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Why do we love or loathe particular buildings?

Tszwai So

Tszwai So, director of Spheron Architects, describes how his book of the year has made him approach his projects very differently

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Pan Macmillan, 2018

I read this book because I wanted to understand what scientists say about human emotions.

This arose from my interest in the relationship between emotions and the built environment. I wanted to understand why one person may feel something special about a certain place, but others may walk by and feel nothing, even when coming across a widely celebrated building.

I’ve always found it confusing that, even though we know that these feelings are subjective, architects will formulate arguments about certain buildings being good or bad, quite often leading to a heated debate between the traditional and the modern. I’m far more interested in how we construct our emotions around the built environment than which styles are thought to be good or bad.

Architects love to quote French philosophers and intellectual theories but are far less likely to genuinely look into the science of emotions. Lisa Feldman Barrett is one of the top neuroscientists around, and has written this very engaging book backed up by years of empirical investigation.

She very eloquently dismantles the misconception that emotions are something we are born with. Most of us would have thought these were built into our DNA, but that isn’t the case. She also dismisses another misconception – that there is some emotive quality in the world that automatically triggers a response in us, regardless of cultural upbringing. Instead, we experience emotions as psychological experiences tailored by our unique personal history, physiology and environment. As far as Feldman Barrett knows, no emotional concept is universal. That explains why some architects adore brutalist buildings, whereas many lay people are terrified by them, and it’s pointless to attempt to convert each other.

Tszwai So with his book choice.
Tszwai So with his book choice. Credit: Spheron Architects

The author stresses the importance of the culture in which we were brought up, and the language in which we speak, to how we form our emotional reactions. With colours, for example, we may think of the rainbow spectrum and see them as individual bands, but that is preconditioned by the language we speak. In Russian, the colours синий (blue) and голубой (sky blue to a westerner) are distinctly different concept, therefore a Russian speaker is likely to perceive the same shade of blue very differently to a westerner. We see a much wider colour spectrum and it’s only cultural convenience that has reduced this. Our brains downplay the variations within each colour category and magnify the differences between them, resulting in us seeing stripes of colour.

Concepts are represented by words, and these words are culture specific. In the case of architects, we have also developed our own insider language to describe the world using words such as ‘sublimity’, ‘thresholds’, ‘truth’, and so on.

Reading the book made me realise that people do respond differently to buildings because of their own cultural experiences. As architects, we will have cultivated an unconscious bias towards certain buildings through our upbringing and training. That is why we may feel emotionally engaged to particular places, rather than because of an inherent quality in the architecture.

This also links to the whole narrative of how artificial intelligence could replace what humans do. But AI can’t love. So perhaps an understanding of human emotions is the last piece of territory we can claim for ourselves. If that’s the case, we really need to try to comprehend it from a scientific perspective.

Understanding the science of emotions has profoundly changed how I approach each project. I’ve become less judgmental and have no desire to subscribe to a school of thought, such as neo-modernism for example, and develop a particular style – that doesn’t amount to anything. Instead, I see each project as more of an emotional journey with the client, listening to their backstory like a journalist and truly understanding where they’re coming from, rather than going in with lots of preconceived ideas. I aim to assist them in creating meaningful buildings, and the only way to do that is to understand how emotions are made.

Text by Pamela Buxton based on conversation with Tszwai So

Tszwai So is a former RIBAJ Rising Star

Read four other recommended books:

Annalie Riches of Mikhail Riches on Wilding – The return of nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree

Matt Barnett Howland of CSK Architects on In Praise of Shadows by Junichirõ Tanizaki

Owen Hopkins, director of the Centre for Architecture and Cities at Newcastle University, on Radical Technologies: The design of everyday life, by Adam Greenfield

Nick Newman of Studio Bark on On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein