A↔N #13: August in San Diego 7. BAUKULTUR AND COMMUNITY

August in San Diego 7. Baukultur and Community

Neuroscience For Architecture, Urbanism & Design

Michael A. Arbib

This is the seventh of a series of nine posts on the A«Nblog reporting on the “Neuroscience For Architecture, Urbanism & Design” Intersession held at NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego on August 12-15, 2019. The individual posts range in length from 1300 to 3000 words. The first post provides an overview of the series, along with a Table of Contents with links to each of the posts. A PDF of the whole series may be found here.

What makes a good environment?

Harry Mallgrave commented that there has been much research on what makes bad environments, though understanding of high-crime or low-employment areas has led to little mitigation. But what makes a good environment? Can we learn from recent advances in understanding genetics and endocrinology and, say, the neuroscience of emotion? We need to understand the integration of body, mind and environment. We are complexly structured dynamic, organismic systems. We must assess ,our integration into social and ecological systems. Each affects and is affected by our thinking and behavior.

Architects must understand this, as we factor the built environment into the mix. Architects are cultivators of our world, constructing the niches which shape who we are.

A walk in nature has been shown to benefit our health and raise our mood. But we cannot go back to primeval nature in our habitat. I would add that our appreciation of nature is culturally specific – Australians today greatly appreciate the distinctive beauty of their landscapes, yet early English settlers could only “see” what was reminiscent of the English countryside. How might we bring essential aspects of nature into our built environment? Looking at architecture solely in aesthetic terms leads us to neglect the impact on human well-being.

We do not just use a room, we inhabit it.

Walking down a street of uniform facades can bore us, and create stress.

Eduardo Macagno presented two images and asked, “What feelings do these images evoke?”

One was a mountain stream, nature. He stressed that we don’t just register the 2D image. Rather, it evokes a multimodal sense of space and affordances. The second image was of the interior of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. Macagno found it to be a haven, a place for de-stressing, when he lived in New York. For him, the image evokes a sense of calm contemplation. Mallgrave also commented on the positive effect of the space within a cathedral, so “design with nature” is not the full answer to a healthy environment. The “nature” in which many people live is highly urbanized, and apartments may be cramped. He contrasted a Hong Kong “micro-apartment “with a San Diego “macro-apartment,” noting that only the well-off can afford the latter. But whatever the size of our home, our sense of space and place are informed by memories of prior sensorimotor interactions, affected by culture and age. Good design enriches the private world of the individual experiencing it, says Mallgrave – so a homeless person might value a micro-apartment while others would not

Guvenc Ozel believes that architecture is about creating habitations that detachus from nature. With VR, one can seek to create an infinite new space that can be used productively. Architects need to be engaged in this. Gaming experiences tend to be designed by engineers, not professional designers. But what are the ethical issues as we erase nature? Are we destroying the natural in favor of the machine? Don’t we need to keep the separation between the imaginary and the real? Currently, that process of detachment from nature is proceeding at an increasingly fast pace, and that is causing problems. Art may refer back to nature or not, but it is not nature. The only ethical question is whether the way we live artificially will support or destroy our continued existence.


Michael Arbib discussed the Davos Declaration, “Toward a high-quality Baukultur for Europe” (Davos, 2018a, 2018b), in which Baukultur (building culture) combines a society’s particular culture of building (how they go about creating their built environments) and the building of this culture (how the quality of what they do and what they produce can be raised). He argued that Baukultur in this sense is, indeed, a global challenge. Complementing this, Colin Ellard (2018) stressed implications of Baukultur for “urban planning [that takes] seriously the implications of built design for human mental health.”

A society’s culture is dynamic. When the Eiffel Tower was built it was widely denigrated, yet it is now (along with the recently burned Notre-Dame) a beloved icon of Paris. We seem ill-prepared to predict when innovation will destroy the culture of a city (as Mallgrave believes the skyscrapers are doing to London) or will come to be seen as making a vital contribution to the city’s evolving culture.

Moreover, as Arbib illustrated with a photo of the new mosque in Cologne with the cathedral in the background, a given city or region may include diverse cultures. Is a mosque a symbol of cultural breadth or a stimulus for hatred in traditionally Christian cities? What can architecture – as distinct from education, moral leadership and politics – do to advance the harmonious mix of diverse cultures in a harmonious whole? To move forward on this issue, we may need to explore for Baukultur the EU principle of subsidiarity. The OED defines this as “the quality of being subsidiary; specificallythe principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.” Might this notion provide a framework for the Baukultur of rapidly changing, multicultural societies?

As a link to neuromorphic architecture (ninth post), Arbib noted that the Davos Context Document states that “The fourth industrial revolution has begun. The vision of interconnectedness between virtual and physical devices in a global network, the ‘Internet of Things’ is becoming fact.” In response to the Davos concern that “cultural values, such as the authenticity and historic originality of material and substance, may lose importance in favour of more standardised images and perceptions,” he noted that modern technology can indeed support culturally distinct devices. Japanese examples included the electrical kotatsuand the futon “hair dryer.” Of course, the ubiquity of skyscrapers raises concern that architecture may become more homogenous.

From Loneliness to Community

Kris Mun + Biayna Bogosian noted problems with Le Corbusier’s vision of the city, and the failure of mass housing in Chicago and St Louis. They bemoaned the repetitive undifferentiated sameness of the new cities of China. And with this, they noted that there is an epidemic of loneliness around the world, and more so in cities than rural communities. The college age cohort is the loneliest recorded, and San Diego has high levels of loneliness. UCLA studies show that loneliness can change the brain and body in deleterious ways. They currently study ways to address personalizing high-density housing in San Diego, placing an emphasis on the human. What can NfA offer for a healthy coliving typology? [Recall related comments by Mazzoleni.]

A book on the Ladakh depicted a harmonious style of living with nature and no money and everyone assigned a god-neighbor they could turn to. The opening to the modern world brought in money and devastated old social structures. Traditional housing broke down, destroying patterns of multi-generational living.

Mun + Bogosian showed an ancient Chinese building, circular and built around a shared courtyard that housed around a hundred people. They quoted Jeremy Rifkin’s assertion that a sharing economy Is the future. Stressing working with the nonstandard body, they noted the husband and wife partnership of Arakawa and Gins that looked at multiple sciences to develop procedural architecture, reversible design. Mun + Bogosian cited with approval[1] their Bioscleave House with deliberately uncomfortable floors, challenging the body and even causing people to fall. Their claim is that this will stimulate their immune systems.

Lars Spuybroek has developed human-machine production protocols able to tailor each unit to be adjusted to the individual. Francois Roche speaks of human-machine prototypologies that adapt construction to the human emotional body. Monitoring a human’s hand while the person hears a narrative can then set parameters for a building. Mun + Bogosian then related these varied ideas to their own efforts to rethink co-housing while adopting a neurological perspective.

Michael Arbib introduced his discussion of “BuildingCommunity” by quoting Kevin Roche[2]: “The most important thing one can achieve in any building is to get people to communicate with each other. That’s really essential to our lives. We are not just individuals—we are part of a community. The old-time villages did that, and then we destroyed all that in the 19th century, when we started to build these vast expansions where there was no center, there is no community.” He then turned to the design by the Singapore architecture firm WOHA of Kampung Admiralty which won the 2018 World Architecture Festival Building of the Year. This is a “Vertical Kampung (village)”, with a People’s Plaza in the lower stratum, a Medical Centre in the mid stratum, and a Community Park with studio apartments for seniors in the upper stratum. The People’s Plaza is a fully public, porous and pedestrianized ground plane – i.e., it is not restricted to residents of the Kampung, but encourages interactions in and out of the complex. In the Plaza, the public can participate in organized events, join in the season’s festivities, shop, or eat at the hawker center on the 2nd story. Residents can actively come together to exercise, chat or tend community farms at the Community Park, an intimately-scaled, elevated village green. In addition, “buddy benches” at shared entrances encourage seniors to come out of their homes and interact with their neighbors. All this is in stark contrast to a “standard” high-rise apartment building in which people interact (if at all) only when riding the elevator to their isolated apartments.

Relating this back to Baukultur, Arbib asked whether such a development could be the seed for a new approach to the mantra of Jane Jacobs, combining vertical villages (community on the small scale) with public parks, metro systems and the preservation of cultural sites of diverse importance (community on the large scale)? He closed by noting that WOHA’s breakthrough from designing individual houses came with winning two simultaneous competitions for two new metro stations in Singapore – thus in some sense anticipating the current issue of how to integrate far-flung living complexes with the historical and cultural sites of a large city.


Davos. (2018a). Towards a high-quality Baukultur for Europe. Davos, Switzerland: Conference of Ministers for Culture.

Davos. (2018b). Towards a high-quality Baukultur for Europe: Context Document. Davos, Switzerland: Conference of Ministers for Culture.

Ellard, C. (2018). The psychogeography of urban form: Building and measuring Baukultur.Intertwining: Unfolding art and science, 01, 92-101.


[1] I’m not convinced. Read about the house here: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/garden/03destiny.html

[2] As interviewed in http://www.archnewsnow.com/features/Feature512.htm

About Michael A. Arbib

Michael Arbib is a pioneer in the study of computational models of brain mechanisms, especially those linking vision and action, and their application to artificial intelligence and robotics. Currently his two main projects are “how the brain got language” through biological and cultural evolution as inferred from data from comparative (neuro)primatology, and the conversation between neuroscience and architecture. He serves as Coordinator of ANFA’s Advisory Council and is currently Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of California at San Diego and a Contributing Faculty Member in Architecture at NewSchool of Architecture and Design. The author or editor of more than 40 books, Arbib is currently at work on When Brains Meet Buildings, integrating exposition of relevant neuroscience with discussions of the experience of architecture, the design of architecture, and neuromorphic architecture.

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