Welcome to the New Frontier of Architecture

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Australian Embassy in Washington, US, designed by Australian architectural firm Bates Smart

Hands up if you’ve heard of the exciting new field of neuroarchitecture. Better yet, can you claim to have a solid understanding of this field?

If, like most of the world, you’re hazy about the details or only have a nebulous idea of what this discipline actually does, it’s time to brush up, my friends, because neuroarchitecture is a field of study that is not going to fade into a forgotten place; so let me be the electricity in your ‘lightbulb’ moment.

Thanks to advances in neuroscience and technology, it’s now possible to track our heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature and skin conductance – which measures our sweat glands and tells us about arousal – as well as our brain activity and hormonal responses when we pass through rooms and buildings.

I recently had the honour of being among 30 specialised architecture and design journalists chosen from around the world to contribute to Roca Gallery’s new website with an article on this very subject. Well known throughout Europe, this Spanish brand is a progressive global authority on architecture and design. For the article (which you can read here) I interviewed Dr Oshin Vartanian, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada, and neuroscientist, author and design consultant, Dr Colin Ellard, about the subject.

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Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, designed by Bates Smart © John Gollings

“Neuroarchitecture resides at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and architecture,” Vartanian explains in the article. “Its aim is to provide an empirical framework for creating environments that can optimise human behaviour, health and wellbeing.”

Vartanian and Ellard belong to a celebrated cohort of neuroscientists who measure our physiological responses to space and place, both in-situ and in virtual reality laboratories, and what they’ve discovered is game-changing.

“When people are asked to perform a stressful task, there is much greater physiological reactivity, as measured by the cortisol response, if they are placed in an enclosed space than if they are placed in a space that offers virtual openings for escape,” Vartanian explains. “Given that cortisol is a well-established biomarker of stress, this is akin to saying that people in the enclosed condition experienced more stress under those circumstances.”

So if you’ve ever felt uneasy, jittery or hyper-alert being in a particular room or building (and who hasn’t?) the architecture and design could be partly responsible. A lot goes on in our brains and bodies when we feel this way – the hypothalamus in your brain instructs your adrenals to release the ‘stress’ hormones, adrenaline and cortisol; your heart beats faster to oxygenate your blood; and your muscles tense in preparation to propel you out of what your brain has unconsciously perceived to be an unsafe space.

On the other hand, when you feel that welcome and uplifting sense of awe upon walking through ancient ruins or a carefully considered architectural jewel, a set of structures in our brain associated with experiencing emotions and reward lights up. We often subconsciously slow our pace to absorb the richness of the space. And oxytocin floods our system and fills us with a sense of pleasure.

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Vartanian, Ellard and other neuroscientists have revealed that people react positively to curved contours rather than sharp angles, to high ceilings instead of low ones, to open floor plans over enclosed layouts, and to varied façades over monotonous buildings. Neuroarchitecture is beginning to interpret and translate our own responses to ourselves. In a short space of time this fledgling discipline has already enriched our understanding of how we relate to different disciplines of the built environment, from architecture to interior design to urban planning. We can only imagine – and wait with bated breath – what it will reveal next.

Julia-Fairley_once

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