Sarah Goldhagen: How Built Forms Form Us

Goldhagen Heatherwick Seed Cathedral
Featured in Goldhagen's book: Thomas Heatherwick’s Seed Cathedral at the 2010 Shanghai World Exposition. Photo: Iwan Baan / via

If you look at Long Island City in Queens, NY, from the air or, for that matter, at Doha, Dubai, Berlin or Shanghai, you see so many construction cranes poking up that the cities seem studded with slanted porcupine quills. For Sarah Williams Goldhagen, this “literally world-shaping explosion in building across the globe” sounds a trumpet call to action. In her new book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (HarperCollins, 2017), she assumes Jane Jacobs’s mantle, arguing for humane urban planning. Lamenting the dull, shoddy design of most new buildings, Goldhagen insists, “The time has come to confront a discomfiting truth. Our disregard for our built environment is bankrupting our lives. What’s more, it threatens to bankrupt the lives of most people for generations.”

Goldhagen Welcome to Your World
Goldhagen argues for human-centered, enriched design of cities and buildings to enhance people’s lives.

According to Goldhagen, the need is urgent for a revolution to transform housing stock into experientially rich, human-centered edifices. Drawing on empirical evidence and recent findings from cognitive neuroscience, the book broadens the discourse on how built forms form us. Mediocre or inferior design (or its absence) has a direct bearing on human health and well-being, exerting profound, negative effects on our minds, moods, psyches and physiques.

Goldhagen knows whereof she speaks. After nine years as architecture critic for The New Republic and a decade teaching in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, she plunged into studying data from experiments by the likes of environmental psychologists and neuroanthropologists. The result is this blueprint for a mind shift, a plea to reconceptualize how architecture, infrastructure, urban planning and nature holistically affect humanity.

The author prefaces her manifesto with statistics on how fast our cities are growing. Globally, two-thirds of the earth’s population will live in cities by 2050 — increasing by 2.4 billion. The US population will balloon by 21 percent, with nearly 70 million people requiring new housing and work spaces.

Story continues below.

In the US today, 85 percent of new construction is spurred by real estate developers, private clients or construction firms without significant input from professional designers, Goldhagen says. If indeed their creations lack distinction, it’s time to hit the reset button on rebar. The design of environments we inhabit, Goldhagen’s thesis goes, makes us healthy or sick, smart or dumb, motivated or apathetic. “We have before us,” she writes, “an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the world into a better place.”

Peter Zumthor’s St. Benedict Chapel (1988) is a humble, human-scaled church perched on a Swiss mountain slope.

She compares this conceptual reframing of architecture’s influence to the way we shifted our concept of nature in the 1960s and ‘70s from focusing on individual elements like rivers and lakes into a powerful environmental movement viewing the earth as a total ecosystem. The built environment, like our natural world, is not neutral but actively affects our internal and external experience, shaping our thought processes, emotions, productivity, physical and psychological well-being.

Yet, at present, we’re mostly not conscious of these effects. We think of the built environment as a stage on which we independently enact our lives. “Not true!” scientists are discovering. “The problem is an information deficit,” Goldhagen writes. We’re unaware of what’s known as “embodied cognition” — how our brains process (and our bodies react to) the places we inhabit. The book aims to replace what she calls “blindsight” with insight.

It’s time to hit the reset button on rebar.

Integrating science and architecture substitutes data-based evidence for vague assertions about the beauty and superiority of some architect’s work over, say, the soul-sucking monotony of cheap tract houses in suburbia. Neuroscience has proven that our brains remain pliable and amendable throughout life, documenting that our reactions to the built environment help or harm us in learning, thinking, healing and thriving. Studies have shown, for example, that patients heal thirty percent faster and require less pain medication when they view nature rather than a brick wall through a hospital window. Another example of a physical effect is the car-dominated culture of suburbia and exurbia, which leads to a sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Not to mention that many homogeneous suburban and rural areas lack population density, which might account for the intolerance of diversity expressed in anti-immigrant furor and homophobia.

Studio Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Denver Art Museum (2006); Goldhagen faults the off-putting design. Photo: Studio Daniel Libeskind

Scientists have also quantified negative physical and psychological effects like increased stress linked to boring buildings like bland office towers, big-box stores and fast-food restaurants. We apparently need the stimulation that comes from mind-tickling details, variety and discovery. Pleasurable endorphins surge when we recognize patterns like the solid-void alternation of columns in a colonnade. But patterns shouldn’t be too massively scaled. They should be complex and elicit an element of surprise to keep our attention and engagement.

The implications for school design are numerous, since, as Goldhagen argues, the rate of learning increases by 25 percent in an enriched environment and observers can predict children’s behavior based on their location better than on individual personality. Students learn better when their classroom has a blue ceiling, curves and textured surfaces of authentic materials. They perform better with task- rather than overhead-lighting and with soft surfaces in the classroom. Grades on tests rise when they take an exam in the same place where the lesson occurred. Multisensory gratification enhances memory.

We need the stimulation that comes from mind-tickling details.

By far the most beneficial factors for wellbeing and productivity — for both students and adults — are natural light and proximity to nature. Goldhagen compares two architecturally identical housing complexes in Chicago. The one she calls Green Courtyard is blessed with shrubs, grass and plants, while Gray Courtyard is a wasteland paved with concrete. “Green” children are physically and psychologically healthier, more adept at handling interpersonal conflict and stress and show superior cognitive function than those in the Gray Courtyard. In Baltimore, Philadelphia and Youngstown, OH, access to greenery also correlates with reduced crime, stronger community ties, better problem-solving, more focused attention and retention of new information. Maybe instead of urging, “Eat your vegetables,” parents should have counseled, “Meet your vegetation.” Unfortunately, this essential green space occupies at most only 10 percent of big cities’ area. Verdure is sorely missing in crowded, low-cost housing.

Story continues below.

Besides citing these principles of good design, Goldhagen notes where even star architects have gone awry. The steeply canted walls of Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Denver Art Museum, for example, inspire a reaction of uneasy fright. The oppressively low ceilings, maze of narrow, noisy corridors and ugly floors of New York’s Penn Station represent my particular bête noire, especially compared to the Baths-of-Caracalla-like soaring sublimity of McKim, Mead and White’s 1910 version, victim of a developer’s wrecking ball.

Jeanne Gang’s 2010 Aqua Tower is a mixed-use 82-story skyscraper. Photo: Studio Gang

Good design can imbue a building with character, especially where it implies a metaphor for a building’s function or the social ethos of a place. The billowing curves of Jørn Utzon’s shorefront Sydney Opera House could symbolize sails, while the rippling façade of the Aqua Tower apartment building in Chicago (by Jeanne Gang) resembles curling waves or a curtain blowing in the wind. Computer-aided design and manufacturing make such irregular forms possible and cost-effective. Aqua’s swirls are also functional in stabilizing the high-rise against the force of wind and orienting apartments to the sun. And talk about surprise! This static building seems to breathe, with an in-out visual rhythm.

The British designer Thomas Heatherwick is one of the best practitioners of engaging, experientially rich architecture. His Seed Cathedral for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is a marvel that looks like a gigantic dandelion puff. Even with its modest budget, viewers were agog at its 66,000 protruding light rods swaying in the breeze, their tips containing 250,000 seeds. And the warm spruce planks of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s serenely comforting St. Benedict Chapel! His appeal to the visual, auditory and tactile senses makes it as emotionally resonant as a violin sonata. Alvar Aalto had this gift in Finland; so does American architect Antoine Predock.

Story continues below.

With our Developer-in-Chief as President, you might think there’d be a chance at aiming for social progress and the betterment of humanity through design excellence. But the Trump palaces, with their gilded pomp and ersatz grandeur, do not answer Goldhagen’s plea for buildings as incubators to nurture human growth. They quite ostentatiously house the affluent with no pretense of sheltering the disadvantaged or improving their prospects.

Of course, architecture always swings between emphasizing its social effect and favoring spectacular form. For Goldhagen, they’re not mutually exclusive. Design is not an optional frill but a basic human right, an indispensable part of public policy. As a matter of both ethics and aesthetics, real estate developers should prioritize human development, for, as Goldhagen writes, “Quite simply, good design is the right thing to do.”