There Is No One-Size-Fits-All in Architecture

Neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee’s research in neuroarchitecture finds a crucial gap between how practitioners and their clients experience space.

Painting of a person sitting on a couch in a living room reading
Illustration: Howard Shindler. (Photo: Daniel Bernauer)

Spaces have great power over us. They impact our moods, our dispositions, our physical comfort, our ability to feel at ease, and even our thoughts. We understand their influence on an intuitive level when we walk into a church and its high ceilings and diffuse light engender a sense of humbling wonder. We experience it when we enter an auditorium and its acoustic properties make us lower our voices. We feel it when we open the door to a hotel room and the bed seems so inviting that we want to jump right in.

But how do we know with certainty why spaces affect us in these ways? Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology, psychology, and architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and the founding director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics, is committed to finding the answer.

Neuroaesthetics, a field still in its relative infancy that concerns itself with how the brain processes artistic and aesthetic experiences, has in recent years given birth to a subfield called neuroarchitecture, which focuses on how people experience, on a neurological level, spaces and places. Using the intuitions people have about their interactions with their surroundings as a starting point, Chatterjee and his lab test commonly held assumptions about the built environment.

Their findings often validate those beliefs. For instance, when an architect designs every component of a home—such as in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater—one might sense a tension, as Chatterjee has, between what he calls “the authority of architectural expertise and the autonomy of inhabitants.” His studies show that architecture and design specialists often experience spaces differently than those without such expertise, calling into question whom such Gesamtkunstwerks actually serve. His research has also confirmed that our psychological responses to built environments are usually linked to how good they make us feel—and that not all spaces make all people feel the same way.

These discoveries, Chatterjee contends, are not prescriptive, and perhaps not surprising. But they can be used to initiate a crucial conversation between architects and their clients to ensure they’re on the same page about a given design. His data also underscores the importance of being intentional about how we organize our homes and how they affect us.

To find out more about his research, I recently spoke with Chatterjee as he wound down from lecturing at a symposium on neurophenomenology and sacred spaces. We discussed the origins of neuroarchitecture, what to consider when designing a project, and the problem with architects making predictions about the future.

Anjan Chatterjee
Anjan Chatterjee. (Courtesy Anjan Chatterjee)

In everyday language, can you describe what neuroaesthetics is?

Our brains carve up the world into people, places, and things. We have aesthetic experiences of people—as in, we find some people more beautiful than others. We have aesthetic experiences of places, which are natural landscapes and the built environment. And we have aesthetic experiences of things, which could either be objects like consumer products, or art.

Neuroaesthetics is concerned with the biology of aesthetic experiences. My work is interested in questions like: What is the nature of aesthetic experiences? How are they modifiable? Under what contextual conditions might they change? Why do they matter?

There are traces of the field that go back quite a way. The nineteenth-century psychophysicist Gustav Fechner is generally regarded as the progenitor of empirical aesthetics. He speculated about a future science in which we understood properties of the central nervous system that could give us some understanding of aesthetic experiences. That came to fruition over a hundred years later; neuroaesthetics has probably been around for twenty or so years.

In my lab, we think of aesthetic experiences as an emergent property from three large-scale systems. One has to do with the sensory and motor systems in our brains. Then there’s the emotional experience of that. And then there’s our semantic system, the meaning that we bring to bear on any kind of experience. This is where individual differences in education and culture play a role. That’s the overall framework.

What about neuroarchitecture?

Within the framework I just talked about, the interest in places has evolved into the question: What are these aesthetic experiences of the built environment, and why do they matter? That leads to architecture.

Historically, architecture has focused on the materials and functionality of buildings, and, in the last ten or so years, on the relationship of the built environment to the natural environment. Issues like sustainability have come to the fore. But there has been relatively little concern—and I say this as an observer from the outside—about the people inside the buildings. As a cognitive neuroscientist, that’s what I bring to the table.

Most of us in the materially developed world spend ninety to ninety-five percent of our time indoors, and we are surrounded all the time by things that are made by people. That—and this was hammered home for many people during the pandemic—has an effect on our emotions. This is something that architects are coming around to and really thinking about now. I say that based on having increasingly been invited, in the last few months, to talk to more architects and designers. My sense is that there is an interest in these kinds of questions that, ten years ago, were not on the radar.

Some of your work suggests that the way that somebody with expertise reacts to a certain aesthetic input—let’s say, in this case, an architectural one—differs from the reaction of somebody who doesn’t have expertise or training. Can you say more about that?

We have found that architectural experience distills into three broad components. One of them is what we call coherence: how organized and legible a space is. The second is fascination: How informationally rich is an environment? Does one feel like it’s interesting and want to explore it? The third is hominess, which is how comfortable one feels in a space. Each of those components can vary somewhat independently from the others. For example, we’ve all been in very organized and fascinating places where we don’t necessarily feel quite at home.

It turns out that the ways those three dimensions are weighted may vary based on the person experiencing them. In a couple of studies, people with expertise in architecture and design gave greater weight to coherence than people who do not have that kind of experience or education. In some of my writing, I discuss how there’s a kind of tension there between the people designing spaces and the people for whom those spaces are designed.

I am not taking a prescriptive or normative position on this—it might be that the architects know better, and the inhabitants over time will come to appreciate why the architects were doing what they were doing. But on the other hand, maybe that doesn’t happen. Architects are kind of fly-by shooters: They build a building and then they go off. So my point is that recognizing there’s a difference at least invites a conversation between designers and their clients. Being more explicit about those differences can be a way to find common ground.

Are there other implications to these factors in terms of how somebody designs a building or space?

According to our research, the way each factor is weighted might vary by the place. If you’re designing a sports stadium—I am quite obsessed with the NBA—fascination is going to be a big component. You want people to be aroused! You want people to be excited about the place. That might be very different if you’re designing a monastery, where you want everything to be quiet and perhaps a little more organized. What might you prioritize or weigh differently if you’re designing a hospital, or a home, or a library, or a museum? Keeping those three factors in mind might vary your thinking about the space.

Another thing to consider is that it might be that different populations weigh these factors differently. The little bit of evidence that we have for this is that, in one study that we did in Italy, we found that people who are on the autism spectrum were less influenced by what we’re calling fascination than neurotypical people. Our inference from that is that spaces that are informationally dense might be overwhelming for people on the spectrum, whereas other people are able to take that information in with ease. That suggests that, if you’re designing for that particular population, that’s a consideration to include in your thinking. If you generalize from that, you might consider how these components might affect different populations—people with low vision or people who are older, for example. One size probably doesn’t fit all.

Are there lessons from your research that anyone can apply to their home?

At the center of these three components I mentioned earlier—coherence, fascination, and hominess—is what we call valence. Valence is that broad sense of whether you feel good or bad. These components are, on one level, abstracted from their specific implementation. So what I might find homey might not be what you find homey. The way an individual might be able to use this information is in being a little more intentional about their own spaces.

Say you’re moving into a new house, and you’re going to furnish it. It might be of value to be thinking about what makes for a coherent space. How do I like my kitchen organized, for example, so that I can manage my cooking as well as I want? It could also raise the question of fascination. What spaces in the house do I want to be more fascinating than others? What would fascination even mean to me? Same thing for hominess: What kind of spaces do I feel most comfortable in? Do I prefer soft furniture? Do I like something Midcentury Modern, with a sleek look?

To some extent, these are questions of self-discovery, of understanding who you are through your environment. Having these categories can help people be more intentional about that relationship.

Why is the experimental aspect of your work important?

The advantage of experiments is that you have some control—you’re not relying on one person’s opinion or intuition. For us, people’s intuition and their insights are the starting point, not the end point.

I’ll give you a simple example: the idea of biophilic design is getting a lot of purchase right now among designers and architects. This is the idea that the more of nature and patterns from nature we can bring into the built environment, the better off we’ll be. It’s purported to do a few things: help people focus their attention, help them regulate their emotions, and make the environment feel less stressful; there’s also some idea that people might be more creative in those environments.

We took two standard testing rooms that you’ll find in any psychology department in the U.S. We redid one of the rooms in a biophilic design, and we had fifty students come into each of them. We thought we would show the biophilic room’s effects on their attention and their mood. It turns out we didn’t find any differences.

This flies in the face of what everyone who works in the design field thinks is true. I still happen to think that it’s probably true, but the question is: Why didn’t we find an effect? Is it a question of the dose? If you have someone coming in for only forty-five minutes, is that enough time, considering that Penn students, compared to the national average, perform relatively highly on cognitive tasks? Maybe, since they’re volunteering for these experiments, they’re not in a great deal of personal and emotional distress, and that’s why we don’t see a calming effect in that population.

The point is that, until you do the experiment, you don’t start to ask those more granular questions. What is the right setting in which such an environment might be helpful? For which kinds of people? Without these questions, you’re only left with common wisdom.

We are currently in the process of designing “refresh rooms” based on biophilic principles for a mental health facility for people in recovery that will open in Maryland in a few months. We are designing two rooms, one for patients and one for staff, where people can go to get some downtime. In this situation, we’re saying: Let’s take two groups of people who are quite stressed to start with. Can we show that this kind of environment has an effect on the regulation of their emotions? Can we test the same idea, which intuitively feels quite plausible, in a more extreme version to see if it actually has purchase?

Are there other widely held assumptions in the design field that you have looked into, or that you want to look into?

Often when I’m talking to architects and designers, I bring up a very popular model of learning in neuroscience right now called prediction errors. The general idea is that we all have a hypothesis of how the world works and, based on that, we make predictions. As new information comes in, your predictions turn out to be true or not true. If they’re not true, the mismatch between how you thought something would be and how it actually is—is the point at which you get to learn.

Many architects and designers are making predictions about the future. They’re saying, “I’m going to create this kind of space, and this is what the experience of the people in that space is going to be.” And they might be brilliant, and their intuitions might be fantastic, and they might be right—but until you actually collect post-occupancy information, you don’t know for sure that you’re right.

This is something that designers and architects tend not to do. Maybe it would be problematic for their marketing if their predictions don’t pan out. But there is an opportunity for learning that is often left on the table by not finding out what people actually think about a space once it’s built.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.