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.
Goldhagen tells us that she responded in very different ways to the two pavilions. Nouvel’s, she tells us, brought forth a wave of anxiety. “An all-red environment shifts the human pituitary gland into high gear, raising blood pressure and pulse rate, increasing muscular tension, and stimulating sweat glands. Such a place can energize and excite us, to be sure, but it’s the kind of excitement that’s coupled with agitated tension and can easily slip into anger and aggression.” The Heatherwick design, on the other hand, she found more soothing. “Each individual rod also held a tiny light source, so that at night, the feathery Seed Cathedral displayed literally 60,000 points of light, softly swaying in the wind.” The result, she concluded, “inspired gentle delight.”
Others have contrasted buildings like this in much the same manner, but what is noteworthy here is that Goldhagen isn’t using what she calls “embodied cognition”—the standard, normal responses of most human beings to particular environments—to argue against radical designs and in favor of conventional ones. Both Nouvel and Heatherwick produced original and unusual structures, and Goldhagen wants only to report on which one is more comfortable to experience. Most claims that humans respond naturally to certain shapes have really been arguments for traditional building, many of them influenced by the writings of the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. Goldhagen deftly tosses the whole idea aside as “a pastiche of sociology and nostalgia”; she is not writing a screed in favor of traditional building, but rather wants to help us understand that comfort doesn’t always correlate with what’s conventional.
This doesn’t mean that Goldhagen is willing to let architects have their way with the world. She comes down as hard as anyone on Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, for example, much of whose work is known for the same sharp angles and clashing lines that provoked her ire with Nouvel’s pavilion. She is unsparing when it comes to those buildings that she believes cause discomfort because of their neurological effects, stating: “Humans respond to compositions dominated by sharp, irregular, angled forms with discomfort, even fear.” But she looks kindly on the “lilting forms” of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a swooping, curving building that she describes as a place in which “the human body’s presence and movement in space [are] the animating features in a design.” She sees, correctly, that Gehry’s unusual forms are driven not by a desire to shock, but by a wish to find new ways to elicit a sense of pleasure.
Goldhagen puts much stock in surface—more so than in shape, in fact—and praises buildings that use a multiplicity of materials and finishes to create a sense of richness and texture. She analyzes with exquisite precision the experience of walking through Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, explaining the sensuous nature of this great building and its ability to be at once powerful and deferential, receding before the magnificent vista of the Pacific Ocean.
Goldhagen’s extended discussion of the Salk Institute is a reminder of how excellent she is as an architecture critic. So is her analysis of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, a vast warren of concrete blocks that was conceived to demonstrate the awfulness that can come from a seemingly rational structure carried to extremes, but that, as Goldhagen brilliantly observes, now functions more as a kind of entertaining maze, a fun house more than a metaphor for horror.
But if the experience of sensual satisfaction, of comfort, can sometimes come from daring and unusual buildings, do ordinary things at least guarantee us some degree of comfort as well? In other words, is the plain suburban house OK—satisfying, if not great and important? Here again, Goldhagen makes clear that the priority she places on visual and psychological comfort should not be confused with an acceptance of the everyday or banal. She is impatient with developer-built housing for all the obvious reasons: cheap construction, poor and unsustainable materials, bad room arrangements, social isolation.
“No heed is paid to prevailing winds or to the trajectory of the sun’s rays,” she tells us, arguing that the people in such tract-house developments “lose out…on the well–established psychic and social benefits of being enmeshed in closer and looser networks of people.” To Goldhagen, the residents of these suburban communities have only slightly more control over their environment than do people in the slums of India or on the subway platforms of New York—two other kinds of places that Goldhagen asserts leave their occupants miserable.
It is hard to argue with any of this, or with the underlying premises for Goldhagen’s architectural preferences. She believes, first and foremost, that people need some connection to nature, particularly in terms of natural light, but also in terms of greenery and open space. She also believes they need community, a sense of accessibility, and visual variety and stimulation, although not to the point of confusion and chaos. People respond to patterns and to a human scale; soft forms are better than hard ones, refinement better than crudity. Goldhagen dislikes buildings that might be considered arbitrary or aggressive. But none of these are hard-and-fast rules, and creativity always overrides formulas.
Goldhagen pays relatively little attention to space, the least concrete element of architecture and, perhaps for this reason, the one that many architectural critics overemphasize. The physical reality of buildings—what they feel like and look like, how they are to touch, even the sounds and smells they produce—are of more interest to her than space alone, which I suspect she finds, at least conceptually, a bit of an indulgence, or at least a way for many architects and critics to avoid engaging with the physical things that Goldhagen builds her arguments around.
In order to make her case, Goldhagen invokes scientists like Irving Biederman, the psychologist who came up with the concept of geons: basic form-shapes, like cylinders, wedges, bricks, and cones, that we can easily identify and that help us understand more complex objects. We recognize these forms intuitively, Goldhagen tells us, in the same way that we respond to symmetry, which we value innately, in part because of the symmetrical nature of the human body.
But—and here the perceptions of the architecture critic take precedence over the insights of the cognitive psychologist—symmetry in the wrong circumstances, Goldhagen warns, can be flat, dull, or boring, which are other forms of discomfort. She contrasts the utter banality of the symmetrical Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea, with the richness of the Parthenon, and observes that the various buildings that surround the latter are arranged asymmetrically, which helps give the Parthenon’s symmetry a sense of energy, movement, and balance. “The logic of their placement eschews simple math and takes cues instead from the embodied physics of our place on the ground and our movement through the topography of the hilly Acropolis site,” she writes, concluding that the contrast between the mathematical regularity of the Greek temples themselves and their asymmetrical arrangement is a source of “the palpably productive tension we feel as we move around and experience the site.”
Here, as in so many other parts of the book, Goldhagen’s descriptions of being in front of actual works of architecture, both the good and the bad, are gems of fresh perception and clear expression. She is an articulate and consistent advocate of the kind of civilized, humane built environment that most of our best critics and historians have long favored. She can be stern, but she is not cynical. Indeed, she is the opposite of cynical, given how much of her thesis stems from the belief that once people become more enlightened about what constitutes a good environment, they will demand better design and turn the tide in its favor.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this book is that for all of Goldhagen’s reliance on science, and for all the care with which she has studied the findings of cognitive psychology and social science, the conclusions she reaches are not different from those reached by others who have struggled to figure out why some buildings and cities please us and others do not. There is a long list of critics and writers who have inquired into the phenomenon of architecture and how it affects us: for example, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, whose Experiencing Architecture was published in the late 1950s and has been followed by (among others) Witold -Rybczynski’s How Architecture Works and Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, as well as my own Why Architecture Matters.
Goldhagen uses science to back up her conclusions, but that hasn’t brought her to a place that is noticeably different from the views of her predecessors. I don’t think she has advanced “a radically new paradigm of the built environment’s role in human life,” as the publicity material for this book claims. The spaces and places she admires are pretty much the same ones that other critics and historians have admired; the places she finds toxic are pretty much the same ones that others have found toxic as well.
We shouldn’t really be surprised by this. After all, the Greeks figured out plenty without cognitive psychology, and Irving Biederman didn’t invent the golden ratio. We’ve always had an innate sense of what gives us pleasure and what doesn’t. With Goldhagen’s book, we know more about why this is, and she has made an important contribution in trying to integrate this knowledge into a sophisticated architectural sensibility.
But what science hasn’t answered—and possibly can’t—is why we still don’t all agree on what we like, if we hold in common the desire to build and live in comfortable structures. Some people find sharp angles exciting and energizing, not hostile and off-putting. All of us have had different experiences with architecture and carry different memories: Surely the house and the street where you grew up has shaped you as much as anything instinctive to human psychology. Nature counts for a lot, but so does nurture. And for all that we respond to in works of architecture, there is also such a thing as learned knowledge, which also influences how you experience buildings. Your high-school history teacher was right: Whether it’s the Chartres Cathedral or -Fallingwater or the Pyramids, when you know the backstory to these buildings, the experience of being there is enriched—it is not simply a matter of innate response.
And, finally, there is something else about architecture—or about any art—that science has not, thus far, helped us to understand. You can dissect Louis Kahn or Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright to the end of time, and Sarah Goldhagen does as well as anyone in explaining their excellence, and in separating the good from the bad. But there is something else, something that we cannot explain, that causes one building to be merely good and another to be awe-inspiring. What makes the Parthenon or the Salk Institute or the Amiens Cathedral or Wright’s Unity Temple a masterpiece? Why is it that elements put together in one way make a building good, and put together in a slightly different way make it magic? One thing that science hasn’t revealed yet is what creates the sublime.