Human cognizance is the ultimate frontier challenging adaptability in a space. Establishing a sense of identity and place-making are reasoned in every epoch. Fred Gage, an American professor and neuroscientist observed: “although the brain controls our behaviour and genes control brain structure, the environment can modulate the function of genes and ultimately the structure of the brain and therefore can change our behaviour. The architectural design changes our brains and behaviour”.
The empathetic relationship between human emotions and an inanimate environment further justifies the need for change in placemaking.
The impact of Terra Amata and the Pantheon in a given space and time created a series of human cognitive and motor impulses which has resulted in certain social behaviour. This Time has played a significant role in shaping the mould of space-making on earth. In retrospect from the agricultural revolution, a series of organised activities have directly impacted its built form, which focused on the localisation of agricultural practice and produce. Whereas the organisational activities during the hunter-gathering phase were more temporal.
But where is the specific link between human cognition and the built environment?
The answer is memory; the ‘London Taxi Drivers study’ analyses how navigational demands stimulate brain development. Neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire of University College London (U.C.L.) studied London cab drivers to understand how their memory helps them swiftly navigate through the streets of London. She discovered that the London cab drivers had more grey matter in their posterior hippocampus (Hippocampus is a complex brain structure embedded deep into the temporal lobe. It has a major role in learning and memory.), which expanded to accommodate cognitive demands for navigation.
These physical changes in the brain due to cognitive exercises have a large impact on the reality we live in. Change is inevitable and the brain’s neural plasticity is proof.
Another mind-blowing fact is that the hippocampus not only stores long-term memory but also contains ‘place recognition neurons’, which means that these recognition neurons precede our memory of a place. In simple words, architecture and the built environment help shape individual identities.
Factors shaping the memory of a place are the design elements such as textural tectonics, Active transportation, visual identifiers (gateways, signages, etc.) and user amenities (bike racks, benches, seat walls, etc.). We know of how crowds, sudden noises and blaring alarms induce physiological stress. But this stress from a cognitive perspective disorients our decision-making skills and problem-solving abilities. Architectural projects that deeply consider these neurological symptoms can deliver better neurological and architectural comfort to people and spaces.
All of this boils down to us—humankind and their senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. Good lighting for example enhances our concentration and uplifts our mood. Skylights, Venetian blinds bring in positive energy and kill all the harmful bacteria inside our homes. These are basic factual data available and taught in school. Yet highly ignored. Multisensory perception research brings in necessary guidelines that govern sensory integration in the perception of objects and events.
The phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been the most popular notion that has defined space. Architects like Le Corbusier have also stated “I exist in life only if I can see”. This shows that architecture has always had only a visual medium of expression.
Here are some examples of spaces built to heighten human senses:
- Sound: Anechoic Chamber, South Bank University, London
- Sight: Backside Of The Moon, Naoshima
- Smell: The Art of Scent, Museum of Art and Design, New York City
- Taste: Chocolate Room, American Pavilion, Venice
- Touch: Hazelwood School, Glasgow
Now, let’s look into each one by one!
1. Sound: Anechoic Chamber, South Bank University, London
This is an eco-free space of 5.2 x 4.8 x 3.5m designed to achieve perfect silence within a volume of space. There is no penetration of exterior sound nor is there any reflection of sound within the chamber. It is made of very heavy concrete walls and the internal panelling is done with 70cm long foam wedges and heavy sound-proof doors.
2. Sight: Backside Of The Moon, Naoshima
In the residential areas of Kadoya, Minamidera, Kinza, Go’o Shrine, Ishibashi, Gokaisho, and Haisha artists convert empty abandoned houses into pieces of art weaving in the history of the place. The idea is to take the viewer through the village streets and immerse the visitor in its tradition and culture.
3. Smell: The Art of Scent, Museum of Art and Design, New York City
Being one of the first museums in New York City that focused on olfactory arts. The plain white walls of the gallery have recessed walls, where when one leans into the wall, a smell is triggered. This is supported by pulses generated from the wall creating a sound with ghostly text projections.
4. Taste: Chocolate Room, American Pavilion, Venice
In the very city of love and indulgence, Edward Ruscha’s “Chocolate Room” was created as a temporary installation for the 1970 Venice Biennale with 360 shingle-like sheets of chocolate-coated paper. The room addresses nontraditional printmaking materials, serial art, Minimalism and Conceptualism.
5. Touch: Hazelwood School, Glasgow
Hazelwood is a school for children and young people, aged 2 to 18. The textural surfaces that act as guides for children to move around in the school, help them to understand space and movement through a sense of touch.
The journey our human mind has evolved through the agricultural revolution and continues to adapt and fit into its built environment. The question is going forward how awareness and consciousness amongst humans will shape our future cities? The act is certainly not with a non-conscious mind rather a curious one that accepts themselves as key catalysts in forming cities of tomorrow.
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