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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Review of Humanism in Architecture

June 1st, 2016 by Susan Smith

“The sciences that underlie construction related technologies – structures, materials, systems and software – have revolutionized how we design and build today. But the insights emerging from the maturing science of human life – evolution, ecology and neurosciences — are only beginning to be incorporated.” – Bob Hart.


A panel discussion on the very interesting topic, “Neuroscience, Evolution, Ecology: a new look at humanism in architecture” was held at the AIA Convention 2016 in Philadelphia in May. Those participating: Tim Culvahouse, FAIA moderator, Aniruddha Das, PHD, Columbia university, Nora Newcombe, PhD, Temple University and Chris Garvin, partner, Terrapin Bright Green Strategic Sustainability Research Facility, with work done on biophilia.

These amazing artist impressions detail up-close what the exterior of the sleek, streamlined tower will look like and how the site will fit in with surrounding buildings.

These amazing artist impressions detail up-close what the exterior of the sleek, streamlined Freedom Tower will look like and how the site will fit in with surrounding buildings.

Culvahouse talked about a book by Bob Hart entitled “A New Look at Humanism,” with a focus on work in the neurosciences, evolution and ecology. He wrote about 40 entries on the Metropolis Magazine blog and eventually they evolved into a book.

Tom Albright of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, is part of a collaborative effort originally funded by the Latrobe Prize to bring neuroscience and architects together.

Vision is not a camera, but has evolved specifically to help us survive. It is used to extract information about the world. How large is an object, how far away, is it moving, and does it effortlessly, far better than the most sophisticated computer program?

Computations start at the eye, information from only the rods and cones is processed inside the retina of eye before it’s passed. Two sorts of channels take information from the center of a scene and compare with information on the outside. The eye only sends biologically relevant information.

The IAC Building by Gehry Partners. Image © flickr user swisscan

The IAC Building by Gehry Partners. Image © flickr user swisscan

There is huge image compression happening in the eye. What are hugely important are edges. Part of brain in the eye allows nerves to not be firing all receptors in order to see.

Does navigation matter in the modern world?

Three projects worked on recently with the scientific community involve environmental strategies, the science of how humans are attracted to nature.

Garvin talks about Biophilic design – being able to pay attention longer, i.e. 40 second view of green roof could improve concentration and ability to concentrate.

One project is creating an ecological design from a 1930s masonry building in Chelsea to develop a sustainability plan driven by the historical European settlement of that. “We found there is an underground spring now that has impact on plants around the city,” said Garvin. “We’re looking at how how water could be reproduced, and can reduce footprint on this site. Think about the water system beyond usual practice when you do an ecological design. Yearly rainfall on the site, 50 million gallons of water is the annual consumption of water on the site. 200 million gallons that evaporates or is used by a power plant. How do you go about conserving water for that region?”

There is a way to represent the amount of food eaten in this building. Is meatless Monday a way to reduce consumption? “That’s the ecological framework we’re working on with several clients.”

The third is looking at biological sciences. A colleague with Blue Planet is researching how coral reefs are biomineralizing carbon. Using blue stream exhaust from a power plant, they can create carbon negative – bioinspired innovation – and create carbon negative concrete for building.

Das said the real worry is of the hippocampus shrinking. “If you make rodents do stuff their hippocampus may shrink, and this can be worrisome. The hippocampus is involved in the storage of long-term memory, which includes all past knowledge and experiences. It’s part of the brain that shrinks and is affected in Alzheimer’s patients.”

In terms of people saving resources, there is concern for the physical appearance of things like lawns, so that water saving may not be acceptable in some areas. “We need to do more to show by example of smart and sustainable strategies that improve the qualities of experience in the building and the bottom line,” said Das.

A question was asked about architecture for people with autism or Alzheimers in mind. “There is a good research of the impact of nature on children, and on Alzheimers patients,” said Newcombe.

University of Michigan’s Sean Alquist has researched responsive fabric structures that enable play in autistic children.

The visual cortex is stimulated by variation, or non-right angles. “How can it improve our health to see buildings that are not constructed box like?” Newcombe suggested. “We are comfortable around things that are smooth. Box like is too uniform, and so why we can see a box doesn’t mean we are happier. We have a sweet spot of visual complexity that we prefer.”

“The actual connections the brain makes depends on the experiences that person has,” Das said. “If you had everything wired up one way, and one wire died in the soldering circuit, it just generates a propensity for something to happen and a wire forms.”

What type of landmarks are most impactful for wayfinding?

Landmarks obviously have to be stable. They need to be visible so they need to be tall and stable. “We also can use things like the Delaware River, it provides a contour and an orienteering landmarks, especially where it joins with the Schuylkill,” said Garvin.

Inertial navigation can be helpful to remember where you are, and accumulates errors.

Learning GIS offers structure for learning maps. “Studies show certain sorts of video games can sharpen motor skills, and to events that develop a geographical sense. How much is innate?” said Culvahouse.

Taking into account how people feel and think about the spaces they inhabit, in concert with weaving in different sciences with neuroscience and architecture, and ecological concerns, can only lead to the creation of more thought-provoking and comfortable environments for the future.

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Categories: 2D, 3D, AIA 2016, architecture, construction, infrastructure

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