Mostly Distracted

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Communication through architecture is an intellectual process, it seems. We discuss the legibility of conceptional ideas in spaces or reflect on our aesthetic experience. To these well-established descriptions of our meaningful and conscious interaction with the world around us, neuroscience has added a physiological level. Today, we can start to understand how the processes involved in the perception of our environment are also happening on a low attention level, even subconsciously and involuntarily.

In his well-known article The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin argues that we mostly perceive architecture in a state of distraction. When we move through architectural settings, our attention is often busy with something other than the spaces that surround us. According to Benjamin, of the two possible ways to appropriate architecture, the appropriation through use and habit prevails over visual contemplation. This notion is easy to follow, since we are all familiar with situations that we master incidentally. We know for example that we can find our way through previously unknown spaces even when our attention is busy with different things. Amongst others, this way of appropriation certainly distinguishes architecture from art that we will mostly find in environments streamlined to focus our attention on the exhibited work.1

Until recently, the largest part of research on perception without attention was suggesting that anything we do not remember will not affect us. Obviously, test subjects could not report what they did not remember.2 Some smarter test setups showed that on the contrary, stimuli that we do not consciously perceive will still influence our judgment.3 In the last couple of years, mainly through the use of brain imaging techniques, researchers are able to connect patterns of stimulation in the brain to specific cognitive processes. Some patterns that have previously been identified to be connected to certain cognitive processes can therefore even be interpreted independently of the conscious experiences that test subjects can report. Since, multiple studies have provided evidence, how stimuli are being processed and affect our behavior without us being aware of it.4 For example, a study by Gabriele Janzen at the Max- Planck Institute suggests that when we move through space, we store visual information related to navigation independently of the task we are asked to do. Seemingly out of nowhere, this information will inform our decisions if we are to navigate through these spaces, again.5 In a different field, the popular research on mirror neurons is challenging classical art history with the suggestion that aesthetic responses might not only be the result of contemplation but also of immediate bodily reactions.6 In relation to architecture and Benjamin’s theory, this growing number of hints implies that though a large part of our interaction with the environment might be going on unconsciously, it will still affect our behavior. Even if we cannot remember, it matters where we read a book.

The theory of immediate bodily reactions to the things in our environment is not new. In his recent book „The architect’s brain“, Harry Francis Mallgrave delivers a comprehensive summary of the relevant positions since antiquity.7 The relevance of unconscious perception appears for the first time in the work of Theodor Vischer and his son Robert in the German discussion of aesthetics towards the end of the 19th century. Seen from today’s point of view, especially Robert Vischer’s text “On the optical sense of form” is insofar surprisingly up to date, as it outlines not only basic questions but also provides answers that are sometimes still valid today. Building on the work of his father, R. Vischer developed the concept of “empathy” (Einfühlung) that describes how by projecting one’s own bodily form into a perceived object, we are at the same time projecting our own soul and emotions.8 He distinguishes a simple dreamlike, unconscious and undifferentiated “seeing” from an active, conscious “scanning”.9 Vischer is interested in showing the origins of an emotional identification with objects. In this, unconscious perception only plays a role as a first approach that is followed by an intense identification. This division will not be explicitly experienced: perception is a unified process, a theory that is still prevailing today.10 To a certain extent, Vischer is anticipating, what Wölfflin will develop to his famous new foundation of art history: the liberation of form from its historic and symbolic meaning and a focus on its immediate, sensuous effect. Finally, Vischer binds his concept of empathy into a pantheistic view. A form will reach highest quality, if it evokes in us the sensation of perfect harmony. It reaches this by mirroring the harmony of the universe that all people are longing for. Because we are with our body a part of the universe, we are longing for its harmony and will recognize it effortless. With our body we feel ourselves into our environment and thus are even animating dead objects.11 The role of the artist is to strive to achieve in his work the highest possible accessibility for the evocation of this harmony. Consequently, Vischer delivers a categorization of forms, colors and relations that correspond to the body’s design and will therefore have a pleasing effect on us. The underlying striving for a universal recipe for beauty could at first glance be rooted in Vischer’s times. However, we can trace similar efforts all the way through the 20th century: Similar to Vischer, Wölfflin and Arnheim build on their solid theoretical basis to propose generalizations of rather personal aesthetic preferences.12 During the long predominance of rationalism in the architectural discussion of the 20th century, Eiler Steen Rasmussen is maybe the first actor that returns as early as the late fifties to sensuous aspects in architecture. In his book on the experience of architecture, he cannot but mix his inspiring contemplations on old European cities with simplistic generalizations.13 Finally, today’s research in neurosciences is bearing – in parts appropriately – a stigma of using their seemingly omniscient research methods in tendentious studies to “prove” for instance the everlasting beauty of classical proportions.14 Architect John P. Eberhard is a founding president of an organization with the promising name of „Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture“. In an article published in Neuron in 2009, he advertises the goals of his academy. After a general introduction in the potential application of neuroscience research to architecture, he concludes with several proposals for research projects. One of them being based on the hypothesis that “The brain is hard-wired to respond to proportions based on the golden mean (as illustrated by the architect Palladio) “.15

While it is on the one hand a necessity for architects to know their own design preferences, skills and beliefs, these attempts to generalize architectural quality seem to be too exclusive today. Undoubtedly, the process of perception includes emotional responses. At the same time, we know that these are as manifold as humans are diverse. We suppose that especially emotional ratings are the result of complex, inextricable connections of predisposition, conditioning, experience, memories and momentary moods. 16 Even if we can precisely describe the physical characteristics of our environment we cannot deduce from it specific emotional reactions. It is due to this nebulous step between the description of our concrete environment and the corresponding individual product of perception that we have to carefully evaluate any absolute conclusion about the reason for emotional reactions, especially in the creative fields. Moreover, and that seems more significant, it is precisely the manifold aesthetic and emotional responses to concrete architectural settings that anchors architecture firmly in cultural discourse.

Common to the above thinkers is the emphasis of the importance of the physical presence of the things we perceive. Apart or from our conscious reflection of their mediated meaning, our senses will process the available information. Even in a state of distraction, the geometry, colour, material and texture of our environment will affect us significantly. Architecture immediately appeals to our senses even if we do not feel any aesthetic pleasure. It therefore is foremost a sensuous18 experience.

Benjamin’s argument together with the ongoing research on attention seems to open up the possibility to think about the interaction of our nervous system with our environment beyond taste and ideology: How does our brain make sense from stimuli in order to be able to operate with the spatial environment? The basic mechanisms of space perception involved in this low-level process are possibly the most effective channel for architects to “communicate” with their distracted audience. In concentrating on a key principle, I will try to convey in the rest of this article, how the knowledge of this field can inform the design process.

For the sake of conciseness, basic mechanisms of space perception are mostly studied isolated. It is incomparably more complex to discuss them in space and time, where stimuli are manifold and unstable. There are theories that try to convey an imagination of the work our nervous system is engaging in when encountering the complexity of our day to day surroundings. The aspect involved that seems the most interesting can be described as a process of continuous re-interpretation. I will illustrate this process in visual perception, even though it is not limited to one sense: In order to obtain information about the shape, size, distance, texture etc. of any object we see, we use several mechanisms. 19 Today we know that the processes involved in perceiving an object are not only taking place once for each object, but again and again. We do no longer understand the nervous system as a passive receiver of information, but as an active and tireless researcher. Without cease it is investigating and interpreting the information it can access.20 The resulting hypothesis about the condition of our surroundings represent only a temporary solution that is challenged continuously by freshly won information and is, if necessary, corrected.21 This applies not only, when we are moving through space, but also, when neither we nor something around us is moving. In a continuous dance with our surroundings, the nervous system is involuntarily producing, testing and correcting a hypothesis of what is around us. We will never see a highly detailed image of the environment within our visual field.22 Like more or less anything else around us, architecture and its physical elements could be imagined as liquid objects in our perception with the potential of engaging in a never ending dialogue with our mind.23 Due to the inherent possibility of reinterpretation, any environmental setting and therefore any space is potentially ambiguous.24 The hypothesis that will reach our conscious stage, is something like the minds current best guess, after it has dismissed an inconceivable number of potential solutions as being improbable. To attempt to describe this game of perception as a logical succession of reason and effect, must fail like Calvino’s Mr. Palomar:

“In other words, you cannot observe a wave without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself originates. These aspects vary constantly, so each wave is different from another wave, even if not immediately adjacent or successive; in other words there are some forms and sequences that are repeated, though irregularly distributed in space and time.”25

An architectural element that exemplifies this process is the columned hall that can produce a similar depth and complexity to a forest, although they are mostly based on a regular grid. Every column occludes a considerable part of the space behind it. Every step will reveal unforeseen deep spaces and new parts of spatial volumes. The more than 800 columns of the Cordoba Mosque enhance this characteristic to a point, where the spaces in its multiplicity can no longer be gathered. Even if we stand still we can observe, how the endless avenue of a bay that seems to be dominating in one moment will be redeemed by another. Like complex patterns, the seemingly purely structural architecture of Pier Luigi Nervi similarly provides an inexhaustible pool for the reinterpretation of lines and repeating forms. Rasmussen described at the example of the Porta Santo Spirito, how the spectator by looking at the architecture is in some way rebuilding it.26 This image that is based on the anticipation of the heaviness of the stones and the bearing of the walls and arcs, also eludes to the principle of reinterpretation that is possibly involved in our appropriation of spaces that are constructed of similar and identical elements.

“I was speaking about the contradiction between function and aesthetics and how we are trying to expand this model. I would say that the Mercedes-Benz Museum radiates a certain calmness similar, perhaps, to buildings by Mies van der Rohe. How do we achieve this? By repeating and organizing a relatively small number of geometric elements in the space. (….) Shape has to be informed! Then it is a perfect building. If the shape is only shaped then it doesn’t interest me.“27

Such similar and identical elements define the glassy spatial structure of SANAA’s Toledo Glass Pavilion.28 The corners of the spaces that arise from rectangular volumes are rounded by a limited number of reoccurring radiuses. These will reappear throughout the space. When our eyes are wandering through the multilayered reflections of the surrounding parks in the depth of the pavilion, we will quite possibly recognize these familiar elements in new volumes that are but a variation of the previous one that hasn’t quite left the conscious stage. 29 Again, we are engaged in a never-ending game of discovery and recognition, juggling with liquid virtual volumes merging various memories and predictions of the architecture we are enclosed by.

Since form has made a great reappearance in architectural discourse in the last decade, these thoughts might help to tap new resources for a discussion of form that is related to the way it is interacting with us beyond such difficult or misleading categories as performance, complexity, beauty or elegance. Contrary to the observable aloofness towards the role that cognitive sciences can play for the creative disciplines, I hope I could show that they have accessed knowledge that does everything but disenchant the design process. Both, the architect’s subjective and irrational conduct of the design process as well as the emotional effect the built space has on the individual observer will remain unpredictable – maybe preferably so. Nevertheless, knowledge about the immediate interaction between the nervous system and architecture can enhance the sensuous potential of space.

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