B. Harry Francis Mallgrave – Architecture and Perception

This piece is an interview with Harry Francis Mallgrave, author of The Architect’s Brain : Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture (Wiley, 2009). It addresses the past and present of the relationship between architecture and ideas about perception.

  • “How [is your attention] distracted or not by email, PDAs, Google and the like?”

  • “…I think the biological sciences really are not offering […] any new theory. […] Not all of it is fully explained yet. […] But I think what is interesting are the new humanities which are drawing upon the sciences and creating these new models of human nature which are, in some cases, very different from what we imagined we were ten or twenty years ago.”

  • “…We are actively constructing the world with our bodies through our emotional and sensory-motor systems. […] ‘In playing a piano…we are not aware of our body playing, but our body’s playing is our awareness.’”

  • “It’s not so much that we’re going to go back to […] older theories. I think what we’re going to have is […] an introduction of a lot of new things. And I think there are two major discoveries or understandings that we have now that we didn’t have fifteen years ago which have a lot of profound implications for architecture.”

  • “The fact is that our bodies evaluate the suitability or comfort of an entrance, a staircase, or a room long before we consciously reflect on it. […] So much of the architectural experience is preconscious and […] relates to our body.”

  • “…there are mirror neuron circuits that fire in response to our inanimate forms of the built environment. […] …we can read, in a way, the force of the hammer and the chisel against the hardness of the granite. If we view a twisted column or Bernini’s Baldachino in St. Peter’s, we figuratively twist internally in an act of visceral simulation.”

  • “…you’ve got people walking around completely overloaded, looking down at their phones or texting, to the point of distraction. And […] I think it does lead to an inability to really think well. Take an area like neuroplasticity: what we’re now understanding is that the brain can really alter its cognitive structures in a relatively short time.”

  • “What [computer design] has replaced is [the] inherently more reflective act of drawing, which takes time and some sort of intense focus. And a computer designer, a computer keyboard, or even moving a mouse with images on the screen— it’s inherently a much more quicker [sic] activity that involves a lot of clicking. … The computer […] leads us into the path of calculative thinking […] as opposed to the older meditative thinking that drawing with a pencil did.”

  • “…When the mythic and theoretic phases of cognitive evolution appeared, they didn’t replace the underlying mimetic phase. This mimetic phase wasn’t completely displaced, but it remains sort of the basis of the arts and our social rituals even though we also are quite capable of these mythic and theoretic aspects of our being.”

  • “I think these models [of someone like Norberg-Schulz or Christopher Alexander], to some extent, were reductive in the sense that they try to break down the architectural experience. And I think what distinguishes the newer models is that they’re far more complex and richer in sort of our patterns of behavior.”

  • “…it really is the body itself by which we perceive and understand the world.”

  • “…when we become intrigued with something, something that’s different, when it may even take us several minutes, if not days, to figure out what was different, […] then we come upon the fact that there was some human labor, some human thought, put into that.”

  • “Everything doesn’t have to be stimulative. Everything doesn’t have to just appeal to a certain side of our brain, as it were. […] we really demand different things, we demand rest over the course of the day as much as we demand activity. And I think, again, we have to swing the overall environment into a better balance that way.”



Griffin Ofiesh

Issue Editor

Joseph Bedford


Joseph Bedford

Founding Editor

Joseph Bedford


Alastair Stokes


Harry Francis Mallgrave (Professor Emeritus, IIT)


Joseph Bedford