• Urban Cosmography

Architecture and Embodiment, by Harry F. Mallgrave

Architecture is the art of designing and building spaces for human activities. Through this practice, shapes, meanings, qualities are given to constructions and environments on a very physical level. In fact, Architecture is not a conceptual abstraction: it rather produces living spaces that are inseparable from their use.

When it comes to the use, spaces are enriched by people's experience in them: their feelings, emotions, and reactions to their surroundings. Architecture, on purpose or not, create or at least favor particular human sensations and feelings such as thermal comfort, sense of orientation, calm, but also security, freedom, control, productivity, and so on. Design, at different scales, is an embodied practice because it makes all these perceptions tangible through our body.

In this context, the term embodiment refers to the exploration of the space through our bodies and emotions. Therefore, we can argue that if designs are carriers of emotions, architecture becomes a medium for empathy.

The influence of the built/open space on the human body is the result of a fascinating journey that starts in our brain. Having established that we are affecting our environments but, in return, “these altered environments restructure our cognitive abilities” we stand at a peculiar crossroad, that of architecture and neuroscience. The pioneer of this research field is Harry Francis Mallgrave, Professor Emeritus from Illinois Institute of Technology, architect, and editor.

In his book Architecture and Embodiment (2013), Mallgrave explains how we experience the environment in a multi-sensory way. He discusses the implications of neuroscience on architectural design, uncovering huge potential improvements for our built spaces.

Don’t feel intimidated: the book it’s highly informative without diving into any too-obscure meanders of science. It’s divided into 5 chapters - Beauty; The culture of architecture; Emotion; Experiencing architecture; Play, rituals, and other artistic things - and by swinging between art and science, it provides the reader with intriguing insights regarding how our brain reacts to space.

For example, it has been proved that in response to our experience towards the environment, new connections among neurons are created, according to what is called neuroplasticity. If we want to take it proudly: architecture can change your mind.

Perhaps, the most interesting aspect is the role of the mirrors neurons at the base of empathy through design. Through his mirror neurons, the user feels and reacts to space in a certain way because he recalls some personal previous experiences, but there’s more. The architect designs a certain space for people use and his creative act can as well generate empathy as it provides the user an insight into what may have been the architect’s own experience.

In Architecture and Embodiment, the importance of the concept of human scale finds true scientific bases, as it is through our human body, movements, and senses that we experience the space. Particular importance is given to the interface between user and architecture which is represented by materials and shapes. Through textures, colors, light, contours, architectures can enhance certain sensory effects and therefore emotions.

To all effects, all this is a double-edged sword: architecture can deliver pleasure or pain, it can be a medium for empathy, or a missed chance for human connection and, ultimately, interaction.

#architecture #neuroscience #empathy #embodiment


Architecture and Embodiment. The implications of the new science and humanities for design. Harry Francis Mallgrave, 2013.

Find the book here

Italian translation Raffaello Cortina Editore


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