The quickest fix for unhealthy architecture is to realize the client is an animal and not a machine. All “cures” follow from that. Human perception is the threshold that determines what we see, and it occurs in a brain that evolved much more slowly than our current technology.
This disconnect between what we’ve evolved to see and what we can build today is at the root of much of the dysfunction in our modern environment. It’s a biology and technology mismatch, not unlike our modern sugary diets or overly sedentary lifestyles. Just because we can do these things today — laze around or build blank, boxy buildings — doesn’t mean that it’s good for us over the long haul. Mother Nature has a way of asserting her hegemony in the end, reminding us we haven’t been following her rules.
Looking at ourselves as animals, we can see how wonderfully weird we are as a species. It’s not merely that we have a huge brain — larger than any other creature on the planet when body mass is considered — it’s how oddly that brain is put together. For one thing, we don’t handle the senses democratically at all. Our brain evolved to prioritize one sense: vision.
While we “see” with our eyes, our brain processes the inputs to create a picture of the world. And though we traditionally talk about four other basic senses, 50 percent of our mental apparatus goes toward visual processing. No wonder the cat looks at you oddly when you can’t tell there’s a mouse in the kitchen or that the dog’s marked the carpet; your vision bias preempts your registering other smelly stimuli.
Understanding our brain’s voracious visual appetite can explain a lot of our architectural experience, including why strolling through the Back Bay can be effortless for blocks on end, while doing so around an office park is much less so. It can help us under- stand why tourists spend time outside Trinity Church but not so much outside the neighboring Hancock tower, arguably another significant Boston landmark. It’s simple, really. The tower’s glass façade doesn’t feed our brain what it delights in seeing: rounded forms, diverse detail, symmetrical arrangements — exactly what’s on the church menu.
This doesn’t mean that every building needs to feature granite and sandstone checkerboard motifs, but it does suggest that it’s critical to consider our biological predispositions: how we love looking at natural materials and shapes, how we innately seek out shade and safe places to sit, how the best new buildings anticipate and meet our subconscious requirements.
And it suggests something else entirely: How much we gain by thinking “inside out.” How much we have to learn about who we are, how we came to be, and what we’re wired to do — since it has secured our survival — and how significant that is for building better places for people. Ironically, only by acknowledging our animal past can we hope to build the most humane places.
“The broader our understanding of the human experience, the better our design will be,” Steve Jobs once said. This idea formed the foundation of Apple Computer’s stratospheric success. There’s no reason it can’t do the same for architecture.