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Books

Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives
Sarah Williams Goldhagen
HarperCollins, 2017
Reviewed by Elizabeth S. Padjen FAIA

Since Apollo 17’s “blue marble” photo of Earth, perhaps no scientific images have captured public attention more than MRIs. The proliferation of the bright-colored graphics in popular media came just as neuroresearchers were expanding their focus from the pathology of disease to the scientific basis for human behaviors. Now, it seems, every month brings a new MRI demonstrating some equivalent to your brain on cocaine: sugar, love, winning the lottery.

But what’s research without application? With Welcome to Your World, architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen addresses the field’s intriguing implications for the built environment. Readers interested in the subject may be familiar with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture or the work of Boston archi­tect Ann Sussman. There’s no shortage of articles and conferences. Goldhagen offers something different: a coherent structure for sorting through myriad recent studies, a set of guidelines for designing a world more attuned to human cognition and experience, and a moral argument for doing so.

One of our best architecture thinkers, Goldhagen is an artful wordsmith and a generous writer, carefully defining technical terms, offering familiar examples of abstract concepts, and providing photos (most in color) of the buildings and places she describes.

Money, status, and sophistication are no protection from what Goldhagen dubs “sorry places.” The public accepts the banal consequences because we are wired to favor the familiar, even if it is not in our best interest. Although some designers do create experientially rich environments — either through intuition or deliberate practice — our educational system effectively thwarts such efforts. Design studios favor object making, with the goal of attracting a professor’s attention. Students have little exposure to fields such as sociology, environmental psychology, or cognition, which are essential to understanding experiential design. It’s akin to MDs who do not study nutrition.

The brain, we now know, is wonderfully plastic, capable of adapting and responding to stimuli over a lifetime. Recent studies demonstrate the limitations of our traditional cultural assumption of a mind/body dichotomy. The mind and body are interactive parts of a whole, a system of continuous nonconscious processing that occurs simultaneously within three spheres: the body, the natural world, and the social world.

In countless examples, Goldhagen demonstrates that places not only affect our immediate experience and cognition but also are deeply connected to memory and identity. Something as mundane as garbage odors on a city street can influence your interpretation of a problem that you are mulling as you walk to work. Long-term impressions are susceptible, too. A cogent analysis of Gund Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where Goldhagen was a professor for 10 years) explains why few alums ever express affection for their alma mater despite their respect for its programs.

Goldhagen offers some specifics based on cognitive research. Humans favor surface over form. They take pleasure in discerning patterns. They reject complex illegibility (hence the thankfully short life of Deconstructionism). They enjoy changeability, especially from natural light. Goldhagen applies her findings to an insightful analysis of the Scottish Parliament building by Enric Miralles. (For a case study without a plane ticket, visit Moshe Safdie’s still-extraordinary addition to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.) Indeed, one quiet success of Welcome to Your World is its development of a yardstick for future architectural criticism.

Why is any of this important? Millions of people are now living and working in “non-place places,” built for expedience and profit. Impoverished environments are like cages, depriving us of health and well-being but, more shockingly, of the ability to reach our full capabilities. In this, Goldhagen expresses no doubt: “Experiential design is not optional.” Her readers will share her conviction.

Elizabeth S. Padjen FAIA is an architect and writer. She was the founding editor of ArchitectureBoston.

Architecture Matters
Aaron Betsky
Thames & Hudson, 2017
Reviewed by Christina Marsh AIA

Part memoir and part manifesto, Architecture Matters draws from Aaron Betsky’s diverse experiences within and engaging with the profession. Written to appeal both to the architecture community and to a general audience, the book seeks to define not just the importance of architecture in the world today but its future trajectory as well.

Written in an accessible, conversational tone, this series of concise essays covers a wide range of topics, with some essays sequentially building on one another, while others meander down side paths. And it is perhaps best to come to this book with the intention of meandering. Betsky, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, opens that approach to readers in the end notes, writing: “This volume does not pretend to be either an academic statement or a rigorous analysis of architecture. Rather, it is a recording of how I learned to love architecture and what I learned along the way.” If you accept this premise and embrace the book as a series of musings and recollections rather than a finely tuned argument, it becomes a pleasurable, intriguing read.

The most resonant moments occur when the idea of memoir and manifesto are deftly intertwined. The book opens with just such a recollection, when Betsky describes the transformational experience of visiting Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House in the Netherlands. A high school student, he was invited to see it at the behest of his teacher, a friend of Mrs. Schröder. The palpable awe of the skeptical high schooler, as he discovered the power of the home’s design, sets the journey that the reader is about to embark on. Other such recollections, of an experience or a building that reveals an essential premise of architecture, are poignant moments that punctuate the book.

Betsky also seeks to cast the net wide and take on a series of topics that explore the definition of architecture. I appreciate the essays that call for architecture to take on neglected territory. He posits that a focus on monumentality and perfection has limited architecture’s reach and its future relevance. Architecture needs to broaden its definition to engage with temporary architecture, the condition of sprawl, and the planning and organization of cities and towns. A series of essays delves into bricolage as a methodology, another into the use of data and “deep planning,” and a third set explores alternative ways of using computational power. The final series of linked essays focuses on architecture’s ability to create and inspire awe.

Given the unique formatting of the book, and its premise of being a collection rather than a cohesive argument, one begins to toy with the idea of transforming the order of its mini-essays. Would this reordering create a completely different book, a different argument, or a different takeaway? By the time the reader reaches the final pages, the idea of a series of recollections begins to fight the trajectory that a book format, read over time with a beginning, middle, and end, naturally sets up. Concluding with how works of inhabitable art better capture the essence of architecture than buildings do runs counter to the promise of a more collective, collaborative practice outlined earlier in the book. So be sure to take Betsky’s invitation of happy hunting to heart, reorganize as you see fit, and conclude by revisiting your favorite parts of the journey.

Christina Marsh AIA is a founding principal at Atelier et Alia, an architecture, research, and design firm that creates innovative, contemporary design solutions.

Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political
Edited by Mohsen Mostafavi
Lars Müller Publishers, 2017
Reviewed by Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA

“Ethics travels along a Möbius strip of meaning. Sometimes it describes the maintenance of consensus around stated principles. Sometimes, in a partial inversion, it describes the maintenance of dissensus around a necessarily indeterminate struggle with circumstance and evidence,” writes architect Keller Easterling in one of 16 essays in this collection exploring the ethical and political implications of urban space. Grouped around themes of cities and citizenship, monuments and memorials, neighborhoods and neighborliness, public space and public sphere, borders and boundaries, these essays are a continuation of Harvard Graduate School of Design’s 2012 conference of the same name.

A common thread is the tension between the ethical responsibility of citizens toward the creation of shared space and the governmental policies that build it. Through a combination of written and photo essays, democratic struggles are presented with the city as theater and citizens as actors. Although there are recent references such as Ferguson, Missouri, and the Arab Spring movement, I found myself wondering how the authors would address 2017 events, such as the citizen action to remove Confederate statues in New Orleans or the popularity of Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl statue in the public realm of New York City’s Financial District. “Cities have distinctive capacities to transform conflict into the civic,” writes sociologist Saskia Sassen. While some public monuments serve to provide the underserved or marginalized a voice, others — through their representation — reinforce oppressive meaning and memory.

In an honest, well-written essay about the realization of the World Trade Center Memorial, architect Michael Arad describes his discovery of community and belonging in the public realm immediately after September 11 and the complexity of combining the sacred and the everyday into a public memorial. He writes, “Design is always about dealing with constraints creatively; design without constraints is pointless, though design with nothing but constraints is impossible.” His description of how community input and the construction process enhanced the design is one that all aspiring architects should read. “Design is a process guided by clear direction,” says Arad, “but open to change and discovery.”

Most of the essays deal with the role of the political agent in shaping civic space. In “The Fair City: Can We Design Neighborhood Equality?” professor Robert J. Sampson draws a connection between the concentration of socioeconomic and racial isolation with perceived adverse neighborhood characteristics. Inequity in the United States is reinforced when residents choose to live close to those who share the same values, which he terms “the social matrix of adversity.” These individual choices have collective implications on neighborhood policy, funding, and organization. In the context of the Imagine Boston 2030 Plan, for Boston to be the fair city of the future, it “will take efforts as persistent as the inequality it seeks to reduce,” says Sampson.

Two essays directly address ethics and the role of democracy in the spatial realm. Architectural historian Michelle Provoost questions whether the physical elements of a city reflect the citizens’ values or if the level of democracy is determined by the ways in which cities are conceived, managed, and built. She contends that we often look at iconic buildings as reflections of our civic values, but small-scale, bottom-up initiatives serve an equally important democratic purpose.

Particularly striking is the argument that Sassen raises about the urbanization of war. Despite cities emerging as strategic economic and political targets of violence, “coalitions [bring] together residents who may have thought they could never collaborate.” Political theorist Chantal Mouffe terms this “agnostic pluralism” — recognizing that though our differences may define us, as a collective we can create ongoing democratic efforts to face future urban challenges.

Emily Grandstaff-Rice FAIA, a senior associate at Arrowstreet, was recently elected 2018–2020 at-large director of the American Institute of Architects.