De gustibus non est disputandum is clearly not Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s motto. She is quite happy to dispute matters of taste, at least so far as architecture is concerned, and has just written an entire book intended to do just that: to tell people that much of what they think they like is doing them no good, and that a better-designed environment would make their lives more satisfying.
There are many ways in which to read Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. The least charitable is to take Goldhagen as a bit of a scold. After all, in the opening pages of this long and thorough treatise, she tells us that the problem with how we understand architecture “is an information deficit. If people understand just how much design matters, they’d care.” But we can also read her admonishments as representative of her ambitions here: Goldhagen believes that she is coming to us with news of recent scientific discoveries that will change the way we think about and experience buildings. “As you read what follows, what you know and how you think about your world will shift,” she writes. “It will become a different place than it was before you opened to this page.”
Clearly, Goldhagen is not a writer who approaches her subject with a sense of tentativeness. But once you get a little deeper into this book, it becomes clear that her hubris (if we can call it that) coexists with a sense of earnestness and civilizing intentions. Goldhagen is an engaging and generous writer, alert to the subtleties of human experience, and she has written Welcome to Your World with a desire to genuinely reveal something new to us about how cities, buildings, and places affect us. Armed with relatively recent discoveries in neuroscience, Goldhagen wants to give us a scientific explanation about how and why people experience different kinds of rooms, different kinds of colors and materials and textures, and different kinds of streets and cities in widely varying ways. If, until now, we—architects, critics, building dwellers—have had to guess what makes certain places attractive or comfortable or exciting or awe-inspiring, we now have some scientific basis for our reactions: what Goldhagen calls a new paradigm, which “holds that much of what and how people think is a function of our living in the kinds of bodies we do.”
Among the many examples provided in Welcome to Your World, Goldhagen cites a pair of temporary pavilions built in 2010 that she believes are particularly instructive. One is in London’s Hyde Park, by the architect Jean Nouvel; the other is on the grounds of the Shanghai World Expo, by the designer and architect Thomas Heatherwick. Nouvel’s pavilion was that year’s iteration of an annual project by the Serpentine Gallery in which a prominent architect who has never constructed a building in Britain is invited to design a summer pavilion in the park. What Nouvel came up with was starkly angular and bright red, an abstraction of diagonal, slanted walls intended, the architect said, to evoke the setting summer sun. Heatherwick’s design, a shimmering cube made up of 60,000 extruded Plexiglas rods, looked even less like a conventional building and more like a glowing porcupine. Heatherwick wanted it to conjure Britain’s rich array of green spaces, and so he placed a different kind of seed from the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank in each rod and called his structure the Seed Cathedral.