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Analysing the Architect's Brain and Theory of the 1960's to present

Theory is passed on almost subliminally in the school studio and professional office

The rapid expansion of knowledge relevant to architecture, and of theory addressed to it, has created a desperate need for books that provide overviews of various fields of thought - digesting, simplifying and orienting readers within and between these fields. Hence these two books from the same publisher and by the same author, Harry Francis Mallgrave, sole writer of the former and co-author with David Goodman of the second book, make a valuable contribution to this growing field of knowledge.

Despite shortcomings, both should be useful in architectural schools, at least untilsomething better arrives, perhaps as reworked second editions of these same books.

The Architect’s Brain, the better of the two books, first appeared last year as an over-priced hardback and is now re-issued in paperback. It consists of two distinct parts. Part One, ‘Historical Essays’, is a quick gallop through the theories and ideas of selected architects and writers, from Alberti to the present day.

These are grouped according to what could arguably be seen as their underlying assumptions about the brain and its workings: ‘The Humanist Brain’, ‘The Enlightened Brain’, ‘The Sensational Brain’, and so on, up to ‘The Neurological Brain’ and ‘The Phenomenal Brain’. Quite apart from its relationship to the second part of the book, this first part makes good supplementary reading for any architectural history course, since it brings alive the ideas behind the changing styles. Besides, many of these ideas remain hugely relevant.

Part Two, ‘Neuroscience and Architecture’, introduces recent findings in neuroscience that promise a deeper, scientifically founded understanding of architecture and creativity. This part also discusses how some of these findings confirm various ideas outlined in Part One. Such empirical grounding should help differentiate useful theory from much of the theorising prevalent in recent decades, even if, as the author readily admits, this is an interim report of findings to date from the rapidly developing field of neuroscience.

The focus here is primarily on aesthetic concerns, although there is a cautionary concluding chapter on the impact of the computer. Yet there is far more to architecture than aesthetics, not least how spaces and activities are arranged in relation to one another and all the theories that inform the shaping of such plan configurations. Although perhaps not yet fully explained by neuroscience, there are many other empirical findings and speculations about how the mind works that illuminate these other dimensions of architecture and could have been usefully explored in a book such as this.

For instance, Neuro-linguistic Programming makes effective use of how we code time and seemingly project memories and anticipated events, as well as much else, into the space around us. This offers powerful insights into the wellsprings of ritual and architecture and the latter’s compartmenting and deployment of spaces and activities. Architecture is also shaped by and a vital part of its contemporaneous culture.

Here books such as Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - a study of how the brain hemispheres function differently, which draws out the implications for human thought, experience and culture - offer many pertinent and profound insights.

The second book, An Introduction to Architectural Theory, purports to be an introduction to architectural theory of recent decades. However, reading it raises the question as to what is meant by ‘introduction’. As might be expected from the title, certain parts of the book present in chronological sequence and condensed form some of the theories then prevalent in academe and journals - several of the best elements being reworked from the first book.

But many other parts are mere reportage of contemporaneous developments in architecture, barely touching on whatever theoretical position might lie behind them, and so the book tends to read as a very partial history rather than as a thorough introduction to theory.

The reportage sections, if differentiated as such, could have been very germane as introductions to specific periods and their theories, setting the context in which to understand the emergence of these theories. Alternatively, or as well, these sections could have been pertinent if the authors had drawn out underlying theories of the developments described.

For example, under the sub-heading of ‘British Renaissance’, the book describes briefly the emergence of British High-Tech. This topic could have been discussed as exemplifying a theoretical position founded on such things as the’technological imperative’, doing less with more, facilitating flexibility and change, expression of the zeitgeist and a fusion of machine andorganism, all with roots going back to 19th-century Structural-Rationalism and nostalgia for the great engineering of a lost empire.

This draws attention to another oversight that pervades the book. Most of the theory that architects draw upon is not that discussed in theory lectures or written up in academic journals. Instead, it is passed on, sometimes almost subliminally, in the architectural school studio and professional office, gleaned from conversations and from studying buildings in publications and in the flesh and so on. All these ideas and know-how could very usefully
be distilled and elaborated upon to create a fairly comprehensive body of theory, codifying and clarifying what architects draw upon almostunconsciously as the real architectural theory of our times.

As for the theory discussed in a book such as this, it is mainly academic not only because it is pursued primarily by academics, but also in the colloquialsense of being of little relevance or use to the vast majority of architects in practice. It is instructive to compare the historical sequence of theories described in the first book with the theorising of recent decades outlined in the second book, much of which is merely faddish and without comparable relevance to the real challenges of architecture.

Like another book that I recently reviewed from the same publishers - The Autopoiesis of Architecture by Patrik Schumacher (AR March 2011) - both the books reviewed here would have benefited from the guidance of a knowledgeable editor. In particular, this would have clarified the aims of the second book and sharpened its focus. An editor or independent reader should also have pointed out a further weakness found in both books, one almost inevitable with authors long steeped in a specialist field.

Though clear to the authors, the terms often used and arguments presented are too concisely expressed to enable them to be easily grasped by the uninitiated, so that further and clearer explication is required. Yet with proper editorial guidance or feedback from others, both these books promise to lead on to more useful revised editions.

The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture

Author: Harry Francis Mallgrave

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

Price: £19.99

An Introduction to Architectural Theory, 1968 to the Present

Authors: Harry Francis Mallgrave and David Goodman

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

Price: £19.99

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