Human Perception and the Built Environment: Notes from a Preservation Viewpoint

By Tom Mayes posted 11-07-2017 16:56


What is the brain science behind the way we experience old places? As a lifelong preservationist, I, like many other old house hunters, have “felt” the quality of an old place. Even decades later, I can imagine and re-experience the feeling of being in the old abandoned shell of a house serving as a barn that I recalled from my childhood in the “Why Do Old Places Matter?” series. When I remember the tall plastered rooms of that house, it’s as if I am in that weatherworn old place right now, touching the scrolled bracket on the stairway. I regret the loss of that house to this day, but why was the experience so powerful and long lasting? 


Sarah Robinson cited the Spanish Steps in Rome as an example of the bodily experience of space, explaining that they were designed to reflect the movements of the human body as it performed the Polonaise, a Baroque dance. | Credit: Photo by Sean MacEntee licensed under CC BY 2.0

At The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation’s 2017 Symposium, Architecture as Experience: Human Perception and the Built Environment, speakers from around the world explored the current science behind how we experience, remember, and respond to architectural spaces—including landscapes and urban design—and the implications for architectural practice and, to some degree, for preservation. The speakers based their insights on new research made possible by neuro-imaging and mapping of brain activity, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs), positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and the use of virtual reality and vision studies. Virtually all of them pointed in the direction of designing (and preserving) places that recognize the fundamental biological ways in which humans respond to place.1 As Robert Lamb Hart of Hart/Howerton, author of A New Look at Humanism in Architecture, Landscapes, and Urban Design, said at the beginning of the symposium, there is a “whole new world of cascading information from a range of sciences” exploring how people experience architecture and place. 

Kim Coventry, executive director of the Driehaus Foundation, introduced the symposium, expressly noting the importance of these new scientific discoveries for preservation as well as new architecture and urban design and reminding the audience that human memories are grounded in place. Although the primary focus of the symposium was on the perception of architecture generally, and the implications for new design, as Kim said to me, certain key points are also relevant for historic preservation. While there is much still to learn, and future research will provide more insights, the symposium speakers discussed a number of key concepts. 

The most “hard-science” of the presentations was an interview with Dr. Vittorio Gallese, professor of neurology at the University of Parma. Dr. Gallese explained that we experience architecture—and artworks—through “mirror neurons” and “embodied simulation.” As Dr. Gallese described it, when we see a phone sitting on a table, we don’t just see a phone, an object. Our brain instantly perceives it as something to grasp or pick up. We understand the phone as something for us to manipulate, and the motor simulation of our brain is triggered long before we consciously assess that the object is a phone. We understand the phone through understanding how our body will use it, even if we don’t actually pick it up, hence the idea of “mirror neurons”—they mirror the action even if our body doesn’t perform it. Similarly, when we see a column, our brain processes the feeling of its weight and gravity as our feeling of weight and gravity. When we see a painting or fresco, we don’t just see it, we engage with it through the idea of the motion of touch or contact—grasping. As Dr. Gallese has written, through embodied simulation “the experience of the built environment … is shaped through the precognitive activation of motor simulations.”

Similar processing happens when we remember or imagine something. When I remember being in that old house on the farm, I’m not retrieving that memory from some file in my brain, I am literally living the physical aspects of being in the space by firing the same parts of my brain that my body experienced in the place all those years ago. (Perhaps this is why old places trigger such powerful memories. Our brains are literally re-processing them.) Although Dr. Gallese did not articulate this particular conclusion, his lecture seems to confirm preservationists’ longstanding awareness that the old places that have touched our lives remain close in our memories. 

Many of the speakers, acknowledging that they were a minority in the field of architecture, advocated for a more scientifically based approach to architectural practice—one that takes this new knowledge into account and forgoes purely visual and formalistic practices that fail to recognize and respond to our bodily experience of architecture. Harry Mallgrave from Illinois Institute of Technology, who assisted the Driehaus Foundation in organizing the symposium, noted that architects and architectural theorists throughout history have understood, intuitively or through observation, many of the ideas that are now being proven through these new capacities in science.2 Barbara Lamprecht, a building historian and author of three books about architect Richard Neutra, reminded the audience of Neutra’s belief that architecture was about understanding the body’s experience in space, not about style, and that a return to a scientifically based architectural practice would be a return to the roots of Modernism. Many of the speakers were strongly critical of the architectural practice of the past 50 years for having drifted away from design that seeks to recognize the bodily experience of space and for being too singularly visual and formalistic. Many emphasized the idea that a purely visual approach does not deliver the biologically ingrained ease of legibility or sense of comfort and stability that people need from architectural and urban spaces. Here I see a direct connection to preservation: many older buildings and communities already have these qualities, and serve as repositories of accumulated knowledge about humanistic design.

Robert Lamb Hart of Hart Howerton, a global architecture, planning, landscape, and interior design firm, explored architectural principles that can help people flourish, which he considers a version of humanism. Per Hart, the fundamentals do not change because they respond to the body. As different as we all are, we are enough alike, he said, that we have worldwide standards of beauty, and we’re now beginning to understand why. We are story-makers. We compose our own lives and link our stories with places, building our own internal maps of the places we experience. And when we enter a place, we enter a story that is already underway. We want to bond with places, to fall in love with places. Hart also noted the way people transcribe ourselves in architecture—the way we describe the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square as arms or look for the symmetry of a building as we do a face. 

Sarah Robinson, co-editor, with Juhani Pallasmaa, of Mind in Architecture Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design, spoke movingly and poetically about the role of emotion in architectural experience. She emphasized that often our contemporary spaces are deprived of the qualities that resonate emotionally with people and that much recent architecture leads to sensory deprivation and the deterioration of people’s emotions—even to emotional atrophy and depression. For those of us preservationists who have been fighting the battle against sprawl and soulless development, Robinson’s work seems to confirm everything we have known intuitively. Yet, perhaps most intriguingly to me as a preservationist, Robinson also spoke about layering and the importance of celebrating the process of aging. She noted that finding oneself in a continuum of time gives one a sense of dignity. In Europe, everywhere you step, the sidewalks are polished by centuries of use; people read and understand that use intuitively, and it makes them feel like they are not alone. 

Dr. Michael Arbib from the Association for Neuroscience in Architecture in San Diego, spoke about memory, image, and imagination. He said that, when he thinks about architecture, images come into his mind, and when he designs, he frequently finds himself sinking into old, half-forgotten memories. There are striking similarities, Dr. Arbib said, between remembering the past and imagining the future; a common brain network underlies both. 

This reinforced an idea that Dr. Gallese had expressed: that, from the point of view of brain functioning, imagination, creativity, and memory are linked. Dr. Gallese had noted that the process of walking upstairs is stored in our procedural memory, so that when I remember going up the banister-less curving stairway in that old house, my brain is literally re-creating the process of going up those stairs. 

Juhani Pallasmaa, the keynote speaker, highlighted the multisensory way in which people perceive place, noting that we have been misled by the idea that there are only five senses—our body has more ways of perceiving. Significantly, he emphasized that people also perceive time in place. Pallasmaa has written about the role of time in architecture in a Forum Journal article called “Dwelling in Time.” In the piece he emphasized that people have a deep existential need to be rooted in time. Pallasmaa also noted the role of empathy in architecture, citing Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just

What is the relevance of all of this to historic preservation? While there is much research still to be done, many of the ideas expressed at the symposium seem to support a broader appreciation of older and historic places. The speakers used many examples of old and historic buildings as they talked about architecture responding to the human body’s experience of space.  As I considered their presentations, I noted that:

  • Many older buildings already perform well using the humanistic principles supported by current neuroscience studies;
  • Many older cities, towns, and communities also perform well using these principles;
  • People seek out these old places because they find them satisfying;
  • People navigate by landmarks, and our old buildings serve as landmarks; and
  • Time and memory are important for placing people on a continuum.

We will be exploring these ideas further at PastForward 2017 in Chicago, during a Learning Lab titled “This is Your Brain on Preservation.” The conversation will include Kim Coventry as well as Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who kindly previewed some of his ideas on the Forum Blog. (Although Harry Mallgrave is unable to be at PastForward, look for a forthcoming Forum Blog post that applies his concepts to historic preservation.)

As research about how people perceive and respond to place continues, it may reinforce some preservation ideas and challenge others. Preservationists may be able to use this new information to make the case for historic preservation, but more importantly, we can consciously use our tools to fulfill people’s “biologically ingrained ease of legibility or sense of comfort and stability” more effectively. 

Tom Mayes is vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust.


1. Many of the speakers have essays included in Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa’s anthology Mind in Architecture Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design.
2. See Harry Francis Mallgrave, The Architect’s Brain Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture.