The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, And Architecture

by | 05. Feb 2014



By Ralph Spencer Steenblik

In The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture, Harry Francis Mallgrave stays true to form by offering a thought-provoking historical commentary, which allows us to look at architecture in a new light. There is, however, one departure: everything is slanted toward the spatial effect on humanity’s neurological and emotional state.

The book has two sections. The first is informative, insightful, and enjoyable. It examines architecture’s engagement with human perception throughout history. Understandably, there is a fair amount of reference to phenomenology. The second section considers the anatomy of the brain, as well as recent developments in neuroscience and their connection to architecture. While the biological descriptions read a bit dry, the following commentary in those chapters constitutes some of the most exciting content in the book.

The-Architects-Brain-1.JPGDancer Martha Howe is captured in a long exposure by Ralph S. Steenblik

The epilogue gives stern warnings about computation by shedding a pessimistic outlook on the opportunities that computational tools have, especially in collaboration with the brain. This was equal parts surprising and disappointing, as the rest of the text had been building optimistic momentum. Now, any anticipation for future progress is abruptly halted in the cautions found in the last pages.

From a purely phenomenological perspective, computation may be somewhat stifling. However, another outlook could be much more optimistic about the ability of computational assistance to create phenomenologically sensitive spaces. For instance, there is no mention of someone like Ray Kurzweil or the singularity, nor does Mallgrave explore how computational integration into the brain could be beneficial for the architect’s brain or spaces created by architects. Likewise, there are computational tools – such as augmentation (that add to one’s spatial sensations and the neuro-emotional responses in relation to experiencing spaces) – that are not addressed directly in the book.

On the other hand, while curating an exhibition on interactive spaces, I made heavy use of the historical section of this book, which references emotion and spatial response. Mallgrave’s exploration of the word symmetry was particularly enlightening. Vitruvius used the term symmetria. Cicero and Alberti used concinnitas. All are translated into English as symmetry.

Alberti and Cicero’s use of concinnitas may be referring to the idea of balance rather than symmetry, where the former allows for greater freedom in interpreting the authors’ intention. For example, Cicero and Alberti may have been much less interested in compositional symmetry and much more interested in compositional balance. This semantic decision creates a much more expansive discussion within design discourse. It is inclusive of the anexact, fractality, and balanced time-based composition. Thus, as the tools and capabilities for composing at higher dimensions become more accessible, architects will be able to strive for concinnitas, or balanced compositions, regardless of the dimensional consideration. One example is “Invisible Architectures” by Marcos Novak.

The-Architects-Brain-2.jpgMarcos Novak’s Invisible Architecture as featured in TIMEless. Photograph by Ralph S.Steenblik

Overall, The Architect’s Brain is a worthwhile read for a dedicated architectural audience.