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Between Theory and Practice. Interview with Mengfei Wang (Mdes Harvard GSD)

Towards a Neuroarchitectural Interpretation System.

A couple of weeks ago I had the magnificent opportunity to participate as a speaker at the Symposium of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture 2020 (ANFA 2020) in a virtual format due to the pandemic. The presentation that I presented is mainly focused on the definition of a system of interpretation of cognitive sciences in relation to its practical application in architecture. This study is still a field to be explored, and there is still confusion about the concepts and the relationship between neuroscience and architecture.

It is worth clarifying that this relationship seeks to analyze the information and data that studies of the brain and human behavior show in the face of stimuli and the perception of the built environment. In this sense, there is an important formulation and task for architects and designers, and it is about understanding and reviewing our design research methodology, our solutions, and of course the stimuli generated with each architectural element.

The interpretation system for neuroarchitecture that I propose covers four important points. They are based on the relationship of treatises on the theory of architecture and data analysis on studies of human behavior and the perception of space. In this sense, the interpretation system for neuroarchitecture is based on four fundamental concepts: semiotics, cognitive, dynamics, and Gestalt, and that could help us to define a methodological system to address design solutions with a wide sensory spectrum.

After presenting my investigation, I have been contacted by colleagues and friends, such as Mengfei Wang, a Harvard GSD graduate student, and with whom after an email interview, I began a conversation full of reflections on the matter. I invite you to read the following interview and conversation by email in November 2020.

Mengfei Wang (MW): As John Paul Eberhard implied in his book Brain Landscape, the reasons why studying architectural experience scientifically might be difficult are "such conscious activity rests on too many unique historical patterns, many ambiguous references, and incomparable samples" and "each individual's conscious experiences are based on his or her special cultural context and unique memories." I believe the framework you provided could give neuroscientists a relatively clear clue to follow in order to understand what aspects of architecture make more sense to architects. But I am wondering in what circumstance this interpretation system could apply, an architectural design process where neuroscientists need to be involved, or a scientific experiment where neuroscientists would like to study a certain built environment?  

Luis Othon (LO): I agree with you, I’m exploring a system that will allow us to interpret information on neuroscience and applied it to architecture, however, our ability to decipher this data is still in the first phase. I don't think we will be able to create a perfect formula, but I truly believe that as soon as we are able to connect what has already been written and done by others in the past, we will be able to provide better “research-based” design solutions. In this sense, we could better understand behavior, stimuli, aesthetics, language, and human perception within the built environment, and intersecting these with the specifics of contexts, ideologies, cultures, and conventions, as well as personal and intimate experiences, and of course a renovated architectural narrative. The interpretation system is a process for relating theories of architecture, essays, philosophies, thoughts, and strategies that have already been applied in architectural practice, and how they connect with neuroscience studies and following new approaches and experiments on the perception of built environments and stimulation of human behavior.

MW: Have you ever applied this descriptive system to a real practice? How did it work?

LO: In particular, I try to research what others have done in the past. I am a constant reader and researcher, so I try to apply what I read from others, I do experiments and create prototypes, sometimes it works better than others. The system I proposed links theories to neuroscience research to create design strategies. I like to think of these strategies as concepts to develop ideas for "event-escapes" supported by analytical and scientific studies, and based on architectural elements where users, clients, and stakeholders participate in the solution of a project. For example, one strategy could be to design visual constructs (theory) through framing with walls or windows, particularly to emphasize areas, spaces, and even activities, and to stimulate attention or even contemplation, where time becomes relevant to action on staying or leaving, movement and exploration (cognitive psychology), but also thinking about the effects of space preference, or even happiness, drowsiness, anxiety, decision-making, etc (brain reaction - neuroscience). I think it is important to support this narrative with scientific studies, but also with a linguistic approach to semantics, ideologies and memories, and to evoke sensory connections with room temperature, color, signs and materials that users can recognize as their own, of the culture, religion, etc. A few years ago I developed a restaurant using semiotics related to context, colors and religious festivals; not only as abstract elements of architecture, but also approaching the sense of community and belonging, involving local artisans and artists in the project and sharing values ​​with the end users. These strategies created a better project, users favored the environment, felt at home and in their own place, resulting in better experiences in space and happy returns to the restaurant. (Clients may release endorphins each time they return to this space - recalling memories of pleasant moments)

MW: The four conceptual constructs in the descriptive system are named -- "The semiotics", "The gestalt", "The dynamics", "The cognitive". Do you think each of them can be clearly separated from each other or they actually have some overlaps? 

LO: After continuous reviews of my research, I agree that they intersect, in fact, I find this overlap to be important because it allows me to differentiate one concept from the other. Each concept encompasses a specific meaning in a particular narrative. I will try to explain it, for example, semiotics directly relates symbols as a recognized language of elements (architectural or not) in relation to intimate and conventional experiences or memories. In the case of Gestalt, it allows recognizing the "forms" as a meaning for ontological environments, which marks a clear difference with the previous one. Each concept differs from the other, but they all interact or interconnect with one or the other. The study is still ongoing.

MW: To study the relationships between the human brain and the built environment, there are different analysis levels: Gene, molecule, neuron, circuit, system, and behavior. What levels do you think should neuroarchitecture study cover?  LO: Christoph Metzger, defines neuroarchitecture as "the science that combines aspects of neuroscientific research with architectural elements designed to generate sensory stimulation in people. Good architecture addresses a multisensory spectrum." However, I think the concept of neuroarchitecture remains ambiguous. The combination of the two words can confuse an audience, and the damage done by this concept being associated with neuromarketing has diverted their formal intentions. We must simplify it by understanding that any architectural solution must go through scientific research based on cognitive sciences such as psychology and neuroscience. We must differentiate the biological neuroscience that investigates at the cellular and chemical brain level from the cognitive one, so we must differentiate the natural sciences from the cognitive ones, and of course, reviewing the concept of "neuro" architecture that seeks solutions through science informed designs. In this sense, I believe that all architecture must be supported by cognitive sciences. In my case, I dedicate a large part of my time to practice based on the investigation of the perception of spaces, and lately in the gastronomy and design industry, for example, what happens when making decisions about space and how we eat. I am exploring the effects of the built environment, human perception, and behavior, as well as the sensory stimulation of architecture when eating. I think the difference between psychology and neuroscience (both cognitive) lies above all in the objectives of each one and what is their particular interest. For psychology, it all relates to human cognition and behavior, and I think cognitive neuroscience is deeply concerned with the brain and stimulation. The two are closely related, but from what I can see, cognitive neuroscience looks for scientific data that can then support the other. In other words, I think psychology establishes observations and questions, while neuroscience looks for scientific data and answers at the brain chemical level that are then translated into behavior.

MW: What would be the key metrics for the system? How could architects tell if they successfully apply the system to achieve a better result? LO: I'm not really sure I have a clear answer to that yet, but I can see that it might be possible in the near future. What I really believe is that we as architects have a huge responsibility to call in clients and follow up on every design we create. In this sense, I believe that we should continue working on the design solutions that we create in the short and long term. In my case, I continue making phone calls to my clients after we finish a project, we call at least once a month for the first six months. I personally visit each restaurant, office, house (I have slept and spent weekends in houses that I designed) or institutions. I walk as a user and designer, I try to get feedback from all the users that I can interview. Maybe because my query is not too big I can do it, but I encourage you to bring all the problems, questions, and anecdotes that people have within our designs. Sometimes things are not as pleasant as we think, but these are the most important signs to improve what we are doing. The way we measure involves understanding the design program versus planned activities, comfort (all the senses), and functionality. As I said, our projects are very specific, and in the case of restaurants, we also focus on sales, people's opinions, and even internet ratings. I know it's a bit subjective, but this information allows us to provide details on preference and comfort issues, which can ultimately translate into design experience.

MW: As an experienced architect, could you provide some opinions on how to evoke more architects to notice "neuroarchitecture" and practice "science-informed design"?

LO: In my case, it has been a bit difficult to talk about it, most of the architects educated in traditional schools are not clearly informed about what this concept of science-based design is. Although some colleagues have an interesting practice and may have worked intuitively, some are still far from understanding this new dialogue. The Academy of traditional Architecture still does not connect the biological sciences, but little by little more and more architects and institutions are opening a new dialogue. I was invited to participate with ANFA in a group of educators who are trying to share experiences and work on these issues, and of course new Master Programs in Cognitive Sciences and Architecture around the world.

MW: What was the reason that made you start exploring this field? Is there a story? LO: In fact, there is a story, when I was studying architecture, my university program in Mexico was focused more on construction and less on theory. So at first, I wanted to study for a master's degree focused on theory and history. Then I found the Harvard GSD MDes program and enrolled in the Design and Environment concentration, what I liked about this program was that there was no design studio but a research focus. While I was at the GSD I met Paola Antonelli (Curator at MoMA New York), and I had the enormous opportunity to be her assistant on The State of Design, and she inspired me deeply. At that time Paola was working on the exhibition on Design and Elastic Mind, which blew me away. I saw the potential of design and how it can change people's minds, habits, and interactions, I related everything to architecture and soon began to think of design as a way to evoke linguistic narratives, experiences, and memories. So I started doing my own research on the brain and cognitive science. I moved to Mexico and started working in my practice and looking for essays and writings on the subject, also on neuromarketing and design experience. Also having worked for David Rockwell in New York opened my mind to a different perspective on architecture and interior design. Interior design is such a powerful tool and few architects understand it. In school, we learned about the building and the city, urban contexts, and large scale, but little do we understand the intimate scale and the joy of bringing back memories and narratives with "small" scale interior design. That is why I focus on the interior and the exterior, giving the exact balance, always understanding both scales, what we feel and experience in one or the other, and with the entire spectrum of the senses, not just sight, which is mainly what we learn. at school. The scale is so powerful and only by understanding the intimate can we understand ourselves and the built environment and of course its effects. This is why I am so passionate about cognitive science, emotions, and the human brain.

Mengfei Wang is an architect studying a Master in Design Studies at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her next step is a Doctorate on Research of Cognitive Sciences and Architecture. Cambridge Mass, November 2020.

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