The Architecture of Life: The Past Creates the Future

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Past Creates the Future

There are a lot of theorists - and I am among them - that trace their ideas about how the unconscious impacts human behavior all the way back to Freud and his predecessors. They are feeling pretty cocky today.

An article in the New York Times, called "For the Brain, Remembering Is Like Reliving" was published on September 4th, 2008.

That day was my birthday, and for me and the legitimacy of the ideas that inform my Truehome project, it was a heck of a birthday present.

The initial insight I had almost sixteen years ago; that how people react to features in their homes comes from subconscious memories of past environments in which they lived, and therefore those associations must be physiological aspects of their brains, has just been proven in large part.

According to the Times, "...spontaneous memories reside in some of the same neurons that fired most furiously when the recalled event had been experienced. Researchers had long theorized as much but until now had only indirect evidence. Experts said the study had all but closed the case: For the brain, remembering is a lot like doing."

My Truehome project was also discussed in a New York Times article in mid July of this year in a story called "Home Is Where the Head Is" by Penelope Green. It was subtitled, Emotional Architecture: Using Psychological Profiles to Design a Home.

As a result of that article, the method we have been developing in our architecture firm over the last decade - a method for designing homes that truly fit who people are - is attracting global media. That sudden shift in attention has changed everything for the little Internet start-up my son and I are building that is turning the Truehome Workshop into web-based software.

It also proves the ideas of many other theorists who are not focused on how the brain relates to our immediate environment - and to at least one other thinker - environmental psychologist, Toby Israel, whose book Some Place Like Home promotes exactly the same insight.

Toby coined the phrase "Design Psychology" and was the first voice I know who presented to the public nationally, systematic practical methods for the application of psychology to design.

I ran into Toby's book right after it was published in 2003 and saw that she was after exactly the same architectural "Holy Grail" I had been chasing. I imagine she is happy today too, as a major premise of the theory behind the ideas we share has been proven.

The study noted in the N. Y Times did not deal with long term memories in depth, nor did it define specifically how memories of past environments are associated with our current choices about our homes, but the finding is so global it is hard to imagine any other mechanism is involved besides what is proven by the study.

As noted in the article, "Though it did not address this longer-term process, the new study suggests that at least some of the neurons that fire when a distant memory comes to mind are those that were most active back when it happened, however long ago that was."

The bottom line is that evidence continues to mount that your home IS in your head...and that the choices you make today are a largely the result of choices you made, and experiences you had in your past. To people who help people create homes - architects, interior designers, Realtors and builders - this means that trying to create a home without understanding the psychology, values and history of the individuals who will live a fools errand.

It undermines the premise of "architecture should be informed by art and function alone" that dominates our architecture schools and fills our skylines with heartless glass and concrete boxes that fail to consider the sensibilities, physiology and culture of human beings.

It underlines the critical nature of "human factors" in design, because as natural beings who evolved in a natural world long before cities and complex societies evolved, it shows that we experience memories in the same exact way in which we originally experienced the events that created them. That includes memories embedded in our genetic and epigenetic lineage, as well as those built during our development.

And since each human being has a unique experience of life, this finding speaks for an individualized approach to architecture; not one that is standardized, pre-packaged, concept driven. Not an approach to design that forces us to fit into buildings...but an architecture that designs buildings that fit what people really are.

It also identifies a key neuropsychological mechanism in the brain that illuminates the "fuzzy boundaries" between humans and their environment - including their social environment - putting simplistic notions like "deconstruction" to shame for failing to acknowledge the interdependent complex adaptive systems in which we exist.

It vindicates an earlier trailblazer, scientist and architect, Christopher Alexander whose ideas were remarkably prescient, and Claire Cooper Marcus, whose 1995 book House as a Mirror of Self helped open the door for practitioners like me.

The full implications of this finding should turn architecture and design on its head. Sadly, such change is always slow as old methods die slowly. But no longer can anyone who understands what a human being really is, and how the brain works in regard to its environment, deny the nature of a true home!

Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Tel Aviv was the chief author of this research. His co-authors were Hagar Gelbard-Sagiv, Michal Harel and Rafael Malach of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and Roy Mukamel, of U.C.L.A. Gentlemen, you have my profound respect and deep appreciation.


Anonymous said...

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