A↔N #18: Is It Time for ANFA to Change Its Name?

Is It Time for ANFA to Change Its Name? On Merging ANFA with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Harry Francis Mallgrave, PhD, Hon FRIBA

As I settled into bed last night, I reached to my bedside table and grasped Joseph Brodsky’s small book, Watermark: An Essay on Venice.  Brodsky, as most people would agree, was a true “man of letters,” and like him and many others I have long been impressed with the beauty and charm of the city to which the Byzantines bestowed the official appellation Serenissimo or “Most Serene.” If I had thought about it before I had dozed off, I might have wished for a dream about Venice. Perhaps a vision of the slightly mad John Ruskin in 1849, when he entered the barricaded and bombarded city days after the Austrian army had lifted their siege. Ruskin found mass starvation, homelessness, cholera, and destruction of much of the urban fabric, but he had a mission of paramount importance. It was to survey (with frost-bitten fingers and chilled throat) and to measure and delineate (along “lonely and stagnant canals”) the most important buildings of the Queen of the Adriatic, which he believed were in the tremors of their final destruction. The words by which he summed up his task are even more pertinent to an architect: “stone by stone, to eat it all up into my mind, touch by touch.1

Instead, I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat from a quasi-Edenic vision. I dreamed I was back in high school in the early 1960s with my teenage lover Susan. We had been surfing in the morning along Black’s Beach in beautiful Le Jolla, and climbed the hills to enjoy our lunch on the bluff overlooking the prismatic Pacific. In my backpack I carried our lunch and a re-corked, partial bottle of a 1947 Chateau Margaux, a gift from my light-drinking parents who, the previous evening, had splurged eighty dollars on the wine to celebrate their wedding anniversary. This was the liquid ambrosia on which Juliet and her Romeo were feasting with our Veronese cheese and crackers, as we gazed out onto the blue and pondered our future—reading Shakespearian sonnets with hints of Bordeaux accents.

As we lay on the blanket, two older men strolled past. One, of serious demeanor, was thin and dressed in a respectable suit. The other was a rather rumpled figure with thick glasses and uncombed white hair, cast awry by the ocean breeze. The latter was making some scarcely audible remarks about “wrapping ruins around buildings” and alluding to some monastery in Assisi. On hearing this, the other man stopped and uttered in a very clear voice: “If we can find a cure for polio, then certainly we can build an Eden for scientists to dwell in harmony and ponder the well-being of the human race. It will be a world not only free of disease but also with environments biologically attuned or better fitted to the paradisiacal instincts of the human organism. Perhaps this design can serve as a model.” Of course, the farcical part of my dream, and no doubt the cause of my mid-nocturnal perspiration, was the rather surreal notion that anyone could purchase a bottle of Margaux for eighty dollars.

II.

Over the past half-century, governments, research institutions, and well-intentioned foundations have exhausted hundreds of millions of dollars on studies evaluating the impact of impoverished environments, and the verdict was returned long ago. Poorly designed environments are associated with disease, depression, stress, crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, psychological disorders, asocial behavior, obesity, and higher rates of morbidity. I would guess that less than the smallest fraction of this numerical figure has been spent on the contrary question: just what constitutes a good human environment?

It is here that we run into a problem. Whereas the negative effects of poor environments can be abundantly studied “in the field,” as it were, with traditional research methodologies, it is much more difficult (with few exceptions) to evaluate the factors underlying successful human environments. The reason for this is quite simple. The study of good environments—those better attuned with the human biological organism—is a biological problem, not a sociological one. Moreover, it has only been in the last few decades that we have had the investigative tools to begin to evaluate these biological dimensions, and indeed have gained sufficient knowledge of ourselves to recognize the depth of human complexity.

I am using the word “biology” in its current, expanded sense. It includes not only the organismic dimensions of ourselves-within-environments but also social and cultural factors. As the biologist Francisco Varela and the philosopher Evan Thompson have noted: “The nervous system, the body and the environment are highly structured dynamical systems, coupled to each other on multiple levels.  Because they are so thoroughly enmeshed—biologically, ecologically and socially—a better conception of brain, body, and environment would be as mutually embedded systems rather than as internally and externally located with respect to one another.”2 The philosopher Susan Oyama has made the case that all organismic forms, rather than being directed by genetic programs or cultural forces, are better described as being in a continuous state of re-creation, as it were, with the input of multiple systems: genetic, epigenetic, social, and cultural.3The designed environment, which now encompasses nearly the entire globe, is an important part of this matrix. And the biological principle of “niche construction” casts this dynamic interplay in a new light, because it asserts that whenever we alter our physical or designed environment, this new environment also changes the genetic, cognitive, and cultural patterns of who we are. This is why our designed environment, at its core, is a biological problem. And it is also why the various foundations and governmental agencies that fund research have yet to explore the connection of the human organism with its designed environment. This relationship is more properly the realm of human biology.

III.

When Dr. Salk and Louis Kahn strolled the escarpment of La Jolla in the summer of 1960, they were seeking something that only on the rarest of occasions had been done before. They were envisioning a paradise, or more properly, a design whose inspiration could stand up to the already existing idyllic landscape—as Spanish explorers centuries ago had portrayed it. The English word “paradise” derives from the Greek paradeisos, which has its origin in the Old-Iranian languages. It referred to an enclosed or walled-off garden, a cool and shaded place. The relationship of “paradise” with a garden was established much earlier in Sumerian literature, in which the primordial city Eridu was built on the site of paradise, and of course the idea manifests itself in Judaic-Christian tradition as the Garden of Eden. Yet the notion is in fact quite universal. The garden as a Forbidden City, as Marco Polo relates, was central to Kublai Khan’s capital city of Dadu (present-day Beijing), and the erstwhile capital city of Kyoto remains the quintessential garden city with its landscapes built for both pleasure and meditation. Islam embraced the paradisiacal garden (after death, the good return to the Garden of Eden) and spread gardens across North Africa and into Spain.

Nevertheless, paradise is not synonymous with the garden, and it is also important to note that paradise is an antithetical idea to that of utopia. The latter demands the imposition of an ideological structure or building model on society, whereas paradise is, by contrast, an inwardly driving instinct to improve one’s life and gain happiness. It has therefore taken many different forms. The Temple of Jerusalem with its Edenic-inspired interiors was viewed as paradise, and the Athenian Acropolis was seen in a similar way. Agrippa, with his aqueducts, sought to transform the Campus Martius in Rome into a paradise of gardens, baths, and temples. The medieval monastic cloister was referred to as paradise, and the unnatural reddish-violet light of Chartres Cathedral, induced by its stained-glass windows, was entirely fitting for a building that was in its day referred to as the “doorway to heaven.” And, under the Mughal emperors, the walled gardens surrounding such imperial mausoleums as the Taj Mahal were deemed to be reconstructions of the Garden of Eden.

It is in this sense that we can understand why the work of Salk and Kahn to create a human paradise is important, because it implies not a rational or conceptual construct (utopia) but an idyllic instinct for creating something more personal, and indeed more socially gratifying, than the usual research laboratories. In Kahn’s earliest sketches, it was actually the meeting houses or social rooms that assumed principal importance. The complex, apart from the research labs, was extended to the extreme western end of a bluff and actually took a monastic form with square and circular buildings surrounding a cloister or courtyard. The partially open-air conference rooms—“wrapping ruins around buildings”—were arrayed along the west and north sides, with the best views of the ocean and its refreshing air. If this were not sufficiently paradisiacal, Kahn included an Alhambra-inspired garden and Greek theater. Both Salk and Kahn recognized that every environment is an embodied and multisensory one, a whole-body experience in which materials, spaces, and social activities strike an empathetic accord with the human organism. Indeed, only now are we coming to understand that people intuitively or sensorially grasp their immediate environments, and every aspect of our tectonic culture implicates our sensorimotor and mirror systems in a process known as embodied simulation, which induces or activates physiological and physiognomic responses. This is not a theoretical supposition borrowed from some fashionable school of philosophy, but something more primal to the biological nature of our environment itself. Moreover, psychologists are now documenting that the dull, monochrome glass facades that are so dominant in our urban environments induce boredom and stress in those who quicken their pace as they walk past them. Green environments, such as parks or street vegetation, as other research shows, relieve stress and have many other benefits for our long-term health.

It is from this perspective that good architecture becomes radically and profoundly a biological experience. And, given the Salk Institute’s mandate to draw upon the neurosciences, genetics, and biology, the study of the human environment is fully within its purview. By charting this course of investigation and discovery, it can do what no other foundation or governmental entity up to this time has recognized—that architecture (far from being an aestheticized material object) is a biological experience central to the health and happiness of the human population. The Salk Institute would enhance its prestige by creating a biological center for the study of the human environment.

IV.

I would like to thank Professor Michael Arbib and his herculean efforts over the past few months in engaging the Advisory Council of ANFA, and engaging it to articulate better its mission. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the founding members of ANFA who, over the past two decades, have successfully given birth to a forum that focuses on the design of the human environment. Yet it is also clear that we are at a critical stage in the academy’s development. ANFA needs a major increase in budget and fund-raising if it is to begin to oversee the sophisticated type of research that is so critically needed. And without full-time professional fundraisers on its staff, it is virtually impossible to do so. Where, then, do we stand and how do we proceed?

I would like, as a point of debate, to make two proposals, the first of which concerns the coupling of the word neuroscience with architecture. It is misleading along two fronts: from the perspective of designers and in the nature of our own efforts. In the first regard, the most frequent response I hear from architectural colleagues when the subject of neuroscience is raised is that you cannot reduce the practice of design to a science. I can respond in many ways, but there is a larger problem here. Architects are generalists in the sense that they have to take into account a myriad of factors in the design of a building or an environment (legalities, costs, the building’s settings, materials, fabrication, schedule, and user responses), but they also view themselves—and rightly so—as creative individuals. In the latter sense, they will not surrender their perceived freedom to something that seems at first to present rules of design. Moreover, the long-standing culture of the design studio (where students typically devote 90% of their study time) is centered on the building as the aesthetic object of design. Our cities, without design, are the random collections of these aestheticized objects. This is a pattern, I believe, that will change only when we appeal to the student population directly, for which proposals will be put forth by the Advisory Council.

The second problem of coupling neuroscience with architecture is that—as our growing knowledge has shown—it too narrowly defines architectural research. Genetic, cultural, and social dimensions also come into play in the activities of our biological systems. The early writings and laudable efforts of John Eberhard rightly emphasized the new things that neuroscience could bring to the table when considering the human experience of designed environments. Yet recent models of embodiment demonstrate that we also have affective, visceral, and hormonal responses to our environments, in addition to social or cultural needs or proclivities. Every designed environment, for instance, has a mood, and every urban environment has an atmosphere. Such ideas excite every architect and urban planner. The foggy mist of Venice, sunlight piercing through a New England window, a waft of fragrance emanating from a La Jolla garden, the joy of encountering a friend on the street during a holiday celebration—all affect our responses to environments, and sometimes dramatically so. In fact, the urban social environment is an area where architectural research could play perhaps its most important role. Perhaps we could one day even think about eliminating the impoverished environments of the past.

For our organization, I suggest a more encompassing name, one that will keep abreast of the ever-accelerating expansion of knowledge and research technologies. As we ponder expanding our efforts into schools and public fora, now is the time to make a change. As a point of debate, I make one suggestion for a new name: Biological Center for the Study of the Human Environment.

My second proposal should now be obvious, which is initiating discussions on enfolding ANFA into the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. This merger can take many forms, which need not be pursued here, but it is important to note that it will benefit both parties. The funding outreach of the Salk Institute is far stronger and more widespread than ANFA will ever have. And only in this way will the academy begin to endorse or commission serious design research at a large scale.

It is important to point out that this merger will also benefit the Salk Institute. It will allow the Institute to take some of the research done in its labs and apply it to real-world solutions, in a way that no foundations or governmental agencies can or will ever be able to do. Moreover, it will facilitate making design research and its researchers truly international and responsive to the highest levels of critical overview. The loose association of ANFA with the Salk Institute is long-standing and commendable, but think what might be possible if the visual research of Dr. Albright or the neurogenesis studies of Dr. Gage (with further design-research scrutiny) could actually be directed to the human environment. No other institute offers such possibilities

Notes:

  1. The Stones of Venice, in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1904), vol. X:xxvi.
  2. Evan Thompson and Francisco J. Varela, “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5:10 (October 2001), p. 424-25.
  3. Susan Oyama, Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 48.

About Harry Francis Mallgrave

Harry Francis Mallgrave is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus from Illinois Institute of Technology. He received his PhD in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and has enjoyed a career as an award-winning scholar, translator, editor, and architect. He has published more than a dozen books on topics of architectural history and theory. The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) is essential reading for the ANFA community. His latest book, From Object to Experience: The New Culture of Design has just been released from Bloomsbury Publishers in London.

Editor’s Note:

Harry Mallgrave also contributed an earlier Blog post, “Some thoughts on the role of the academy of neuroscience for architecture.”

2019-12-30T22:30:48+00:00