cognitive_architectureCognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment
Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander
Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
711 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10017, USA;
2014. 212 pages. Paperback, $59.95.

“Cognitive architecture” is a term that had nothing to do with any built physical structure—until now.

Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander’s Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment is an effort to shape a body of biological and psychological conclusions about architecture into a framework for thinking about just what deeper traits shape human preferences about the built environment. It is an effort that, if not always convincing, is thought provoking.

The chief merit of Cognitive Architecture—suitable for a book about “multiple subconscious tendencies that govern [human] responses to built environments”—is in collecting a body of points that are not exactly new but that are rarely considered as a whole. That most prefer bounded spaces and symmetrical structures is not news; an effort to link these preferences to human biology is. The book is framed around four propositions of varying strength: “edges matter,” “shapes matter,” “shapes carry weight,” and “storytelling is key.”

The first proposition seems the strongest—that the human taste for coherent bounded streetscapes is not mere new urbanist nostalgia. Instead, it is likely derived from a scientific concept, thigmotaxis, which holds that “wall hugging” or “wall following”—the tendency to derive comfort from spaces with boundaries that also offer clear routes of advance or exit—is an age-old survival tendency in mammals.

That the Rue de Rivoli in Paris wins out in every sense of pedestrian appeal over Kallman McKinnell & Wood’s Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in the Boston Civic Center is not new; what is new is to see it contextualized within human and other mammal studies of how space is navigated.

The authors also link Eric Kandel’s work on the neuroscience of facial recognition to the golden rectangle—a shape whose rough 1 to 1.618 proportions have been observed across art and architecture—showing that a preference for symmetry in construction is derived from the tendency of humans to find comfort in any approximation of the human face.

A related analysis of great public spaces confirms a tendency of designers to set their bounds near the limits of discerning a human figure: sports facilities, St. Peter’s Square in Rome, and the Place des Vosges in Paris observe this 328-foot (100 m) rule, but Kallman McKinnell’s Boston City Hall Plaza does not.

Later chapters venture into somewhat more conjectural assertions. Use of architectural shapes, whether simple or complex, that are favored in preference surveys—such as curvilinear shapes—make sense for designers. The basic association in these surveys of pointed shapes with threats also seems to be true, and yet this clearly did not alter hundreds of years of practice of topping every cathedral with pointed elements.

The chapter on storytelling grounds itself fairly well in Frank Lloyd Wright’s narrative of spaces, though if a progression of rooms is intended to tell a story, it often does not tell us very much. The chapter seems strained rather than enhanced by the choice of the Villa Lante Gardens in Italy, which are—literally—organized historically: the vast majority of buildings do not orchestrate progressions from Pleistocene parlors to atomic-age bedrooms.

The occasional logical leap is not much of a demerit in a book that has an angle that is fresh and a philosophical thrust that surely is sound—arguing for “an inside-out approach to . . . solving the riddle of how to best design for humanity” and for an effort to puzzle out the preferences inside our heads before we set out to design the buildings to surround them.

Anthony Paletta writes the “Spaces” column for the Wall Street Journal and contributes to Metropolis, Gizmodo, the Awl, the Daily Beast, and other publications.