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Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture

This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.

By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA
October 8, 2019

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. See Lesson Plans #1, #2, and #3 at the end of the feature.


Curator’s Note: Students protesting that their education is not focused upon saving the environment are largely unaware of deeper, foundational problems with the system. Sussman and Woodworth summarize here recent findings in neuroscience and psychology that students need to know. Architecture students can no longer afford to be ignorant of human biology, and of how structures affect our physiological and psychological health. When students realize this fundamental omission they will demand an alternative architectural education, since the present system is simply out-of-step with our time, our nature, and essential, biological requirements for health and wellbeing. — N.A.S.


Part One, by Ann Sussman, RA


The neglected nature of human experience


The student call for change in architectural education is timely and relevant, creating an exciting opportunity for young people to exercise leadership, create an architecture and design education that better fits our ecosystems, and promotes the health and welfare of the human beings on the planet.


The moment is ripe, the opportunity enormous – and there simply is no time to waste!


Architectural education today generally persists in neglecting human experience and our animal nature, promoting “detachment” from the consequences buildings have on users and the natural environment, as noted in an earlier article here by Nikos Salingaros. Most astonishing is how this neglect continues despite all the scientific advances defining our time – this new “Age of Biology,” which has developed fantastic new understandings of how the human body works, including how it responds to environmental stimuli in fractions of a second.


Designed (via our evolution) as a social engagement system, our brain is hard-wired to continually look at and interpret the intentions of other people. And because we don’t see “reality,” but instead a construct created by the eye and brain, this internal, hidden brain architecture sets the parameters for our external built architecture. Thus, buildings need to suggest a face and look like they are looking at us for humans to most easily regulate and feel our best. Designing in any other way is ultimately of questionable sustainability because it violates our pre-set evolutionary predispositions.


Today, we can track, in real time and relatively inexpensively, how the places we make instantly stress or soothe us, how our brains subliminally find new developments “approachable” or, the opposite, “avoidant.” Creating a built environment that promotes avoidant reactions, as most new developments do, devalues the public realm, encouraging us to stay in our cars, not even thinking about walking down a new street. Or, in the case of Boston’s new Seaport District, "loathing" the newest glassy-tower section of the city.


Architecture cannot afford to be avoidant


Remarkably, virtually all design fields today, except architecture, pay acute attention to human behavior. To ignore this dimension would impair their viability and very existence. The automobile industry, advertising, Artificial Intelligence, tech companies, business schools, and even a school of government, all invest in user-experience labs, performing rigorous preference studies. They use biometric tools, such as eye tracking, which follows how our eyes take things in without our conscious awareness, and facial expression analysis software, which tracks our shifting moods, to understand the impact of a stimulus in milliseconds and how changing its parameters changes our behavior without our conscious control.


These fields respect the client, acknowledging a key fact: Design begins with human nature – and we are strange, not logical but biological. We are bi-pedal mammals, the product of a 3.8 billion-year evolutionary journey. While we may live in a “modern” industrialized world, our brains and bodies remain ancient, pleistocene, those of hunter-gatherers – and they haven’t changed much in 35,000 years.


Acknowledging this contradiction, that we are modern-yet-ancient, provides the foundation for successful, sustainable architectural education moving forward.


And that’s really the crux of the issue students face today: To reframe architecture, we have to get the profession and its teachers curious about understanding who we are as humans and how we got here, and because of our evolutionary trip, how quirky and involuntary our responses to the built environment actually are. And, of course, we have to get developers, bankers, and governmental overlords, to care enough, too, by helping them see that if they aim to promote our health and welfare, they actually have no other choice but to make this paradigm shift happen.



Part Two by A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA


Visual processing for human survival


As social mammals we rely upon our group for survival, starting from birth. We are designed to respond to familiarity or unfamiliarity by means of the same fight/flight response mechanism that dominates other primates. To inform this system, our visual processing wiring has evolved to seek specific patterns, such as faces, as an instinctive early warning system. Visual processing makes up 50% of the human brain’s activity because of the importance of swift determination of unfamiliar faces and other threats to our survival.


Because our brains are wired to respond to specific cues and patterns, our visual processing system necessarily filters the information supplied by vision (by focusing upon very specific abstract patterns while ignoring “irrelevant” information that has not influenced our survival in the past). Our brains construct our perceptions based on biologically determined necessity. A face must be evaluated to determine if it is friend or foe. If we see fractal patterns, the pattern language of the natural world, we respond at an instinctual level. If confronted with a blank wall (or a glass tower) without facial or fractal patterns, we look away, as our brains have no inherent frame of reference to process this lack of relevant information.


The vagus nerve regulates human well-being


Fight/Flight is the response mechanism of our central nervous system to stress. Our parasympathetic nervous system has also evolved a mechanism of regulation that facilitates social interaction, learning, and creativity. A theory advanced by Dr. Stephen Porges (Director of the Brain/Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago) receiving widespread interest posits that the vagus nerve informs our emotional regulation and resilience.


The vagus (running down our neck and into the body) modulates our stress response with hard-wired neurological and physiological dynamics. Connecting all of the vital organs of the body, including the brain, the vagus nerve is reinforced in its adaptability and resilience by external safety cues, especially in a social context. At the same time, the vagus nerve is vulnerable to overwhelming stress coming from our sensory system. Researchers refer to “vagal tone” as the quality and capacity of this nerve for stress modulation and regulation. Vagal tone is directly related to the quality of environmental conditions, including social interactions.


The quality of the built environment has been shown to impact learning and health, healing and pain tolerance, as well as productivity and mood. A carefully designed environment (that follows known human responses, not some architectural style) can facilitate teamwork and creativity and even improve our physical and mental health.


The built environment should promote human health


Knowing this raises specific questions: Why are all environments, exterior as well as interior, not designed to reduce stress and promote health? Why are the tools that have been developed to measure our parasympathetic responses not employed as part of the design process? And, of course, why are architecture students not taught these valuable insights and instructed to utilize these valuable tools?


Only a system of architectural education that answers these questions honestly is worth investing in, and is capable of forming young architects who will work to save the Earth and humankind.


“Anthropocene” is a term used to describe the era in which we currently live, when human activity dominates environmental conditions. Whether we proceed with deliberation and care or continue our reckless behavior, it will be our actions that determine the future of life on Earth. We have the tools and understanding to survive, even flourish. With dramatic advancements in our understanding of the human central nervous system and brain chemistry, we are also on the brink of being able to meaningfully manipulate our own nature, our brain waves and neural circuits.


This manipulation can either serve commercial interests (negative) or reinforce our innate social nature (positive). We can realize the worst in grotesque science fiction fantasies or create a world of well-being by becoming stewards of our ecosystem, social and personal regulation, and evolution. In the Anthropocene, humans can remake not only the world we live in, but we can also transform ourselves. Architects can promote the best in human nature through the environments we produce, or not. How we educate future design professionals will be a deciding factor.



Ann Sussman RA, co-author of Cognitive Architecture, Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment (2014), teaches Architecture & Cognition, a new class at the Boston Architectural College.


A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA, is Service Leader for Life Safety and Codes at Fitzemeyer & Tocci Associates, a leading engineering firm for health science institutions in Woburn, Massachusetts, and a member of the faculty at the Boston Architectural College.


See also:

Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education
We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton


Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change
The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects.
By Duo Dickinson


Lesson Plan #1 "Signs versus Symptoms": A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Nikos A. Salingaros

Sensitive architectural education with intellectual weight reflects adaptive architecture that evolved along with humanity itself.

Courtesy Ann Sussman

Because of the evolution of our central nervous system, we need buildings to “look” like us – with obvious bilateral “face-like” symmetry about the vertical axis.