Design and the Human Mind
Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics speaks with brothers Dominic and Chris Leong of the architecture firm Leong Leong about the intersection of science, design, and the human mind.
Dr. Anjan Chatterjee: I have been interested in the biology of aesthetics and neuroaesthetics itself at a very young field. A few months ago, I started a new center at Penn called the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. It’s the first research center of its kind in the country and possibly the world. Although there’s a place in Frankfurt that’s a little bit similar.
We’re interested in how aesthetic experiences cash out in the brain, what effects it has on people. Broadly, we think about the visual system as organized around people, places, and things. We’re interested in this aesthetic engagement with any of those. We’re doing work on how facial beauty and facial anomalies affects people’s interactions. With things where it could be consumer products we focus on art: what does it mean to be engaged with art? Why do people care about art? You can’t eat it or have sex with it, but here we are.
Everything here is in its early days. With architecture, we started to do some work and then one practical thing that’s just happening—even as this is going on— is with an architectural firm in Philadelphia, Ewing Cole. We are in the process of designing a memory care residential unit from the ground up. It’s an empty lot, a blank slate.
I make this clear to everyone when I talk to you guys (Leong) and them (firm) is that I’m not an architect nor an engineer, but I do know a fair amount about how the brain works and how the environment has an influence on us. I invited this architectural firm to come to one of my lab meetings. We tried to carve out the space of how the neuroscientists would think about it and some of that matches with people’s disciplinary backgrounds, some of it may not. We’re thinking of the same conceptual space in a different way.
Dominic Leong: We’ve actually been thinking about aesthetics in a different point. We’re brothers and started this architecture firm in 2009. We’ve been working on a range of types of projects. I think our current way to understand what we’re doing is trying to figure out what role architecture plays in the relationship of the evolution of space in the phase of rapid technological and maybe even ecological transformations. We were thinking a lot about what that means from a social point of view as it relates to space. We bring that loose curiosity to all the projects we do, what’s the relationship between online and offline and shifting between those types of spaces. Or, if we work for nonprofits like Los Angeles LGBT Center, what’s the nature of collectivity for a historically marginalized community? What does it mean to make space for that community specifically and what is that protection we could create like civic voice. How the architecture now only experienced from the inside by the users and the business also from the point of view of someone moving through the city and how it relates to a larger social infrastructure.
We were doing kind of more cultural art, we can call it art-based based experiential projects. We just designed an immersive float tank. It wasn’t a total sensory deprivation, but it was for meditation and tapping into that whole history; loosely investigating consciousness and what kind of senses and the need to explore that. So, I think there’s definitely some interesting things there involving neuroscience.
Chris Leong: Tangentially, through the architecture, we saw a breakthrough. The brain has come about. We have an ongoing interest in meditation and the ways in which our brain is coded. I feel like people are talking about it definitely as an area of individual interest and coming into the architectural work in other ways.
Dr. AC: The evolution piece is of interest. Sometimes when I talk about this, I talk about how we’re in such a fast accelerated change of our environment and our brains are still stuck in a place of the scene. And so how do you reconcile that, right? There is a way in which I think unless you take that seriously, it’s a kind of alienation that can come about. So, how do you both address or grasp change and recognize the limits of our brains, we have old fashioned brains.
DL: Yes, we have this diagram that we normally show which is the complexity and time, we then have human evolution which is the slowest and then architecture, that evolves slightly faster than humans but then there’s technology, which is the exponential rate of Moore’s Law.
Dr. AC: And so that gap is huge.
DL: We identified why everyone was interested in self care, wellness and meditation because we’re trying to reconcile our kind of primitive brain. It’s a kind of hyper complexity.
CL: I think it’s interesting too, because from a spatial point of view, we also think a lot about ideas of what primitive spaces are like and what spaces might have been familiar to humans for a long period of time. That’s kind of an ongoing interest, what were the most most basic things. We take note of what the human evolution has been, how we gather as humans, what makes us social, how that’s a fundamental component of what organizes us into thinking about those things and where we are relative to all the technology. I think it’s a really interesting moment.
Dr. AC: We’ve been thinking of our surroundings in a way as another tool and sort of question: how do you use your environment to enhance human flourishing and of which, you know, architectural interiors are huge. I mean, people spend, as you know, better than I, 90% of their time indoors of some kind, at least in our culture over here.How do we make use of the space in a way, it becomes contextual, because flourishing for whom and under what context, right? The criteria for a house or museum, or a memory care unit that I’m working on has greatly different parameters. And in the memory unit it really sort of sharpens the mind to think that if someone has a short term memory problem, they can’t remember for five minutes. What can the environment do to help them in a way that’s not anxiety provoking? You know, so those kinds of questions.
CL: What kind of ideas have been come up relative to that?
Dr. AC: The way we did this in my lab meeting is kind to take a step back. We have a kind of general model of aesthetic experiences that has to do with sort of the design of our sensory motor systems, a catalog of emotions that people experience. Those things tend to be fairly common across people, right? We all have the same hardware for that sort of thing.
The trivial example I give just to get people to understand this is that you can look at a sunset and none of the infrared spectrum of light is going to do anything for you, we just don’t have receptors for that. That has a kind of a model to say “look, there are certain constraints of just built into our biology.” With emotions—barring any kinds of particularly anomalous development—we all experience joy, anger, fear; those sort of core things are pretty similar.
What varies is the third part of the triad is that we talked about semantics and meaning, that is where all the individual differences comes in. It is in space and time: if you live 200 years ago, or 200 years from now, it’s going to be very different; if you live in Asia, or you live in Africa, it’s very different. Also, our personal experiences and our education plays a huge role in that.
Again, going to this question of how do we reconcile old brains and new environments? I think the old brain stuff you have to respect sort of the sensory motor and our emotional makeup, but the other experiential things is where some people who are digital natives are going to be very different than some of my age. They are comfortable with technology.
But technology can be helpful in very targeted ways. One thing that we found from my clinical practice is people with early Alzheimer’s disease ask the same question over and over, right? They want to know “What day is it today?” Or “Where are we?” It drives caregivers crazy. I mean, how many times are you going to answer that in half hour?
What some people are finding is that Alexa is the most patient creature in the world and will answer those kinds of informational questions. So you can just stick your thoughts in there. The person can ask Alexa 50 times in 15 minutes and the patients or the person is getting the information, which is reassuring and the caregiver isn’t getting wigged out because it’s really frustrating to deal with that. That’s a targeted way in which technology, even in this population can end up being helpful. Going back to what we did; we tried to carve out the space like how a neuroscientist might. We started with every sensor modality—vision, touch, and smells.
What are we interested in vision, when it’s light vs. color or luminous? What’s the sound structure of the space and how does that contribute to things? What are the textures around that people are going to be touching? What are the smells? Taking each of these systems and trying to think of how a design might work if you pay an equal attention to all of those.
One thing we’re thinking about are interior landscaped gardens where those doors are always open. For anybody that wants to wander, they can wander all day. All the paths if it’s landscaped right feels like you’re meandering. You always end up in the same entrances.
Now, the idea was they can walk all day, nobody’s restraining them. You know, they get some exercise and if they get tired, their appetite and sleep will be better. We try to think through the population’s the typical problems. How can it be carved out, and then picking a certain emotional state that many of these people have. Those range from apathy into aggression, depression, anxiety. How do we try to help with those?
This thing about individual differences, even in that population, when you have a somewhat public space is what do you do in the large living room or dining rooms? By nature, some people are extroverted and seek out stimulation of any kind. They like parties, whereas other people tend to be introverted. They (introverts) want to chill out, that becomes overwhelming for them. Can we make the space in such a way public spaces are part stimulating and part soothing?
People can self segregate. You don’t tell them where to go, that’s something that I would be interested in. We’re hoping once this unit is constructed—which will probably take a couple of years—we will do research there and to try to track where people moving, or get some early personality inventory system.
This is a simple question if people are on the scale of introversion and extraversion, where they are and if they spend more time in different spaces—those are other questions that you could ask.
Again, all of these ideas, are a very specific lens in a population. But, the general questions apply if you’re saying you’re going to build a school, what’s the function of the school? How do you deal with different kinds of students and their learning styles? How does the space help you? Whether it’s museums or hospitals too. I mean, hospitals are horrible places, right?
People who come—for the most part—are anxious and scared. They end up in these places that smell terribly, right? Everybody knows what the hospital smell is. And more often than not, they can be extremely disorienting. We did a study on spatial navigation using our hospital corridors, it was the perfect set up because nobody can find anything.
The general point being trying to think through of the person and what are they trying to do in a specific space and how can the space be used as a tool to let people do this to the best of their ability?
CL: It sparks a number of thoughts. One of them is that I’ve recently learned that a lot of the inventions technologic or likewise for people with disabilities has resulted in innovations for the general population that it serves. This idea of working with individuals and their hypersensitivity to a number of different stimuli, one of them being an environment, can result in a lot of criteria for how to design spaces for everyone.
That’s pretty fascinating because I’m also thinking about the way we’re talking about these experiences with these individuals. It maps on to a lot of the ways we think about someone we’re designing for, like the LGBT Center. There’s a lot of similar issues that have certain clients or youth clients that might be even in a kind of hyper activated as they’re coming off the street. How do you create an environment that’s common and soothing or open but still secure? In a way where there are a lot of potential contradictions that have to exist within the same space.
One thing we actually kind of explored was courtyards in nature. So, this was an instrument that becomes an ingredient to add. The nature aspect is fascinating because something that’s un-designed to a certain degree or supposed to feel that way. More or less, can wander around and you can experience that. It’s like infinity in an environment that’s not.
Dr. Chatterjee: And you don’t want it to be like a manicured French garden, right? That’s not the vibe for this particular thing. You want it to be a slightly unruly park in which people can discover spaces.
CL: Yes. And I’m curious, in the presentation of your research, you identified these different types of spaces and then tried to get feedback and people’s reaction to it, which was interesting. I think the whole idea of a cultural overlay also might influence what’s comfortable, what’s good here, and what’s not. Does that translate to natural landscapes?
Dr. Chatterjee: That particular study, there is a video I will briefly talk about. We started this a few years ago and one of the things about doing brain imaging studies is there are certain constraints. The most important one to know is that you’re looking at two dimensional images of spaces and you’re not actually going into this space, that might change over time. There’s a lot of work on how can you actually collect neural data in the wild, but my guess is the next five years that will get sorted out.
But right now, there are a lot of technical issues around that. Here’s this constraint where people are looking at images and we use some architects from Denmark to help select these images and we varied them on three criteria: are the ceilings high or low, are the interior is more Rector linear, Curve linear, and are they open or closed? And by open, all we mean is you can see past the room. So rather than a cave, the sector has some kind of opening and you can see beyond it.
And so we had 200 images, all varying on these dimensions and the and early study we did was what’s the response to the beauty of architectural spaces? It showed a particular part of the brain that seems to respond to beautiful faces and other kinds of beauty. For humans, there is a common core of pleasure, regardless of the domain that people get when they have a beauty response to it.
And those same areas, there’s overlap between that and from the simplest thing. For example, if you give a rat sugar water, the same primitive reward responses are conserved. What’s different for humans is that it’s not just confined to that, there’s some more distributed kind of representation in the brain.
It’s all going to back to this evolution, building on the same reward systems. It’s just layers of complexity, but at the core ends up being the same sort of thing.
We have done this before. In this case, we called the literature for the kinds of questions people have asked about responses either to natural landscapes or to interiors and came up with something. It seemed to be about 16 core dimensions that people have queried in general.
We queried 800 people online for their responses to each of these images. And then use a couple of analytic techniques, one being a principle components analysis, which says how closely are their responses correlated and can they be reduced to a certain amount? Another analytic technique called Semantic Network Analysis, which allows you to specialize the different things.
In both methods, we end up arriving at three large domains of response that are relatively independent of each other. We’ve labeled those coherence, how coherent does the space feel, how organized is it, fascination, which is, is there, you feel like you want to explore? Do you want to get in there and and a homeyness one. Does it feel like you belong?
It turns out that those you can have one or the other and not the third. They really seem to very independently of each other. We went back then to this original imaging, done in Tenerife, Spain. All of these more recent data we have collected in the US, but we have these people looking at the exact same images we had and went back to re-analyze their data.
For us, it ended up being almost like a double blind study. At the time the data were collected, we didn’t know about these three components. We hadn’t discovered them yet nor did the people in the scanner know anything about it. When it turned out, if you model their data based on this, you find that in visual cortex, there are segregated responses to these three parameters, which gives us some confidence that there is something core. Not to say this is comprehensive, there might be others, but these three felt they’re really core responses to any kind of architectural interior.
Going back to the question, the one that doesn’t show up in any natural landscape studies is homeyness. The other two, the degree of coherence, the exploration, the fascination, those showed up. There seems to be something about the artificially built environment where, to everyone, the homeyness seems important.
DL: It’s certainly sure fascinating because I think when we think about even the evolution of our design practice, those three key terms also resonate. One of the things we always think about when we’re designing spaces is the familiarity. There’s an idea of like building upon these reference points and also something foreign. If there’s no kind of curiosity, well, we’re just replicating something.
And then this idea which I think emerged more and maybe even harder to put your your finger on which is comfort and I associate it with tactility. It’s one of the most sensorial components because it’s really tied back to our own early childhood development. So, those are actually and the more we kind of design things. And even at our own kind of judgment or evaluation, is it, oh there’s too many things going on?” There’s no coherence. It’s not, it’s that it’s kind boring and time mix it up. I think it’s really fascinating that these things map directly onto your studies.
CL: It’s also perhaps the exceptions in nature and being around the sublime, the experience of the sublime. There are certain architectures that evoke the sublime and that seems to be because they have an experience that is only on par unless we have a natural phenomena. If you can go onto this vastness, anything beyond human scale, It almost feels like we have a natural experience with nature.
Dr. AC: It’s interesting to say that the last lab meeting I had which is on Thursday, we had some other people at Penn specifically come to my lab meeting to talk about the sublime. Because this is starting in neuroaesthetics as strength to become a hot topic, what is the sublime?
CL: Yes, that’s fascinating—it’s been the topic in architecture. It’s also that it’s talking about the relationship between objects and subjectivity. For some reason, sublime gets worked into that conversation. It’s also interesting because I’ve been interested in these experiences of sublime but hadn’t been able to justify it that it’s actually possible to design for, in the context of architecture.
Sublime experience is somehow awe-inspiring but also terrifying. Do you actually want to replicate that? What does that have to do? It takes our curiosity to this kind of extreme almost existential?
Dr. AC: Right. I mean there’s a bit of terror mixed in there. Religious spaces to me seem like they go after that, right? They want you to be scared a little bit, but before the wrath of God.
CL: Have you done studying on it?
Dr. AC: We haven’t, but there’s a graduate student who’s finishing that I’m hoping to get as a postdoc this coming year. The student’s work was not direct neuroscience work, but there were some of the semantic network analysis on the sublime and seeing ig the sublime different or similar to art. Sublime tends to come out of the philosophical literature, the psychology literature tends to talk about awe more than sublime. It examines the relationship between the two.
The more general question that’s becoming relevant than in neuroaesthetics are these odd mixtures of emotions. It’s not just beauty and pleasure, there’s a bit of anxiety too. If you have a little bit, like a kind of emotion that normally you would choose to avoid why is it underserved certain circumstances. People are willing and seek them out, right? You pay good money to get scared, whether it’s an amusement park ride or are going to watch a horror movie.
People are paying to kind of get scared and, one idea that as long as the conditions of safety are present in agency, like if you want to vote, you can vote right? As long as that’s built in, that one idea we’ve been worth a little bit as if there might be a kind of emotional homeostasis, it allows you to feel these things. Otherwise here, you know, you’re so cleansed that you don’t want to feel them. You can feel them, you can get them out and experience them.
But it’s predicated on feeling safe. It doesn’t scare you so much that, you know, you’re actually worried about.
DL: Interesting. There’s one, this idea fear in the brain, in our old brain, millions of years ago we were in our sort of an encampment with our 15 or 16 other people or we’re venturing out to forage for food. And this idea of fear was still present on every level. That was kind of what made us survive and kept us functioning. If you didn’t have that you would essentially dead, like being eaten by a tiger or something.
I wonder now that in a world now and with that fear mechanism so wired into our brain, curious from a logical standpoint, how much of that might be a residual thing?
Dr. AC: In big cities, there’s always a piece of that you walk in the streets with. What’s the, you know, there’s a little bit of vigilance again. You know, you can’t let go of that in a lot of places.
But also, when we’re talking about the sublime in architectural spaces, I personally don’t like the way a lot of hospital architecture is going.
This is true for our outpatient clinic. When you walk in and there’s this vast space, it’s often class and it’s just huge. On the corner there’s a little information, but you walk in and it’s so disorienting.
I’m going to generalize beyond what’s reasonable because there seems to be two approaches to this, which is, you take a patient and you say, “we are the most powerful Shamans you could ever engage with and we’re going to cure your cancer,” but the way to convince you of that is to see powerful we are.
That’s what this space is conveying.
“You are small, you are terrified. We’re going to add to your terror because you want kick ass medical establishment who’s fighting for you, right?”
That seems to be one kind of model versus very different where, you know, the particular hospital within the Penn System that I work in right now is the oldest hospital in the country. It was started by Ben Franklin and Thomas Bond in 1751. Our clinic says “you come in, we want to take care of you.” It’s the difference between your mother wanting to take care of you versus, being powerful daddy who’s going to go on fight everybody to make you safe.
And those seem to me like the different approaches that hospitals and clinics tend to take. But now, it seems really from visiting a lot of places that has really pushed more towards this and I think it taps into the sublime, right? You want to tap into people’s fear.
CL: It’s pushing more towards the monumental and intimate. That’s fell so out of sync with where we were. I mean, we finished and also relative to cultural institutions because I think there’s been similar conversation about scale and how we encounter other people and maybe it’s like a kind of social dimension vis-a-vis virtual dimension. And I don’t know if that’s a timely thing or timeless thing right here. You’re talking about but this idea of intimacy versus money mentality is something that’s like seems very important right now.
Dr. AC: And you think in your world things are moving towards intimacy rather than my monumentality?
DL: Well, I think it’s interesting as an example, we did this LGBT Center Project, an institutional thing. It’s essentially a home, an at-risk youth center. Kids are gathering there and they don’t have beds, so it needs to be more like a sanctuary. The original design, was the idea of creating something that’s very domestic and because it’s their homes, we can have individual courtyards within it.
Ours was the most residential scale which was why we won the competition over the other four architects. The feedback that we got over the course of once we won the competition and from the institution was that it needs to have a more visual presence because this isn’t just a home, but it also saying something about this LGBT community, the identity of this organization that needs to have this kind of presence.
The kind of design and involved in that sense to kind of become more wow and more sublime, and they weren’t comfortable with it being quiet and more intimate.
Dr. AC: I’m sure there is the distinction I think you’re saying before; the privacy of the residence versus the display.
CL: In these types of project, institutional projects, there’s different motivating entities. So, there’s one which is the kind of money in donor base, which is looking for a symbolic manifestation of like their vision, which leads you to “wow factor.” And then there’s maybe the experiential need of the patients and those things aren’t always reconciled
DL: Well, I think it also speaks to the fact that what is architecture? What’s its role in our society, right? And a lot of times it’s thought of it as like in terms of an icon or something that is symbolic of something. So, it would make sense that you gravitate more sort of sublime because that you have a hospital, that if you have this thing that’s here and, it’s significant as oppressive like that demonstrates technology and think like, you know, progress versus
Dr. AC: And the other piece around that practical piece for us is that these are our administration duties as naming opportunities. You know, so it’s like some rich person’s name and gets attached to it. And if it’s not monumental, they’re like, why would I want my name on this? Kind of thing so, you know, in our world, we laugh about this. Maybe this is common to you guys, but we talk about this as the edifice complex.
DL: In cultural spaces like the Buddhist temple, which does have a certain kind of like symbolic nature to it, but it’s not about diminishing a human being relative to the site. It would be interesting to try to recalibrate the expectations of what is meaningful from my point of view versus experiential needs of the patient which sounds like a challenge.
Dr. AC: Do you guys run into conflicts there or in your sort of pitching projects?
DL: I mean the LGBT Center like Chris was saying, like we went into actually try and make them very anti-monumental regardless of significance, but it is import kind of civic point of view and have a presence in that case. Internally, I do find the issue of intimacy more and more important, you know, If I were to rewind like 10-15 years in my education architect, that conversation wasn’t really happening so much.
There was a discourse that was was referencing phenomenology. That was in the late 80’s, 90’s there was a certain group of architects are really into a kind of physical subjective experience of space. What I felt was kind of lacking in that discourse was an inner subjectivity or social aspect. It always seemed to center on one person’s relationship to the experience. Now I feel like that phenomenological kind of framework is really helpful, as a counterpoint to like the virtual but adding into the social or the connections between people.
Dr. AC: For this memory place, we’ve been thinking about that as well. Earlier you’re talking about the relationship to the social community and cultural environment and thinking of how there are certain security concerns when you have a memory like that. I mentioned the LGBT place, there are some practical and security things that you got to mind. How do you have a permeable relationship to the environment? One thing we’ve been thinking about is, can we have public playgrounds and maybe dog parks adjacent because people like hanging out and just watching kids and animals. Then it becomes a space that the community is invited and it has this feature that’s not sitting in front and watching yet another movie from the 1940’s, you’re actually watching live kids playing and screaming and all of that stuff.
CL: Yeah, it’s really interesting. We designed. a senior housing project. A big part of it was just this idea of this existing in a public land, but it was like a community garden too, which is really important. Wanting to create with housing, we were trying to figure out if you can combine both things or if you can create a garden space, with housing on top of it where there is cohabitation. The idea is to create all these windows where the seniors could just look down and see all those activities.
For us the most interesting projects are ways that are at the core like social ones. Architecture can organize those relationships on some fundamental level. Things get really interesting when you just set it up in a way that people can feel more connected. Historically, there’s these different areas of architecture like during the medieval times, this idea of this medieval cities and creating a church for everyone to gather, that’s super important.
Fast forward to modernism, there were successful projects. I think a lot of this social projects has kind of fallen out of for architecture and now, it’s finding a way back. I think it’s interesting that it’s correlated with the time in which technology is really changing our ways of communicating and relating to each other. There’s just move back towards the kind of fundamentals of what it means to be together. That’s at least that we kind of encounter.
DL: Also possibly animals, fundamentally we’re animals and we’re contradiction of being a computer and also being an animal. We have to reconcile that. In Columbia, we were researching intentional communities and what’s the kind of physical manifestation of this leader.
Dr. AC: Yeah, this historic intentional community so recent, in the 60’s, 70’s, there’s a whole slew of thing right?
DL: Yeah, there’s mostly like looking at things like Esalen in the 60’s and 70’s. There’s a renewed interest in that idea of an intentional community if you just updated this for the younger generation a lot of people going to participate. And this new interest in spirituality, like where is that coming from? We’re thinking of the two mentalities trying to solve these issues. One is like the techno-transcendent, where technologies turn this trans-human to super-humans, like fit bit idea of like quantified self. And then there’s the primitive spiritual, so if we return to these kind of primitive technologies and practices, we would get meditation. There’s these combinations that overlap and co-exist.
CL: I think it’s interesting, it goes back to this project thinking about the future of living and maybe new modes in which people are socializing. One of the things that we’ve talked a lot about is like the role of art within that; spirituality and ritual is changed in our kind of society and it almost feels like, there’s something about our people gravitating towards that which in some ways plants the kind of relationship to spirituality. And I’m actually really curious about this idea about studies of the brain in art. If we’re saying that there’s no real natural reason why we should respond or gravitate towards art, if it’s not about, you know, reproduction or survival. I think it’s really fascinating.
Dr. AC: I wrote a book that I’ll send you guys if you are inclined to read nonfiction books, I called Aesthetic Brain. It’s divided into three sections – first is beauty, second is pleasure, and the third is arts. Talking about in my world — the people who are interested in evolutionary explanations — there’s a real divide of people who think art represents an instinct. It doesn’t matter how far back you look or where you look, there’s always a kind of decorative impulse that people seem to have without a clear practical consequence versus people who say it’s a kind of epi-phenomenon. There are other things that were important in this kind of came along for the ride. People are on either side of that and I think both are not particularly satisfying. I won’t tell you my solution because I don’t want to give away the punch line.
Again, going back to using our visual system as a framework of thinking of people, places and things — our take as because we’re human cognitive neuroscientist we are people centered. It’s the person but the person’s interaction with other people with the place the environment whether it’s natural or built environment and things which can be either the design of objects or artwork. We focus more on art work right now because it’s serves as a crystalized version. For example, you can have beautiful device like an iPhone or something like that, that just feels good, but it’s still very practical, right? You get the added benefit of aesthetic qualities. But artwork really gives you a clean lens into the pure aesthetics of why are people drawn to it. There might be non-aesthetic reasons like it being a good investment or you’re wanting to impress your friends, but strip away all of that. We are interested in what it means to be aesthetically engaged with artwork.
Right now, I’m trying to get some funding from the Templeton Foundation but really, what is that good for? How does this enhance our understanding or relationship to the world are our sense of wellbeing? And they’re really hard questions because every public school in the US as soon as their funding cuts, the first thing to go is art and music. It’s just that people who people like me and I suspect, like you, too, who have these strong intuitions that there’s something fundamentally wrong about that framing. The question, the challenge for me is how do you demonstrate that that’s wrong
CL: Well, I think the one thing I think fascinating about art is there’s a certain level of – well abstraction in a way that connects with part of the homo sapiens and talking about how that’s one of the core kinds of components like the homo sapiens brains ability to deal with abstract concepts as a way of connecting with others, you know, homo sapiens. And to me, like there’s some quality of art, which is, it’s, you know, it isn’t there’s a certain level abstraction that like you can other people, many people can bring their own meaning to it even though there might be some common traits there. And you know, curious like, there’s something about that I mean, that to me it seems like sort of important. Like, you can make many different connections. I mean, as a child doing art, it’s there’s many qualities that it that allows you to do and free association and bring a lot of different things into your own kind of like world and communicate that, it’s species and nonlinear thing to find very festinating about.
Dr. AC: And you know, going back to this relationship to culture and society. I mean, I’m sure this is true here in Philadelphia that street art is really exploded and particularly political street art in this current climate. And it’s just incredible how much just this sort of passionate fervor is out there.
DL: Yeah, that’s it, I think that’s one thing awesome: the relation between the social and the collective aesthetics and politics. And that maybe, aesthetic experiences are fundamentally social and political because they can make the shared collective experience legible. Art can speak and put an experience to the human condition in a way that other things can’t. And to share that with other people generates some sort of meaning.
Dr. AC: So, there is a woman named Elena Dissanayake has written a fair amount of about, why art has an evolutionary imperative. Her claim is that it’s again in these relatively small nomadic groups, is an important vehicle for social cohesion. A society has these vehicles for meaning and cohesion is more likely to survive against the unpredictability of what happens. Her claim for the social function of art as being fundamentally built into our evolving brain because communities in which that wasn’t as salient ended up dying off.
DL: The difference between the creation of art, the experience of art, and then now the art market — It’s sort of like capitalism, got a role of this like on experiencing on human, it is kind of like their modified to the point where it almost debases its meaning.
Dr. AC: This is true of my postdocs and a younger generation, in the context of science we do, there’s a lot of internal housekeeping that’s going on right now there are some crises and how we do science and there, the younger generation are really passionate about cleaning our house, in a way that people outside of science don’t necessarily does right now. There’s a real social justice passion among young people. And I was wondering how much that affects your world.
DL: I think it’s generational, but also since Trump. I find it’s foregrounded a lot more conversations, also the expectations from the work environment. We teach at Columbia there’s definitely been a shift since when I went to school there around the topics that sympathetically my space and the conversation, like the social or any kind of concept of equitability was not really a big topic and that was very much at the forefront. I don’t know if it’s at the bottom or the top down, or there is a huge desire for the social to actually come before the design. It’s like a social-driven design with a secondary issue. Like Chris was sort of saying, historically, there’s been different moments in time in architecture, where the social or even the political aspects of architecture was aligned with developing a sort of new architectural language.
Like modernism, depending on where the world but there was moments where architecture and politics and progressive politics were aligned. Architecture became a device or an expression of that kind of political agenda. Then, there was a moment where that split off iit’s split off into something else. Politics and architecture, more or less aligned with that expression to have like, architecture and kind of things and there’s definitely a backlash towards that kind of phenomena. And I think the younger generation is very sensitive to that. So, there’s more interested in kind of engagement on a kind of real community level. I think more architecture comes out of that kind of conversation.
CL: It’s a couple of things, social equity being a huge part of our work and wanting to work with marginalized communities and non-profits; part of that is that we’re also mixed race. There’s two really important things about to our area and our practice: One is environment, which is becoming such a huge issue — the idea of the future is now really up for grabs, in the sense of the survival of the planet. But also, in the last generation — culturally, or even in societally — there is sort of a shift towards a focus on individuals. Maybe it’s the way kids are growing, they’re digitally native. What I see, and I’ve got two kids, is when I compare with other parents, there’s so many radically different things that kids now encounter. A lot of it like gender and sexuality, with fourth and fifth graders is now a topic and it’s like. I can’t imagine that’d being a thing when I was growing up. Now, there’s so much more embrace of what it means to be an individual; the subtle shifts of how you identify with gender.
Dr. AC: And when they’re very young too.
CL: Yes. And I see I think there’s like that component to which I think is really interesting, that’s really changing. The way we and everyone kind of views like themselves. And I think there’s more acceptance or openness about that kind of dialogue. For the good part of the 20th century is about humans as these monolithic blocks. You know, and I think that’s like changing now these I see that within our generation.
DL: There’s also this need to project, to define who you are. There is a sensitivity to those politics.
Dr. AC: I’m just going to go back and answer the question about what’s going on in science right now. People are re-examining at how we use statistics and the way in which, and how that relates to the role of publishing and incentives in science. It turns out, it’s a real mess. The basic idea is that these arbitrary levels of statistical significance, Point of Five is the one that has been used forever. What ends up happening is that conducted negative studies end up not getting published because publishers don’t want to publish negative studies. So, you end up with the distorted view for field and even if you review the field, it’s only a select group of papers that are actually getting published. And it makes you think that “oh, everybody who studies this finds these effects without the knowledge that so many people might have studied it and those never see the light of day.” I deal with that, it’s an endemic issue.
You know, clever people will have P hacking. When you look at us whose publications and how close to this arbitrary Point of Five are the P values, it tells you that there has to be a tail there that never saw the light of day, because it shouldn’t be normally distributed. Those kinds of issues, what’s our relationship with, publishing companies like Elsevier, which has gotten pilloried because of their sort of practices. I mean, Germany and now I think the UC California systems have basically stopped subscribing to any Elsevier publication, because of the way their abuse of practices.
In open science, tech scholars are going into all the studies and the publishers then control the distribution of the information, but science is a big thing. The key is around pre-registered reports, which is before you’ve actually conducted the study. There are public repositories where you’ve said, “this is what I’m going to do.” This is how the study is powered, and you make all your predictions. If you have a negative study, some journals will accept studies that with methods and motivation that are really well designed before you’ve even done the studies. It doesn’t matter if you get a positive or negative studies, it’s going to get published.
I think these are the kinds of ways in which the younger generation are trying to “get our house in order.” I mean, you have Trump on the one side talking about fake news and fake science and stuff. But, there is a real problem. In our world, we talk about our mind ourselves, but we it doesn’t get a lot of play outside because we don’t want to feed into the narrative that you can’t trust science. This is an internally self-corrective mechanism that is generated by a common theme among younger people of, “we’ve got to do better, we’ve got to do it right.”
CL: It’s a little bit of who gets to say what knowledge is valid in terms of publishing? It’s happening in architecture, too. The co-analysis is the dissemination of ideas and what are the what are the media frameworks and systems that have historically governed that. Before the internet, there were already architectural competitions. These were kind of global competitions that mark significant shifts and novel disciplinary knowledge. The internet has exploded that into a free-for-alle self-publishing. And so, there’s no more monolithic outlets and the upside is that there’s way more diversity of thought and there’s canon anymore.
Dr. AC: And there’s kind of notion from the outside “the architect does the great man” is that getting undermined these days
DL: In the younger generation, there’s definitely like that rethinking of the partnership and work in a collaborative effort and anyway, thinking more in terms of backward logics and collaborating like if you’re going to do networking.
CL: It’s slowly shifting, but I think the media still likes the idea of story of the architect as celebrity…
CL: That it persists pretty still, but like when marker of change was in the Pritzker Prize, which is like the Nobel Prize of architecture. In 2017, it was awarded to Spanish collective RCR. It’s the first time it was ever awarded to a full collaborative like that. Now, it’s common to start your practice as a collaborative, like a feminist architecture collaborative. That’s what the younger generation is doing now, and I think those are kind of interesting markers.
Definitely media and politics, shaped a lot of our perception of field. But I think internally is there’s more change than would be visible.
DL: I think it’s always interesting. Let’s think about like, what is architecture knowledge compared to like scientific knowledge? Architecture is so fuzzy, it’s like it’s rational, but also not and there’s hard science involved in engineerning but there’s no rock hard foundation, it’s always questioning its validity.
CL: Yeah. But I do find it so fascinating. But what you’re doing is like trying to find is tackling the gray zones. I think that’s kind of what architecture is — gray zones. I mean, there are very hardcore science aspects of it when it comes to statics and engineering and computation. Then, are also all these other ways in which is more like really subjective and intuitive.
Dr. AC: Our take is that I don’t think we’re ever going to be at the desire to ever be at a point where we’re going to tell architects what to do, right? That’s silly. But, we might have said, “Look, we think these three constructs are really important.” We have evidence to suggest that and incorporate that in your thinking. Those kinds of things I think we might be able to do. Again, I’m actually interested in this question of individual differences, right? Often we design generically for large population, using that introversion/extroversion thing as an example and how can we how can we then collect data in the field so, we actually find out if these, you know, ideas that we have. Or after the thing is designed, did we get it right?
CL: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting too. We have this ongoing dialogue with the climate engineer, Derek. They’re not quite mechanical engineers, they’re climate engineers. I want to credit him because he’s got this really fascinating idea of what is it indoors? or what is temperature? What all these things? They’re hardcore engineers, but they’re very interested in like subjectivity and the senses in comfort. That’s a fascinating idea because there is also an individuality because males and females respond to different climates and different temperatures. First of all, it’s significant to think about evolutions of, can temperature controlled environments? Now, we’re at this point of like, we as individuals — whether we’re male or female — might actually respond to certain temperatures differently.
DL: The interesting part of it is that the cultural assumptions of what comfort is and how does actually hold us back from coming up with. Maybe I should say that industry standards of comfort are so confining that it holds us back from coming up with more compelling solutions for like from a logical point of view.
Dr. AC: And be connected with what’s really happening outside.
DL: Yeah. So, on the research you’re doing, it seems like there is a potential for hard science to expand the criteria of some kind of standardization of environments foparticular individuals who have certain needs. When we were designing some housing, there’s strict guidelines you have to follow and don’t necessarily align with what people need, but you can’t easily challenge those.
CL: I would love to see hard science applied to building codes, in the sense of the layover of certain building codes relative to if you’re building publicly funded housing in New York City. You have this pretty insane set of guidelines that are orthodox. But they don’t really account for different modes of living in terms of like, shared living or fact that many people in New York are individuals and might want more common base as opposed visual space. But, you know, hard science could actually affect that because of the kind of the bureaucracies that govern these things. But architects are like, “this is what we’re stuck with, you know?”
Dr. AC: Yeah, I mean, it would be nice if hard science affected bureaucrats.
DL: Well, we never went over this, but we covered it. I think this was the conversation of convergence of expertise.