Architecture and Neuroscience: Juhani Pallasmaa on Defending the “Mental Objectives” of Design

On how the biological sciences can “emancipate us from the limits of the ‘naive realism’ of our culture.”

Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa has contributed a significant series of books to present day architectural theory, that are worth reading over and over again for their timeless content — on how to look at architecture and the world at large.

Gravitating from the phenomenological views that characterise his previous works, into the realm of neuroscience, Pallasmaa raises the possibility of looking at this ‘hybrid’ discipline of architecture through the latest scientific findings. In an enthralling talk organised by the Academy of Architecture in Mumbai in January 2015, he elaborates on these findings:


Along with the current discourse arising from ideas of human embodiment and the new emphasis on sensory experiential qualities, various findings and views emerging in the neurosciences are promising a deeper understanding of the mental implications and impacts of the art of building… These views challenge the traditional and still prevailing visual understanding of architecture and suggest that the most significant architectural experiences arise from existential encounters rather than retinal percepts, intelligence and aesthetics of the new. In these encounters the world and the perceiver become merged, and the boundary between outer and inner mental worlds turn vague, as they merge. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, “The world is wholly inside, and I am wholly outside myself.”

Most importantly, the recent discovery of mirror neurons begins to help us to understand the origins of empathy and emotion, and how we can experience emotion and feeling in material and spatial phenomena.

Our common biology can explain the reason why our experiences are shared to a large extent. Likewise, Christopher Alexander, in his Nature of Order series, goes to the extent of establishing through tests that 90% of our feelings are shared. Expressing his understanding that biological knowledge will increase in the next few decades, Juhani Pallasmaa makes a poignant observation – that perhaps we have been unable to find consciousness in the human mind for centuries because we have been looking for it in the wrong place. Consciousness, he says, is a relational thing, existing outside of ourselves. It is in the encounter between the boundaries of the self and the world, that consciousness must exist.

Pallasmaa’s understanding can be backed up by extensive present-day research into how neurologically-nourishing environments bring about physiological (i.e. emotional) reactions in us, as well as research into the neurology of aesthetics. Some studies indicate that built fractal patterns parallel our cerebral organisation, and hence make us ‘feel well’. Such scientific correlations between the internal and external worlds seem to to reinforce the belief that powerful works of architecture do indeed sensitize this ‘boundary between the world and ourselves’. Since much of the world pushes for Cartesian methods of enquiry, Pallasmaa has turned towards science in the past few years to explain such previously poetic impressions as he described in books like The Eyes of the Skin. Further, he says

I believe that neuroscience can give support to the mental objectives of design and arts, which are in danger of being disregarded because of their “uselessness” and apparent subjectivity. The new biological sciences can emancipate us from the limits of the “naive realism” of our culture […] I believe that neuroscience can reveal and reinforce the fundamentally mental, sensory, embodied, and biological essence of architecture against today’s tendencies towards ever increasing materialism, intellectualization and commodification.

In an effort that resonates with Neelkanth Chhaya’s critical admonition of the commodification of architectureChristopher Alexander’s probing enquiries into the ‘sense of life’ possessed by buildings, and approaches towards Biophilic Design that understand man’s inherent need for stimulation by nature – there seems to be emerging a range of cross-disciplinary methods for critiquing contemporary directions in architecture, that can claim the experience of beauty is not just subjective. This is especially relevant in light of the fact that much of the value of twentieth-century architecture, as Nikos Salingaros and K. G. Masden say, was based on its degree of separation from the world around it. New theories are emerging to dispel such nihilistic notions, proving more and more that the built environment truly might be shaping us. As Pallasmaa adds,

As neurological research has recently revealed, we have a surprising capacity to mirror the behaviour of others, and even to unconsciously animate and mimic inanimate material constructions and objects through our imagination. “Be like me”, is the call of a great poem according to Joseph Brodsky. A building certainly makes a similar invitation; a profound piece of architecture invites and guides us to be better and more sensitive human beings.

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Niharika Sanyal

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