Worshipping the Sun God
Evolution, architecture, and the new Wooster Hall
Posted September 23, 2016
When I first started as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, my office was a little bit disappointing. While most faculty in the Psychology Department at the time were in the Faculty Tower, for some reason, the office that was slated for me was in the old Wooster Science Building. This building, designed and built in the Brutalist architecture tradition, was essentially a giant concrete slab with some hallways and rooms found therein. Some folks called it the Death Star. Even the top floor, where my office was, felt like a basement.
My office was a closet that was behind a giant room that housed our campus’ electron microscope - along with lots of beakers and other very science-esque kinds of things. The outer door to the hallway had two large signs. One said “Electron Microscope” and the other, red in color, simply said “Warning.” I like to be welcoming to my students, so I have to say that I was kind of disappointed in these digs.
Students, of course, could pretty much never find me. The only student I remember visiting me there was an older blind student named Ernie. I would hear him open the outer door and then start poking around with a cane to try to find me. Only a few glass beakers shattered during this process typically - and I was usually able to get to him and bring him into my office to discuss his research project ...
Changes Over Time
A lot has changed since I was first housed in Wooster in 2000. For one, I’m now into my fourth office - and my newest office is pretty awesome! As for the Wooster Science Building, it’s kind of gone. Over the past half-decade or so, this building has undergone a full-out renovation. It was completely gutted and the state secured nearly $40,000,000 to not only renovate - but, also, to fully transform this building into something amazing.
The newly opened Wooster Hall, which had its ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this month, is an amazingly designed structure - and the Psychology Department has thousands of square feet of offices, labs, and research spaces found therein.
Incorporating Evolution into Architectural Design
Our university hired the award-winning NYC-based architectural firm, Croxton Collaborative Architects, led by Randolph Croxton.
Mr. Croxton does more than just design buildings. Interestingly, it turns out that he also has more than a passing interest in the field of evolutionary psychology - or how understanding human evolution can help us understand modern behavior and psychological processes. In fact, Mr. Croxton recently published a very interesting book that is all about human evolutionary psychology - titled A Convergence of Two Minds.
So I was not surprised by Mr. Croxton’s comments at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He talked about the kinds of environments humans need so as to feel safe and the kinds of environments that people need so as to thrive. He talked about how humans feel relatively comfortable when they can see their surroundings in an expansive manner. And he talked about how important ambient daylight is for optimal human functioning. All of these features have been documented by evolutionary psychologists (see Gaulin & McBurney, 2004) as mapping onto the kinds of environments that existed under ancestral human conditions.
Needless to say, Wooster Hall (no longer Wooster Science Building) is a completely transformed entity. No longer is this a dark, dank, dungeon place. Wooster is now teeming with light. Even many inner rooms seem to somehow have light entering in at all times. The energy of this building is amazing. Every day that I walk into my office, all I think is that I don’t have any motivation to leave whatsoever! And I know that many of my colleagues and students feel the same way!
Worshipping the Sun God
As someone with a deep interest in ancestral patterns of human psychology, Mr. Croxton took another step in designing the building - and this part is just awesome! Given the fact that this building focuses on the theme of natural sunlight, Mr. Croxton envisioned something akin to Stonehenge within the building itself. And yesterday, at solar noon of the Autumnal equinox, this vision was realized. In short, there is an amazing stairway in the large foyer of the building - a foyer that is, of course, filled with natural light. That stairway is on an exact path of north/south. There are special windows on the ceiling - and the design of this element of the building is such that the light from these windows will shine brightly at the foot of this stairway on each equinox in a special pattern - and that it will light up the top of the stairway each summer solstice.
Yesterday (9/22/2016) was the Autumnal equinox - and solar noon in our area was set for 12:48 p.m. Knowing about this design feature of the building, a bunch of people from around campus came over to Wooster to check it out. And the sun did not disappoint us! Per the master plan of Wooster Hall, the sunlight came to the foot of the great stairway at precisely 12:48 just as it was supposed to. And it was really cool. It felt like being part of a druidic ritual! Nice touch, Mr. Croxton!
Design and Human Psychology
Humans evolved under conditions that mismatch modern conditions in many important ways (see Geher, 2014; Platek et al., 2011). One of the great and tangible achievements of modern evolutionary psychology has been to elucidate this point for those in society who sculpt our environments. Modern architecture, in many ways, is capitalizing on the themes and findings of evolutionary psychology - designing spaces that take into account ancestral human conditions and the deep history of human evolution.
Rooted in Darwin’s profound insights about evolution, human evolutionary psychology has demonstrated a powerful ability to shed light (!) on all aspects of what it means to be human. Those of us who work toward improving the world for the future, can benefit from incorporating the work of evolutionary psychology into their work. As a client of the newly renovated Wooster Hall at the State University of New York at New Paltz, I feel privileged to work in a space that was clearly designed with such an evolutionarily informed mindset. Long live the Sun God! And big thanks to Mr. Randy Croxton and his team - five-stars and two thumbs up!
I'd write more, but I'm really just itching to get to the office! ...
References and Resources
Croxton, R. R. (2015). A Convergence of Two Minds. Palustrus.
Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (in contract). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gaulin, S. J. C., & McBurney, D. H. (2004). Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Pearson.
Platek, S., Geher, G., Heywood, L., Stapell, H., Porter, R., & Waters, T. (2011). Walking the walk to teach the talk: Implementing ancestral lifestyle changes as the newest tool in evolutionary studies. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 41-51. Special issue on EvoS Consortium (R. Chang, G. Geher, J. Waldo, & D. S. Wilson, Eds).