This Is Your Brain on Architecture
In her new book, Sarah Williams Goldhagen presents scientific evidence for why some buildings delight us and others—too many of them—disappoint.
CityLab, July 14, 2017
Sarah Williams Goldhagen was the architecture critic for The New Republic for many years, a role she combined with teaching at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and elsewhere. She is an expert on the work of Louis Kahn, one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, known for the weighty, mystical Modernism of buildings like the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and the Bangladeshi parliament in Dhaka.
Several years ago, Goldhagen became interested in new research on how our brains register the environments around us. Dipping into writing from several fields—psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and neuroscience—she learned that a new paradigm for how we live and think in the world was starting to emerge, called “embodied cognition.”
“This paradigm,” she writes in her magisterial new book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, “holds that much of what and how people think is a function of our living in the kinds of bodies we do.” Not just conscious thoughts, but non-conscious impressions, feedback from our senses, physical movement, and even split-second mental simulations of that movement shape how we respond to a place, Goldhagen argues. And in turn, the place nudges us to think or behave in certain ways.
The research led Goldhagen to science-based answers for previously metaphysical questions, such as: why do some places charm us and others leave us cold? Do we think and act differently depending on the building or room we’re in? (Spoiler: yes, we do.)