Paper |15 October, 2020 

Smart Technology vs. Embodied Architecture: Confluence or Divergence?

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic introduced the term “social distancing” to our lexicon, a percentage of Americans had already endured a similar type of social distancing. This collective phenomenon did not so much impact our conventions of physical proximity as it did our social disposition.

Our public spaces had become inundated with people attuned elsewhere. Go for coffee anywhere and you’d be lucky if anyone spared you a glance, let alone a smile. Most faces were locked to their mobile devices or wireless gadgets.

And while we’re grateful that smart technology keeps us connected during this extraordinary time when physical distancing is necessary, mobile usage worked in the opposite direction during ordinary times. It had become a major cause of social distancing.

So what will happen after the pandemic? Will the threat of recurring pandemics alter the way we interact in public or will architects and designers address the social distancing being encouraged and facilitated by smart technology before our normal lives were upended?

As we experience this singular period of extended social isolation, our homes may lend the proper perspective to ponder the widespread costs of this mostly unspoken, but surprisingly corrosive social phenomenon.

Will we return to business-as-usual or will we restore a measure of civility in public?

2019––A Glance at Pre-Pandemic Times

Though it now seems like a dream, think back to last summer when we travelled to and fro without a care in the world. Think about what it felt like to arrive in any city.

Something had seeped into the design of our public spaces. Something had slowly, albeit relentlessly, changed the way we behave, interact and experience in public.

What happens to the atmosphere of a place when it surrounds patrons with data ports, directing their attention into their own individual digital worlds?

The peculiar habits of behavior that smart technology inculcates has led scholars in multiple fields to question its wholesale acceptance in communal, and even some public, architectural spaces.

More public spaces seem designed for self-isolation than communal interaction (Photo by Caleb Minear).

Have wireless technologies altered our environments—and our collective behavior—to the point where designing a sense of place has been rendered meaningless?

Does the apparent urgency for smart buildings and smart technology really dovetail with our underlying biological and cognitive needs? Or is it fools’ gold?

This has become a disquieting, but burgeoning theme among leading architects and interior designers: an existential tug of war between competing visions of the profession’s future.

One camp eagerly embraces digital technology—smart buildings, ubiquitous interconnectivity, and the Internet of Things (IoT)—with its promise of personalized convenience and fully interactive environments.

A second camp favors human-centered design with its emphasis on occupant wellness and social awareness, an approach based on empathy, collaboration, and multidisciplinary solutions that aim to deliver equitable, sustainable spaces.

Designing equitable spaces, in particular, has struck a deep chord as smart technology often creates a wedge between people and a shared environment. For example, who hasn’t entered a service business in any major city where a point-of-sale display prompts you to expedite your order or appointment by downloading a mobile app?

This apparently benign migration to digital services is efficient, but carries a cost.

Those who opt for expediency also unwittingly opt out of a shared experience. Rather than relate to the communal space just entered—whether picking up a fresh loaf of bread at the local deli, browsing wares, or waiting to see the doctor—mobile app users rarely lift their heads from their device. They remain glued to their screens waiting for their turn and once prompted proceed as if the place were empty.

Such convenience fosters a digital divide between the apps and the apps not. The former funnel their attention into digesting mobile updates while ignoring the space and those around them. The latter find themselves alone in a roomful of absent citizens. Yet, there was a time not too long ago when waiting with a group of people was a time of pleasant small talk or simply an opportunity to people-watch.

Such occasions galvanized a shared sense of time and place. But with smarter, faster commerce, a growing number of commercial interiors are optimized for digital autonomy and isolation, rather than creating a shared feeling of congregation. So it begs the question: Is this really smart design or just smart technology in the absence of meaningful architecture? Perhaps it’s time to return to the architecture of embodiment, one proficient in deploying those pre-cognitive cues that invite our physiology to imbibe and contribute to the atmosphere of a shared space.

Part I - I Sense, Therefore I Bond

Embodied architecture lies at the forefront of architectural theory, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology. It recognizes that our ingrained habits of perception pick up pre-cognitive, contextual cues from our surroundings. This new body of knowledge recognizes that the body soaks up the atmosphere of place in a cascade of chemical and neural reactions that even preempts thoughts we entertain at the conscious level.

Embodied design recognizes the preeminence of multisensory stimuli in molding the emotional tone and mental disposition that an environment evokes in our physiology.

What happens if these cues disappear from the places we occupy—especially in larger cities where people spend more time with others that they don’t already know? Could smart technology’s uneasy shift permanently impoverish the social quality of public, cultural, and commercial spaces?

Well, let’s go back to the common modern experience of grabbing coffee. Whether you ventured to the local bistro or a branded franchise in pre-pandemic times, one thing stands out: patrons are hooked on much more than caffeine. Glued to tablets, laptops, or mobiles with branching earbuds, their attention is, more often than not, elsewhere.

And if you catch a nearby conversation, it’s someone talking to someone, somewhere else. People rarely look at one another; their gaze, funneled into a smart screen. Didn’t we use to look at people’s faces, sometimes stumbling on a friendly gaze, a gentle smile, or catching the tail end of an implicit compliment?

Public spaces used to be about reading faces or catching that one gaze. (Photo by Pham Trung Kien).

Yes, we did. And it was no accident! Neuroscience tells us our brains are hardwired—more than anything else—to read faces, to mirror their tale-tell emotions, to empathize. This is called the primacy of affect. McGilchrist (2009) cites fascinating research noting that “affective judgement is not dependent on the outcome of a cognitive process.”§

He also points to A.R. Damasio’s influential book, Descartes’ Error, where the author points to “the primacy of emotion in neurological terms.” Damasio notes that “the apparatus of rationality, traditionally presumed to be neocortical, does not seem to work without [the apparatus] of biological regulation, traditionally presumed to be subcortical. Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it.”§

Nonetheless, more and more, we navigate around each other like ships in the night, passing each other with absent bodies, lost in the Cloud. When a table or booth happens to be vacant, their most prominent feature are the USB ports.

While waiting, patrons have few qualms to amble over and hook up.

But small talk over coffee? Not a chance. With ubiquitous access to free Wi-Fi and an endless barrage of apps, we’ve developed a pernicious habit: we canvass our devices at the expenses of canvassing our surroundings, even when engaging others is mutually beneficial to our health. Over the years, a phalanx of studies have verified that even a few moments of actual human contact, a casual conversation with the person who takes your order or waits for an Uber ride in a crowded terminal generates a measurable improvement in our mood.

University of British Columbia psychologists Sandstrom and Dunn (2014) published one such study in the Journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science. § They noted that although people are often reluctant to initiate a meaningful social interaction with someone they don’t have expectations to ever see again, they found that even brief conversations that stray away from the purely transactional or perfunctory tend to foster feelings of belonging, putting a proverbial spring in our step and boosting the happiness of both participants.

However, according to University of Chicago researchers Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schoeder, most of us routinely underestimate others’ interest in connecting.§ And this gives rise to social anxiety where people turn their misguided sense of unease, inward. And what facilitates our inward escape in public more than a device designed for endless hours of curated escapism? Check your email, text a friend, play Candy Crush.

Welcome to the metropolitan [insert any city] coffee shop experience of the 21st Century. You could be anywhere. Because you are. It all feels the same.

And if there’s anything worse than cold coffee, it’s the body language of absence––the deepest of human chills. The people around you who are not there to share the place.

Smart technology makes us feel invisible because, in fact, we are.

This is not pop psychology, but the neurobiology of humanity: we are hardwired to project ourselves in a space and interact with each other to make memories of a shared experience. This is one of the highlights and joys of humanity. Once, leaving a café with his friend, English painter Walter Sickert, Edgar Degas objected when Sickert summoned a closed horse-drawn cab. “Personally,” the French painter said, “I love to ride on the omnibus. You can look at people. We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?” §

To be around others is life, even if we just quietly and consciously share the same space.

This cognitive process associated with our participation in the atmosphere of place, consciously being around others, is found in the right superior temporal sulcus, the area of our right hemisphere responsible for reading facial emotion, prosody (vocal intonation), and gesture.§ But smart technology’s relentless ability to hold attention captive elsewhere impoverishes the development of atmosphere and experience of place.

Increasingly, the enriching experience of going out to the great communal experiences like the theatre, a concert, or a cultural festival, finds more people checking their smart phones during intermission, recording the event for posterity, or otherwise engaged with someone not present at the event, than devoting themselves to the shared experience with those around them.

“In our age we have come to underestimate architecture by exaggerating its utility. We often think of buildings not as spaces where human life takes shape, but rather as sites for certain functions and activities,” notes Hisham Matar, the American-born British-Libyan writer.

“Siena [for example] resists this,” he says.

Matar’s memoir, A Month in Siena, recognizes that the great public plazas and markets of the past excelled in their ability to make one feel part of a larger living body, even if one ambled along, alone, in a crowd. He narrates the unalloyed experience that Siena's world famous town center, the Piazza del Campo, has on those that grace its grounds.

“No matter where we were in the square, we were able to see the entire place. Not one person was hidden. This strange effect was made possible by Il Campo's unusual fanning shape and by the way the ground dips dramatically toward the long side where the civic and secular heart of the city, the Palazzo Pubblico, raises its tower high to compensate for the hill and achieve its ultimate goal, which is to be the tallest building in the city, taller than any church.

“It was as if l had become, by simply walking into the square, an all seeing eye. But, because I could see every person in the square, this meant that each of them could potentially see me too. It was a space of mutual exposure. Whatever it is that creates that elusive bond between strangers taking account of one another in a public space was present here but in such a crisscrossing of currents that the whole place seemed electrified. And so, although we had entered a recess, a sort of giant pit, Il Campo also appeared, like a lit-up stage, to be suspended. To cross it is to take part in a centuries-old choreography, one meant to remind all solitary beings that it was neither good nor possible to exist entirely alone." 

Smart technology can often remove us from the experience of communal place (Photo by Unsplash).

The passage depicts the transformative power of attention to place. So what happens when we allow smart technology, by design, to siphon away our attention to place, and rob public spaces of that potential bond between strangers?

Part II - The Tyranny of Commercial Utility

At the heart of this pressing debate between smart technology and embodied design, lies a far more consequential point. Beyond the loss of irreplaceable social bonds, the ubiquitous push of mass communication technologies into our collective spaces betrays a lack of appreciation for the benefits that accrue from attending to our physical surroundings while in the company of others.

Furthermore, what hasn’t yet been recognized by either camp is a tectonic shift in understanding being ushered in by the biological sciences. Studies in cognitive neuroscience and neurobiology suggest that we may need to develop a new architectural theory; one that no longer treats occupants and their environments as variables that exist independently of each other.

Architectural scholar and author Sarah Robinson points out that when it comes to architectural design, “our technology has outpaced our epistemology. We are applying new materials and technologies with outmoded ways of thinking. Until we come to terms with our utter interdependence with our environment and with each other, our technological solutions will only be half-measures.”

Foreshadowing Hisham Matar, she notes that commercial design’s economic imperative is predicated on utility and expediency, overshadowing architecture’s traditional mission as demiurge or artisan; a protean force capable of infusing materials and spatial relationships with a lasting sense of place wherein people experience palpable atmospheres as a meaningful extension of mind and body, as well as an embodiment of their culture. Further, purely utilitarian space lacks the distinctive roots born of the particular history, geography and cultural aesthetic of its location. Utilitarian spaces driven by smart technology reduce people and spaces to data points and wireless transactions: the public plaza for the 21st Century. Yet, something huge is lost: lacking a shared social experience, such spaces become sterile, less equitable, and devoid of meaning. As others have begun to notice, these spaces no longer make any contribution to life and culture. Notable observers worry that the trend might be irreversible.

In this light, perfunctory, function-based buildings tend to lack the artistry and craftsmanship that provide its occupants with a meaningful experience of place. And architecture must (according to leading scholars in architectural theory and neuroscience) generate a meaningful experience of place in order to command the emotional, cognitive, and social allegiance of its occupants. Buildings imbued with such a sense of place are infused with the aspirations of its populace. Those buildings call to us and fulfill architecture's deeper function as embodied extensions of ourselves.

What are we to make of prototypical commercial interiors that stand out for their transactional and impersonal design, optimized for transient occupancy and exposure only to new technology?

“When things are organized in a coherent and integrated way you get these emergent properties so the whole is better [greater] than the sum of its parts,” noted the late Stephen Kellert, biophilic design scholar and a consummate advocate of a holistic approach to design. Kellert thought that the checklist approach to construction best exemplified by our predominant building standards often betrays a fragmented approach. He would insist that “good design has an atomic quality.”

This line of thinking appears to be supported by neuroscientists like Dr. Luis Pessoa, Director of the Maryland Neuroimaging Center at the University of Maryland, who notes that “parceling the brain into cognition and affective regions is inherently problematic and ultimately untenable.” § Like Robinson, other scholars and researchers agree that the way we integrate sensory stimuli and generate our perception of the world reveals that our fragmented approach to design is in need of a holistic theory of knowledge; one that shows the underlying unity beneath apparently separate components.

Academic thought may lead the charge, challenging us to think about architecture in a more elemental way. For example, Finnish Professor Keijo Petäjä defines architecture “as a materialized expression of mental space.” This materialization is mediated by the senses and our sensory processing systems that generate distilled perceptions. These, in turn, give rise to memories laden with emotional valence. And these memories of experienced spaces are what resonate with new sensory stimuli and generate an environment’s familiar sense of place.

Conversely, Petäjä also asserts that “our mental space itself is structured by architecture,” an argument that has found a remarkable body of evidence that confirms how our surroundings impact our health and performance. According to Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental consultancy based in New York City, employees with views of trees and landscapes take 15% less sick leave (59 hours/year) in comparison to employees with no views to nature (68 hours/year).§ Additional studies have established that a child’s immune system becomes more robust (as noted by lower asthma prevalence) when exposed to more foliage and trees whereas their inner city counterparts—residing in high density urban areas devoid of green spaces—develop weaker immune systems. §

Another renowned architectural scholar Juhani Pallasmaa argues that “this inter-penetration between the world and physical space, on the one hand, and the self and mental space, on the other…has made the artistic and architectural phenomena unattainable for the empirical scientific approach; the artistic meaning exists fundamentally in the experience.” And experience of place, like cognitive perception, is much more than the sum of its parts.

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, invites visitors to linger (Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe).

This perspective is echoed by Harry Francis Mallgrave, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Advisory Council member of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), who notes that niche construction, a realm in biological theory, postulates that “just as we alter our physical and cultural environments, so do these changed environments alter the genetic structures and behavioral patterns of who we are. Our brains, bodies, and environments are no longer seen as entities to be independently investigated, but as highly dynamic and interacting systems connected with each other biologically, ecologically, and socially.” §

The atmosphere we absorb and catalyze from our multisensory experience of interior design then, can now be understood, in light of the neurobiological feedback between occupant and the environment. Our pre-cognitive assessment of any environment is the result of an embodied appreciation that is part and parcel of personal rumination. We need room to explore, assess, and feel the space around us. Our biology is also hardwired to model the affordances or action potentials of a given space. Affordances, as defined by perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson, in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, refers to the advantages or disadvantages that a given environment offers the occupant; essentially what the environment provides either for good or ill.

In this light, our brain simulates the advantages or disadvantages related to what our body can do in a given environment: Is that leather sofa comfortable for two? Can I manage that steep and narrow spiral staircase? Is the balcony safe despite the buffeting rain? Our brain simulates what the body could do based on such “affordances.” However, the body’s sensory exploration and attunement to new spaces appears to be short-circuited by smart technology’s task-oriented prerogatives that seize our attention with perennial prompts and neurologically taxing feedback.

How does smart technology impact the atmosphere of a place? Unfortunately, more often than not, smart tech’s unintended effect is that it superimposes its own atmosphere: multi-directional, extemporaneous interference at any time, from any place.

Consider any public space with a Wi-Fi connection. There is no atmosphere of place or social interaction. There are isolated “users” dotting the space “connected” through headphones and mobiles to their own virtual realms. As for the space itself, lacking the contextual cues necessary to generate a communal sense of space, smart design appears to foster just the opposite. It mediates behavior that disengages people from the moment and their surroundings, smart design’s hyper interconnectivity countermands what good environments do, which is to strengthen social bonds around a shared experience.

Places that favor observing others interact boosts emotional balance (uncredited photo, Unsplash).

Furthermore, as both experience and new research confirms, we need room to think and space to breathe; these are features that facilitate higher thinking and emotional balance. And such faculties blossom where high-tech is generally not present—in wild, undisturbed nature. If our most memorable experiences are of spaces where our social bonds are strengthened and enriched through vivid connections to nature, then smart technology’s very objectives would appear to be poorly aligned with architecture’s traditional role as the galvanizing force that shapes and molds our collective experience into a meaningful and lasting sense of place.

Rather than embrace the technological imperative to supply more content to wired users, perhaps exploring the inherent, embodied disposition––how we feel, project ourselves, and respond to others––within the architectural context of a shared experience, would yield more meaningful and restorative environments.

Part III - Neuroaesthetics: Responsive Design for Optimal Wellness

Neuroaesthetics is an emerging field that explores the neural basis for the experiential contemplation and creation of works of art. This sub-field also delves into the mechanics of cognitive psychology that emerge from the sensory cues and patterns that we find intrinsically beautiful and that enhance well-being. Hence, there’s also keen interest in applying the emerging knowledge of Neuroaesthetics to architectural design.

Looking at healthcare design, for example, a much more artful and multisensory approach to architectural design is currently taking place. Waiting rooms have begun to move away from blaring televisions that add cacophony to such busy shared spaces. Instead, many redesigned waiting rooms introduce sensory stimuli like ambient background music, elegant nature imagery, arboretums and gallery-quality aquariums to generate a peaceful atmosphere where looking and listening are encouraged.

Further, environments that encourage reaching out through eye contact or verbal exchange acknowledge the personal, as well as institutional use of the space, thereby imputing value and leading to recognition of each person’s presence. With tacit visual acknowledgment of other occupants, a spontaneous remark might not be far behind and even a brief acquaintance. Getting to know someone facilitates shared experience.

Good design makes visitors feel integrated (individually and with their environment), which, (in turn), leads to reduced levels of anxiety and distress. Further, when people break out of their self-absorption, share experiences, and become familiar with one another: time flies.

There’s a reason for this subjective distortion of time. Fascinating research indicates that we measure the passage of time in terms of the space around our body. It is also the case that space-time interactions in human vision are asymmetrical. Spatial cognition has a larger effect on temporal cognition than the other way around. §

These mechanics reveal that physically compressed environments devoid of meaningful social connections or life-affirming sensory stimuli lead to distress and boredom. These dynamics not only explain why waiting in a space filled with self-absorbed strangers is rather unpleasant, but also why some elevator trips, though usually (brief) transitory spaces, can feel excruciatingly long and unpleasant.

On the other hand, time flies in environments with emotional richness. Biophilic environments resonate with our physiology because they tap our memories and experiences of places that support life and social ties, as well as prime us to welcome harmonious life-like patterns and sensory-rich experiences that facilitate social bonding. As we continue to map out how our pre-cognitive response to the built environment impacts our emotional and cognitive demeanor, we can expect to gain a deeper appreciation of the essential elements that contribute to a wholesome architectural experience.

In time, as more architects and designers understand and account for the interconnected and porous nature of body, mind, and environment, new ideas should lead to more meaningful spaces in the dense environments of our ever-growing cities. Identifying these pre-cognitive spatial cues and somatosensory attributes, and their importance to architecture, is certainly an important objective of biophilic design. The adherents of smart technology in buildings might wish to evaluate the social cost of saturating architectural spaces with ubiquitous smart technology in response to a learned expectation of personal convenience. Rather than simply fulfill a function like providing streaming data or televised content to entertain occupants regardless of location within the building, a more grounding approach might ensure that smart interventions reinforce a shared sense of place among diverse populations; for example, between service providers and customers, caretakers and residents, support professionals and patients.

In deep plan buildings, isolated interiors usually lack visual richness and prospect, two of the most salient and therapeutic characteristics of biophilic design. Such compressed areas, predominant in both older and new commercial buildings, illustrate this point well. Spaces like waiting rooms, healthcare environments, and varied commercial interiors generally lack the biophilic sensory stimuli that will successfully engage occupant attention and foster open alertness. As a result, people resort to mobile devices or other distractions to stave off boredom. The result is a stressful atmosphere, subjectively longer wait times, boredom and stressed occupants attempting to extend their private, inner worlds through technology.

On the one hand, smart technology has created an expectation of uninterrupted service, allowing people to be in touch with their work or their loved ones at a moment’s notice.

On the other hand, studies confirm that few situations in public are as jarring as having to listen to what behavioral researchers call halfalogue (exposure to half of someone’s mobile conversation). Our brains are designed to hone in, decipher and process information, which we do by predicting what comes next. This is easy to do when we’re exposed to both sides of a conversation, or a coherent monologue.

However, studies show that exposure to only one side of a conversation, hampers the brain’s ability to predict its direction. Furthermore, in limited shared spaces, our attention cannot disengage from the auditory stimuli. This public display of someone’s personal life makes it difficult to tune out the conversation and redirect our focus to something else. A prolonged situation of this sort creates distress and taxes emotional balance much like the blaring television.

Furthermore, even when we simply facilitate the use of mobiles devices in shared environments, we’re basically negating one of the few remaining virtues of public spaces: the shared experience. If we permit smart technology uninterrupted access to the most common public spaces, we risk not only encouraging the same self-isolating behavior that numerous studies on heavy mobile usage link to a higher risk of individual depression but also exacerbating an already worrisome social phenomenon.

On this point, it is notable that clinical depression, a condition the World Health Organization has called a 21st century epidemic, is endemic to developed economies: those with the highest rates of urbanization and ubiquitous mobile voice and data coverage. In cities, the waiting room, the transit area, and similar transactional spaces are the last bastion of daily interpersonal acknowledgment between people. In this light, should our architectural spaces encourage acknowledging others in shared spaces? If smart technology and expediency trumps social opportunity in the public plaza, then is the memorable experience offered by Piazza del Campo a relic of historic architecture? As more studies attest that excessive mobile usage favors antisocial and unhealthy isolation, particularly among younger users, maybe encouraging us to lift our eyes in the few public spaces where we happen to coincide for picking up groceries, stopping by for coffee, or waiting for an appointment, is good, human-centric design. Yet, some may still argue that personal convenience demands 24/7 connectivity.

If so, is there a cost to the social fabric? Before the onset of COVID-19 and social distancing, think of a crowd in any public place. For the most part, few people, if any, proffered a smile or a friendly side glance. And if we don’t observe each other anymore, or do so with less frequency, will places soon lose their ability to draw us together? Can human-centric design mitigate the palpable social distancing in transactional spaces that many witnessed before the current pandemic set in?

Consider one example of how design can alter pre-conscious behavior. Rather than opt to distract attention with televisions or magazines, introducing an architecturally relevant biophilic illusion of nature (a bi-sensory virtual skylight) can dramatically redefine the experience of the space by resetting the perceived zenith––the highest point directly above the observer (or above the space of the room). Such suitable spatial illusions enable designers to enliven the occupant’s embodied memories of past experiences of perceived open space and provide a meaningful measure of shared, ambient relaxation.

Bi-sensory illusions, a subset of optical illusions that include both visual and spatial cues tailored to the interior envelope, employ a cognitive design framework that directs photographic capture, composition, and installation. This framework is designed to facilitate the subconscious movement of the eye through the composition, thereby connecting the observer to the much larger spatial map of their present surroundings.

A neuro-aesthetic approach has been developed explicitly to include both contextual and structural cues that mirror experienced points of view (POV) such as laying with our head at the base of a tree and looking up into the sky. This POV triggers our memory’s embedded spatial reference frames. These spatial maps, born of our long exposure to the sky, inform our memories of deeply familiar environments and spatial relationships.

Jennifer Groh, Professor at the Department of Neurobiology, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, notes in her book, Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are, that not only is memory an integral part of creating a sense of place, but space, in turn, serves as a kind of filing system for storing and accessing memories. She also emphasizes that the brain’s memory-space connection relies on shared neural infrastructure. § Therefore, we can use memories to imbue spaces with shared experiences simply by the correct structuring of spatial relationships. In enclosed interiors, this has been found to be therapeutic and restorative.

Evidence indicates that bi-sensory illusions, those that embed both visual and spatial cues in the proper architectural context, engage the areas of the brain involved in spatial cognition. These biophilic simulations evoke a tangible and therapeutic psycho-physiological effect––the autonomic relaxation response––because the hippocampal region has a profound sensitivity to one’s own spatial location in relation to past memories formed under similar sensory stimuli. And the sky, as our most universal experience of nature, illustrates how designers can trigger pre-cognitive cues in a way that enlivens our emotional disposition to a given space, enabling occupants to experience a shared atmosphere.

A visual connection to the sky stands as one of the most meaningful sights for humankind. Witnessing the same vantage point in the presence of others, just like when we watch the sun setting among strangers, creates an unspoken recognition of an event much larger than ourselves; one that invariably gives solace to those quietly attuned.

It is also possible to create illusory skies that incorporate movement (using Digital Cinema footage). However, photographic, bi-sensory illusions are quite effective in engaging areas of the brain involved in spatial cognition and depth perception. § Their ability to engage peripheral vision, which encompasses 95% of our visual field, accounts for their efficacy as the installation remains in the scope of the occupant’s awareness, regardless of their intra-room movement, readily informing and re-informing the autonomic nervous system of the presence of overhead sky.

A bi-sensory virtual skylight above an underground waiting room in Paris, France (Photo Sky Factory).

Other brain areas related to spatial mapping are also involved in locating the body within an environmental field. The success behind bi-sensory illusions may also be due to their ability to mirror the spatial cues that trigger the Parahippocampal Place Area (PPA), which is known to be active in the spatial perception of outdoor scenes of nature and landmarks, and has been found to engage even with computer-generated schematics of room renditions. § Further research in this area could help confirm this thesis.

Neuroscience studies have also identified a second area, known as the Retrospenial Cortex (RSC), which adjoins the nearby posterior cingulate cortex and seems to work with the PPA in a complementary fashion. § Russell Epstein, a neuroscientist, has noted that the RSC “supports mechanisms that enable one to orient oneself within the broader spatial environment and to direct one’s movement towards navigational targets that are not currently visible.” § Architectural scholar Harry F. Mallgrave remarks that these brain areas “seem to enhance our navigation through familiar environments by drawing upon spatial memories.” §

These neurological insights might also explain why some people enjoy deliberately walking through familiar environments in complete darkness. According to first-person accounts, such navigation generates a distinct experience of the spatial environment that is far deeper and richer than would be experienced if light were present. Such an ancient human experience, navigating in darkness, and the unique pleasure it affords to negotiate the unseen, can now, quite possibly, be understood clearly as an interior––mental and emotional––extension of self onto three-dimensional space.

In conclusion, the use of biophilic illusions of nature in isolated interiors offers a more sophisticated understanding of cognitive perception and the smart deployment of visual technology other than flooding architectural spaces with streaming data or discordant visual information. Science-driven, human-centric design in architecture should examine the effects of the rising trend in smart building design as it relates to human behavior and social opportunity, not just resource allocation, mechanical efficiencies, and data intelligence management.

Along with the formidable advances in AI as they relate to the future of smart buildings, a more nuanced view of intelligence acknowledges that for all its processing prowess, humane intelligence does not reside in our disembodied mental faculties. Human intelligence lives and breathes in our innate and embodied ability to introject (to simultaneously internalize reality and project the self into space) in life-affirming environments. In reciprocal fashion, we seem to introject from our surroundings – worlds full of potential and life-affirming possibility.

Embodied architecture cradles and nurtures multiple social bonds that lead to a richer and more humane existence where even a chance moment of serendipity (or unspoken solace) with fellow denizens, holds enough meaning of place to form a memory.

“Few people realize what an astonishing achievement it is to be able to see,” noted British biologist and neuroscientist Francis H. C. Crick. “The main contribution of artificial intelligence has been not so much to solve these problems of information handling as to show what tremendously difficult problems they are. § “When one reflects on the number of computations that must have to be carried out before one can recognize even such an everyday scene as another person crossing the street, one is left with a feeling of amazement that such an extraordinary series of detailed operations can be accomplished so effortlessly in such a short space of time.” §

Unlike the hailed Smart Cities proposed by tech giants like Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, and more, a more humane future may rest on how well we understand and honor the delicate wiring of our own mental, emotional, and physical architecture. Perhaps rather than double down on a relentless race to embed our collective architecture in pervasive smart technology, we should take time to appraise our surroundings, and those around us, more often.

Smart technology will undoubtedly remain a powerful communications tool, as well as a poor substitute for meeting each other in person in a shared space. Looking beyond the next few years of likely social distancing, the question remains: will the pandemic reinforce smart technology’s penchant for isolation? Or will we pour out into the public plazas and town squares to participate, like Hisham Matar did, in Il Campo, in the centuries-old choreography of walking among strangers, holding our gaze steady as the memories of our common humanity flash before our eyes? For a more detailed discussion about this topic, please see Architecture and Empathy, a Tapio Wirkkala – Rut Bryk Design Reader, available from the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture.

 

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