Neuroarchitecture: The new frontier in architecture

Neuroarchitecture reveals how and why we connect physiologically to space and place

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Throughout the history of architecture, the genesis of almost every movement has risen from form, function and philosophy. In the near future, however, that could change. Neuroscientists and psychologists are shedding light on the dark mysteries of the brain to reveal how and why we respond to architecture on a physiological level. Their illuminating findings lead many to believe we are entering a new paradigm, where people – rather than buildings – are at the epicentre. Welcome to the brave new age of neuroarchitecture.

“Neuroarchitecture resides at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and architecture,” explains Dr Oshin Vartanian, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada. “Its aim is to provide an empirical framework for creating environments that can optimise human behaviour, health and wellbeing.”

This field dates back to environmental psychology in the 1970s and the dawn of evidence-based design in the 1980s. As a new discipline, neuroarchitecture gained traction in 2003 when the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture formed in San Diego, USA. It gained recognition in 2014 when John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I Moser won a Nobel Prize for their ground-breaking discovery of brain cells that are attuned to place. And it gained repute in 2016 when the first Conscious Cities Conference explored the subject in London, UK, with neuroscientists, psychologists, architects and town planners.

But what neuroscientists are studying is nothing new. Since our primitive ancestors undertook what’s known as ‘habitat selection’ – a challenge fraught with threats to survival – humans have always reacted physiologically to places. What puts neuroarchitecture at the vanguard of design is that for the first time, neuroscientists can measure these reactions to help build on our understanding – figuratively and literally.

“It is now possible to collect physiological data such as heart rate, as well as brain activity data using portable electroencephalogram (EEG), all of which can help generate a more complete understanding of a human’s response to built environments,” says Vartanian, who studies people’s reactions to architecture in-situ and in virtual reality settings.

According to geologist Jay Appleton, we judge the aesthetic beauty of natural landscapes based on whether or not their conditions are favourable to our survival. “The same idea has been extended to built environments that offer one a sense of safety,” explains Vartanian. “People’s contemporary preferences for spaces is driven, in part, by the extent to which those spaces would have conferred an advantage to our ancestors in terms of survival.”

Not surprisingly, we also seek out spaces that evoke a sense of pleasure.

Neuroscientist, author and design consultant, Dr Colin Ellard, has found that our moods and arousal levels increase when we encounter varied or ‘textured’ façades. In fact, when a group of Ellard’s test subjects walked past monotonous, unvaried façades, they unconsciously sped up to hurry past.

Vartanian’s research also shows that a set of structures in the brain, which are involved in experiencing emotions and rewards, also activate when we feel pleasure towards architecture. He has found that curved contours positively impact our emotions and we prefer them to sharp angles. Similarly, people favour open layouts and high ceilings, and react negatively to enclosed floorplans and low ceilings.

“When people are asked to perform a stressful task, there is much greater physiological reactivity, as measured by the cortisol response, if they are placed in an enclosed space than if they are placed in a space that offers virtual openings for escape,” Vartanian explains. “Given that cortisol is a well-established biomarker of stress, this is akin to saying that people in the enclosed condition experienced more stress under those circumstances.”

Australian Embassy Washington by Bates Smart

The impacts of these findings are far reaching. They explain the sense of awestruck wonder we feel when wandering amid ruins of ancient architecture, from Peru’s Machu Picchu to Rome’s Colosseum. They also illustrate how typical school examination halls and confined hospital rooms affect us adversely – a cruel irony, considering these settings should optimise our mental performance and physical health.

For centuries, architects have understood this intuitively. So it’s confounding that some remain sceptical of neuroarchitecture and fear that quantifying the built environment could risk qualifying it. On the whole, however, neuroarchitecture is generating international excitement. Kristen Whittle, a director at Australia’s Bates Smart architecture and design studio, authors of the acclaimed Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, believes neuroarchitecture is redefining design’s future and has embraced virtual reality technology. Bjarke Ingels, founder of Danish-based BIG, designs with a purely people-centric purpose. And the eponymous Italian founder of Stefano Boeri Architetti is driven by biophilic design that aims to heighten our wellbeing and performance.

Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne by Bates Smart © John Gollings

Vartanian predicts the demand for evidence-based design will grow in the future. “I believe that the future of this discipline is bright, and that neuroscientists and psychologists can foster good understanding of the needs of architects, designers and city planners to help them realise their visions in more successful ways.”