Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

Cold Dinners and Hot Buildings

Can brain science help us to build better architecture?

Posted Oct 02, 2012

Last week, I had dinner at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.  The experience was ineffable, but the food would have been slightly better if it hadn’t been left sitting cold on the plate shortly after being served.  Let me explain.

This magnificent building was designed by Louis Kahn in the early 1960s after a commission from Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine.  Kahn’s ambitious vision for the building was that it would stand as a piece of architecture that could, simply by virtue of its form, inspire great science.  On every level, the building appears to have been a success, and now that I’ve had a chance to walk around inside the space and to explore its outer shell and surrounding site, I’m not very surprised by this.  In preparation for his task, Kahn studied everything from ancient Roman methods for concrete work (since when does concrete glow?) to the principles of design used in serene monasteries.  He had the perfect site, nestled in low hills on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, a keen and indulgent collaborator in Salk, and no shortage of incredible ideas for building labs, offices, and meeting sites that hid all of the mechanical guts of the building magically out of sight, leaving nothing but a feast of inspiring open spaces and smaller lab and office suites whose form followed their function in perfect harmony.  The iconic capstone of the building is a vast, marble plaza that divides the two main towers of the complex, and through the center of the plaza runs a single, narrow channel of water that connects the roving eye of the visitor with the ocean.  There’s even something very special about this channel’s orientation.  At equinox, the sun sets in a perfect intersection with end of the channel, forming a sublime symmetry of water, fire, and stone.

And now back to dinner.  Several hundred registrants of the inaugural meeting of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture had just found seats in the impressive rotunda of the Salk, and the servers were swooping from table to table placing delicious meals in front of us.  I hadn’t eaten much through the day, so I was ready to pounce on the food.  I picked up my fork, took aim at a nicely roasted piece of beef, and then looked up to witness the spectacle of a room full of hungry guests leaping from their chairs and stampeding for the exit doors.  Fire?  Not exactly.  Did I mention the date?  It was September 21.  Autumnal equinox.  I’ve been to many conferences, but I’ve never seen an entire body of professionals run, en masse, away from a good meal and an open bar in order to catch a glimpse of the setting sun.  With a wistful backward glance at my mashed potatoes, I followed the crowd and I was glad I did.  Those few moments helped to knit together a few of the thoughts I’d had about this particular conference.

The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture is a relatively new organization whose goal is to find channels of communication and encourage collaboration between those, like me, who study the brain and its workings and those who build.  The attendees at this first meeting came from a wild array of backgrounds ranging from those who are trying to understand brain function at the level of individual molecules and proteins to roboticists, specialists in lighting design, and accomplished architects whose main interest is in building beautiful and functional buildings.  What we all shared was a desire to find ways to apply exciting new developments in neuroscience to the design of the built world.  There was a wonderful sense of newness, excitement, and healthy disorientation.  How to join together such different kinds of expertise and harness their collective understanding and methods to advance such an important set of problems?  We listened to talks coming from every corner of this gigantic space of shared experiences.  Architects gamely jotted down notes about the niceties of the molecular basis of learning and memory, while neuroscientists widened their gaze to try to appreciate the design considerations that were at play in building a beautiful library or a healing prison. I left the meeting filled with new ideas (some of them probably a bit crazy) and a lot of energy.  I also left the meeting with the distinct feeling that I had been lucky enough to be in on something very important at its very beginning.  The world is changing quickly.  Cities are becoming denser. As we confront the effects of human activity on climate, and deal with dwindling supplies of cheap fossil fuel, energy considerations for the design of sustainable buildings are becoming less forgiving.  It’s looking more and more as though economies of the future will be very different from those of the past—perhaps almost unrecognizable by today’s standards.  The advent of a new kind of mobility based on the Internet and mobile computing has changed the rules of the game.  But what will not change are the basics of human biology—the operating principles that govern the function of our minds.  Perhaps brain scientists, with their impressive array of tools for measuring, analyzing, and interpreting human responses to our environment might hold one important key for helping to catapult the capabilities of designers and architects to build a world that allows us to thrive with these new equations.

As I stood and watched the perfect conjunction of stone, fire, and water that Louis Kahn had artfully set in place around the time that I was born, sacrificing a hot dinner seemed a trivial price to pay to share in these heady possibilities.

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