Alexandra Lange | Essays

Science Gets Around to Architecture

Larkin Administration Building
Frank Lloyd Wright, Larkin Administration Building, Buffalo, 1906.

Jonah Lehrer's April 30 "Head Case" column in the Wall Street Journal, "Building a Thinking Room," is the kind of mainstream reporting on architectural matters that always makes my blood boil.
For thousands of years, people have talked about architecture in terms of aesthetics. Whether discussing the symmetry of the Parthenon or the cladding on the latest Manhattan skyscraper, they focus first on how the buildings look, on their particular surfaces and style.
If this were a student paper, I would circle that people. Which people? In which decade, much less century? All people until you, Jonah Lehrer, decided it was worthy of your interest? The substance of the article is new research by scientists that show that "architecture and design can influence our moods, thoughts and health." To which anyone involved for the past thousands of years in architecture and design can only respond, No duh. Nice of science to finally catch up.

Among the shocking new revelations: A low-ceilinged space with loud air conditioners is a more stressful work environment than a recently renovated one. Blue rooms aid creative thinking. Lehrer writes:
Although we're only starting to grasp how the insides of buildings influence the insides of the mind, it's possible to begin prescribing different kinds of spaces for different tasks. If we're performing a job that requires accuracy and focus (say, copy editing a manuscript), we should seek out confined spaces with a red color scheme. But for tasks that require a little bit of creativity, we seem to benefit from high ceilings, lots of windows and bright blue walls that match the sky.
My outrage stems from the notion that this is news, or that only now, when scientists have found it to be true, can architectural knowledge be used to make the world a better, happier and more productive place. This attitude privileges scientific knowledge over visual thinking, a common and largely unexamined prejudice. Why are those smarts more applicable, more mainstream than ours? Why do we need science to codify what architects have practiced for centuries? It is not as if daylighting happened yesterday.

I haven't been so annoyed since Lehrer's last foray into design, the rudely titled New York Times Magazine article, "A Physicist Solves the City." Are we supposed to thank him?

Posted in: Architecture, Ideas, Science

Comments [5]

I will tell you why those smarts are more applicable than yours (or mine, for that matter). You see, as humans we are bound by our own cognitive biases. A great many things seem like good common sense, but turn out to be completely silly. Like the idea that the sun and moon orbit the earth. It sure looks like they do from here.

The duty of science is to put absolutely every conjecture to the test. And just because you and I work in the field of design and are quite comfortable with our understanding of its psychological underpinnings does not mean that we truly understand them as well as we think we do. Before the earth was proven to orbit the sun, there were a great many 'scholars' who were quite confident in their terra-centric cosmologies, which seemed totally cohesive to them. Before the advent of medern medicine, doctors were quite sure that bleeding a sick man was a great was to cure him.

Yes, I assume that many of the conclusions that we designers have drawn from the organic practice of or craft will turn out to be valid. And it will seem like a 'well duh' moment when those ideas are vindicated scientifically. But science should still investigate those things to make sure we aren't all selling snake-oil.

The founders of modern design, take Gropius for example, gave us some marvelous innovations over what came before. But his ideas were expresive of a philosophy, really a hypothesis, about architecture. But have you really never though that a scientific examination might show that Bauhaus buildings are less than totally comfortable for real human habitation?

Alexandra, I totally agree with you. Very annoying indeed. And arrogant, and stupid. But don't allow him to let your blood boil. That would be a waste of energy.
Yolanthe Smit

The notion of creative thinking benefiting from high ceilings evoked remembrance of an observation (Lou Kahn's?) about the effectiveness of spatial types – "You can't think big thoughts in small spaces."

Perhaps "science" is simply the recitation of experience?
Jim Meredith

Seems like we are living in a world where nothing is valued and given credit until explained and documented in a "scientific" way, which, to me, represent no higher truth than bare observation by talented people.
Marcos Sandrini

I'm no expert on architecture, nor even science, so I'll stretch the definitions of both just a bit to assert that science has been probing into such matters for at least a century. While I'm ignorant of the details - but perhaps less so than Jonah Lehrer - I believe Taylor's studies of workplace efficiency contained in their fringes some acknowledgement about the amount of light (maybe even specifically natural light?) affecting productivity. Or was it the Gilbreths' somewhat later work?
daniel erwin

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