TOUCH : THE FORGOTTEN SENSE (IN ARCHITECTURE)

So many considerations about this sculpture. 

Francesca Bacci, art historian and trans-disciplinary curator,   explains very clearly our physical and mental involvement when we interact with matter and shapes.

When we touch something we are close to that thing, and it belongs to our personal space.

When we look at it from a distance we can see the whole thing BUT ...

FRancesca BacCI speaks onsculpture and touch in avideo-interview for the Oslo National Museum.

FRancesca BacCI speaks onsculpture and touch in avideo-interview for the Oslo National Museum.

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Giusi Ascione

Architetto abilitato dal 1992, LEED Green Associate, con un’esperienza decennale all’estero presso studi di progettazione internazionali (Burt Hill, EMBT/ RMJM, Forum Studio/Clayco). Rientra in Italia nel 2008 per avviare ABidea, dedicato alla progettazione e al retrofit. Nel frattempo presta consulenza presso Proger Spa, NeocogitaSrl, collabora con il GBCItalia. Consulente architetto per spazi rigeneranti e formatore di CFP per architetti, è coinvolta anche in attività di ricerca interdisciplinare centrata sulle relazioni tra il comportamento umano e lo spazio costruito. (EBD - Environmental Psychology)

The " impalpable" of magic spaces.

The act of faith is a cognitive process that can be independent of the individual's religiosity and can trigger not only a series of emotional and psychological but also physiological effects. For more than a century, medical-scientists have been trying to empirically explain cases labeled as miraculous or self-suggesting, but in the last few decades they have been receiving trustworthy evidence and widespread consensus.

 

In the book "The Voyage to Lourdes," the French author Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1912, tells about a case of inexplicable healing where a woman destined to certain death miraculously heals from tubercular peritonitis. Carrel, self-proclaimed agnostic until then, defines the case as a self-healing manifestation made possible by "acceleration of the process of organic repair", likely to be the effect of the triggering force of the act of prayer and ecstatic state. His hypothesis about self-healing does not find any recognition and consensus in the research world at the time, and it is only at the beginning of the new millennium, more than fifty years after his death, that new structured research projects start about how the brain functioning in moments of deep faith and tranquility. Particularly distinguished is the group of R. Davidson who manages to prove the beneficial effects of meditation: what is initially defined as cutting edge science gradually becomes an increasingly important strand of neuroscientific disciplines.

But what has this to do with the environment and, therefore, with architecture?

If you are reading this article, you are very likely to have already come across other readings of this blog, which explain the links between physical - and therefore mental - stress and some negative environmental factors. We have already discussed how environments can turn out to be stressful or regenerative and comfortable, depending on the harmony of colors, lights, textures, geometries and sounds.

Falling garden - 50° Biennale of Venice . credits: Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger

Falling garden - 50° Biennale of Venice . credits: Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger

 

To create vibrant, extravagant, almost magical environments we should try to go beyond the concept of comfort and functionality when establishing the goals of an architectural project. If the approach is based on the simplistic addition of destabilizing and star-like elements there is the risk of creating redundant and annoying effects. However, there are many examples of successful architectural and natural spaces leaving  a sense of wonder and positivity that improve our spirituality, to the point we are incline to good mood and establish good relationship with the other and with ourselves. Example are provided not only by confined sacred places (temples and churches), but also by so many places that have no claim to celebrate an entity out of ourselves. If we deprived Lourdes of the attributes and meanings added after the Marian apparitions, and considered it a mere medieval village, we would still recognize the merit of offering a particular spectacle to its visitors, especially during the procession that winds along its hill. A sense of ecstasy and bliss is triggered by the shimmering of torches transported by river of the pilgrims in the background of a typical French late sunset light. Strong involvement and intense popular participation contributes to the choral sentiment of wonder and spiritual elevation, but it is the harmony of the various environmental elements of the background that conciliates everything in a supernatural effect. Creating a magical atmosphere, to arrange your mind to a certain form of naive belief is a mean to purify the minds from negative thoughts.

The church is just an ancient example of how a space can induce certain states of mind and with  certainty we can state that even an atheist or agnostic does not remain indifferent to the atmosphere that such buildings infuse. Can we then assert, without risk of blasphemy, that also artistic/architectural installations may arouse similar feelings ?

Can we attribute to those spaces that magic that sets occupants to wonder?

Marvel is a state of mind similar to a particular state of attention, as it activates the same part of the brain - the frontal cortex - that is involved in an intellectual task. Wonder is a feeling common to all cultures and all ages, and it is stronger and more frequent in the infant, where it translates into excitement that makes the whole body move and set the baby in a state of total dependence. Creating a similar dependence in adults is a risk we run when stimulating certain mental states, but such a mistake can be easily avoided by accepting the supernatural element in its dreamlike dimension, where everything becomes credible regardless of the predisposition that each one has towards the inexplicable. Belief, swimming  upstream and  breaking the patterns of rationality, inebriates and helps not only on physical recovery processes during illness, but also encourages to break the rules and nurtures creativity. Awe and marvel trigger a series of positive effects on different performances: They help us to be more assertive, responsible, decisive and organized, in short, makes us healthier and therefore functional. Places equipped with areas dedicated to this kind of experience should become a requirement in urban and territorial planning, and in educational building regulation.

Look forward to that becoming soon reality.

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Giusi Ascione

Architetto abilitato dal 1992, LEED Green Associate, con un’esperienza decennale all’estero presso studi di progettazione internazionali (Burt Hill, EMBT/ RMJM, Forum Studio/Clayco). Rientra in Italia nel 2008 per avviare ABidea, dedicato alla progettazione e al retrofit. Nel frattempo presta consulenza presso Proger Spa, NeocogitaSrl, collabora con il GBCItalia. Consulente architetto per spazi rigeneranti e formatore di CFP per architetti, è coinvolta anche in attività di ricerca interdisciplinare centrata sulle relazioni tra il comportamento umano e lo spazio costruito. (EBD - Environmental Psychology)

The past and the future of Experiential Design.

The neuro - architecture is progressively defining its fields of inquiry andbecoming an importantreference  in the evolution of design practice . The paradigm of the project is enriched of new rules  thanks to scientific evidence of human homeostasis  ( self-regulating processes to adapt to changing environmental conditions ) that go beyond the purely biological aspects generally considered (cellular , molecular and organismic ). Occupants enjoy some environments more than others, and often we do not understand what is the factor that determines this qualitative surplus:  it goes beyond the aesthetic / visual or functional appreciation, and it capable of inducing a regenerating  multi-sensory experience, making  these specific spaces empathic because responsive to our expectations.

The experiential architecture, also known as haptic architecture, according to  Pallasmaa definition, represent an important matter in neuro-architectural discipline, although raising a very controversial issue: the theory of mirror neurons in humans and their effective role  inour nervous system. We are not entering into the different interpretations ofthese small cellular units (we will deal with this specific topic in a future article), but instead we look  back  to very remote theories which already faced the same matter , i.e. the body experience of the environment, and tried to find explanations without the support of neuro-physiological and neuro imaging techniques. In the nineteenth century the visual perception was a central theme in the cultural debate, as philosophers and psychologists were very much into aesthetics and the experience with all environmental features.  If the term “empathy” was originally referred to the ability to fully understand the state of mind of others, since the middle of  1700 it began referring to the spatial dimension. This is when  German philosophers referred to einfuhling, or also to the verbeimfuhlen,  which literally means "feel into", to mean “belonging” or “ to be associated with”.

Vernon Lee - portait by  J. S: Sargent credit: wippainting.blogspot.it/

Vernon Lee - portait by  J. S: Sargent credit: wippainting.blogspot.it/

Vernon Lee was one of the first to speak of empathy towards inanimate objects . She was an English intellectual woman (her real name wasViolet Paget) who was born in France in 1848 and spent most of her life in Italy . Influenced by German philosophers and psychologists as Lipps and Groos, she  was known primarily as a writer rather than as aesthetic theorist  (common destiny for all women of that period). She can be considered one of the founders of the aesthetic psychology as she was the first to assert that the perception of an object is characterized by episodes of sympathetic resonance within our bodies, and we can use this bodily experience as an investigative tool. Her mechanical interpretation and callisthenic perception of inanimate objects is ahead even for the times in which he lived. Below is a passage in which she describes the bodily sensation that a simple glass jug display triggers :

I feel the pressure on my feet on the ground when I see the base, a feeling of lift as I view the body, and downward pressure on my head as I view the rim at the top”

As science evolved and became increasingly empirical, based on measurable behavioral assessments and comparable data, many fields of research relying upon personal and subjective speculations  were deprived of scientific validation,  became sterile and therefore were abandoned .

Yet even now, if we search for the term "empathy" in a philosophy/psychology dictionary of not long ago (*) we find that the definition incorporates the experiential concepts of past centuries, referring mainly to bodily experience in the perception of inanimate objects in space. Typical is the example of the column and the tendency of humans to identify with it: we feel uncomfortable and inadequate to suppeort our wieght when seeing very thin columns, or if the column are squat, weperceive ourselves as big and clumsy. This perceptive interpretation of experience, stripped from the formal excesses of Lee, is also very close to contemporary theories of 'embodied cognition and situatedness, which state that the experience of the world around us is made in the same measure through the body and through the mind.

 

Image by Giusi Ascione

Image by Giusi Ascione

 

This matter has raised a big issue  within the community of neuro-scientists and also raised perplexity among architects, since it refers to a level of sensoriality, a kind ofsympatetic resonance within our own bodies,which is not typical of all human, or, at least, it is an ability not yet developed by most. 

At present, however, there are other neuroscientific topics giving important  contributions to the design  discipline. Those research areas,  still based on mind / body connection,  rely upon scientific data which build the foundation for further inquiry and start a process where the apparent dichotomies and distant field of investigations may find their points of connection. Therefore, architects should avoid forms of skepticism about the interdisciplinary work, that is only at the beginning of its path. Environmental features got a high potential to improve our health, as they interfere the ongoing dialogue between our nervous system and the rest of our body: a positive and constructive dialogue can only be beneficial to our neurophysiological system. 

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Giusi Ascione

Architetto abilitato dal 1992, LEED Green Associate, con un’esperienza decennale all’estero presso studi di progettazione internazionali (Burt Hill, EMBT/ RMJM, Forum Studio/Clayco). Rientra in Italia nel 2008 per avviare ABidea, dedicato alla progettazione e al retrofit. Nel frattempo presta consulenza presso Proger Spa, NeocogitaSrl, collabora con il GBCItalia. Consulente architetto per spazi rigeneranti e formatore di CFP per architetti, è coinvolta anche in attività di ricerca interdisciplinare centrata sulle relazioni tra il comportamento umano e lo spazio costruito. (EBD - Environmental Psychology)