What is the science behind how we experience architecture?

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.”


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.