How buildings and public spaces influence our bodies and minds
Buildings, spaces and their design have an effect on us beyond the material, functional and aesthetic experience. They define and shape the mental and existential sphere of our lives
I had been missing the sensation of walking into the university library. The coronavirus pandemic had obliged it to close. Can architecture help us to find our place in this complicated contemporary world? Is our excitement for architecture primarily a biological response, stemming from our most primitive desire to feel secure in a natural world we consider threatening, or is it also cultural, insofar as we have learned to value spaces for reasons that transcend mere survival and incline us toward an aesthetic experience?
I longed for what Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, half a century ago, characterized as the meaning of crossing a threshold, just before entering a room. It is a magnificent experience, because through it an entire architecture can be built – “perhaps because in the threshold lie the all the other truths of other things that sustain it,” as another great architect, Louis Kahn, put it. Jorge Luis Borges transports us to that moment when he himself steps into the National Library of the Argentine Republic. “The rumors of the square are left behind as I enter the library. In an almost physical way, I feel the gravitational pull of the books, the serene atmosphere of order, time magically dissected and preserved. To the left and right, absorbed in their lucid sleep, the momentary faces of the readers are illuminated by studious lamps.”
But it wasn’t the interior of a building but the sensorial experience of the urban space of a public park – in the heart of my city – that anchored my sense of place during the pandemic. The pull of the quadrangle tended to guide me toward its center; one is alone, and yet one is not, even if there are no visible observers. The defining character of the square is its emptiness, it’s character ultimately lies in it. It is Tabula rasa. The square is where I found a place of possibility, the agora. That is what is emptiness can mean.
Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, former dean of the Helsinki University of Technology, put forward that “in reality, an architectural experience is not simply a series of images in the retina, in our encounter with a building: we approach it, we confront it, we discover it, it interacts with our bodies, it moves us, we use it as a condition for other experiences.” According to Pallasmaa, the task of architecture extends beyond its material, functional and measurable properties, and perhaps even beyond aesthetics, toward the mental and existential sphere of life: “Architecture is a mediation between the world and our minds.” In addition to hosting our fragile bodies and our activities, buildings must also host our minds, our memories, our desires and dreams. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard assigned architecture a truly monumental task: the house, he wrote, “is an instrument with which we confront the cosmos.” In his opinion, “we are born in the cradle of architecture.”
In what way is walking through the narrow streets of a medieval Italian city different from strolling along the sidewalks of a glass and concrete metropolis? “Emotion is fundamental for the architectural experience; multisensorial experience speaks directly to us,” Harry Mallgrave, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a proponent of returning the humanist essence to the architecture of our cities, tells me. “The engineered environment, with which we are intricately intertwined, not only plays a role in human behavior but, most importantly, in our long-term ability to develop and prosper as organisms.”
Mallgrave notes that the human brain possesses a mosaic of mirror neuron systems that activate our visual, auditive, tactile and social processes. We see the world through our sensorimotor potentialities for action – the dynamic field or Umwelt that surrounds our bodies. These mirroring mechanisms are a vital component for the architectural experience: through our optical sensibility we project ourselves onto architectural form, in an emotional contagion of empathy, so to speak: “While we respond neurologically to contact with the animate or inanimate objects we observe, would we not also respond to the materials and architectural forms that touch each other?”
“Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I-I hardly know, sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’” Alice’s dilemma, concludes Mallgrave, illustrates the effect that the spaces we inhabit, our niches, have on us: architecture is a materialized expression of the human mental space; and our own mental space is structured and amplified by architecture.”