Friday, November 16, 2012


"Minding Design: Neuroscience, Design Education, and the Imagination," a symposium organized for November 9-12, 2012, by architect Sarah Robinson, brought together an impressive roster of neuroscientists, phenomenologists, architects, students, and others at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's sprawling desert compound near Scottsdale, Arizona. The general idea was to bring together Wright's intuitive organicism and the philosophy of embodiment and direct experience of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with the very recent insights into the human brain made possible through MRI and PET scan technologies, in order to explore how neuroscience and phenomenology might be brought to bear on the practice of architecture. Juhani Pallasmaa, Finland's distinguished architect-philosopher and author of "The Eyes of the Skin," shared the stage with Alberto Perez-Gomez (scholar of the History of Science and phenomenology at McGill University), Michael Arbib (Director of the USC Brain Project), Iain McGilchrist (Psychiatrist, writer, and former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford), and Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang (architect of the Aqua Building in Chicago and a MacArthur Fellow). The event coincided with a reunion of members of Wright's Taliesin Fellowship (of which there are around 1,500 world wide). 
Left to Right: Victor Sidy (Dean, FLW School of Architecture (in red tie)), Michael Arbib, Alberto Perez-Gomez, Iain McGilchrist, ,Juhani Pallasmaa, Jeanne Gang, and Sarah Robinson

Drawing upon a broad spectrum of philosophers, writers, artists, and architects, Pallasmaa presented a compelling argument for direct experience, empathy, embodiment, and a primordial timelessness in architecture and concluded that he felt that neuroscience would validate his position. The two neuroscientists -- not always in agreement -- explained various aspects of brain functions as they are currently understood. Arbib posited a neuroscience examination of how Computer Assisted Design (CAD) works as opposed to free hand drawing; what is gained, what is lost.  McGilchrist focused upon the differing functions of the two halves of the brain, the left brain's narrow focus, isolation, and orientation toward detail; the right brain's broad concerns, accepting of the new, seeing the whole, etc., and went on to suggest that the two halves have been in balance at certain moments in history (such as the Renaissance) but today the left brain is dominant.  Jeanne Gang, a rising architectural star based in Chicago, gave a straightforward presentation of her work that, for all of its inherent interest and promise, did not accord with the phenomenological tenor of the rest of the program. Architect Steven Holl, whose work is deeply influenced by phenomenology, was unable to attend as planned.

Eric Lloyd Wright (seated, left) talking to Larry Woodin, President of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (standing, right)
While the symposium bubbled with ideas and represented an important step for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture the decision to disperse the audience into three break-out sessions with individual speakers (Arbib, McGilchrist, and Pallasmaa) following the formal presentations obviated an expanded plenary discussion of the interface between phenomenology and neuroscience.  
Phenomenology does have a direct bearing upon the way that the Darwin D. Martin House and other Wright houses are understood and presented to the public. While at Taliesin West I took a tour -- the third in three years -- and paid close attention to what was said to our group. My docent, like docents everywhere, had a wide range of potential subjects to cover in an hour: Wright's personal history, the history of the building(s), the function of each building and room, the materials used, the desert site, and a healthy measure of anecdotes were included. From a phenomenological point of view my tour and most tours that I have made come up short in terms of experience, by which I mean attention to all of the sensory experiences that Wright made available to his clients, an orchestrated onslaught of visual splendor, sound (water, for instance), touch (the textures of stone), the body in space, a sense of movement, time, and even smell all come into play. Wright was good at many things but none more than engaging us through every sense of our being, not only the visual.

Taliesin West: A view toward the drafting room and drawing vault (JQ)

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