience itself.

4. Music contained in architecture.
Organ loft, Zweifalten Monstary Church.
Back to Goethe: Describing architecture as “frozen music” actually diminishes it and confuses its real purpose. It makes it seem to be something less than music when, in fact, the opposite is true. Architecture is more than music because it subsumes it. Architecture is a reflexive art. You are not only looking at it, you are in it. It is a mirror; you see and feel what is important personally. It is not a spectator sport; you are in the game. Music doesn’t do this. (Though stereo headphones can create the illusion that music is in your head.) Music can be a part of architecture, contained in concert halls or ambient sound in a home. Architecture often contains music, but music can never contain architecture. (Music critics sometimes describe music as "architectonic." They are playing with words and grasping for analogies, just as architects often use musical analogies to describe architecture.)

Architecture is not frozen music. Nor is it frozen snapshots in magazines. When done right (and that is a significant qualifier) architecture is an ever-changing experience that enriches life. All senses are engaged, providing stimulation, information, and delight. This is your brain on architecture.


1. Adapted from Gray's Anatomy
2. Frank Gualtieri
3. Adam Jones
4. Effi Zweifalten

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