- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Imagine architects so clued in to the workings of the brain that they are able to design classrooms suited to the various stages of most children’s development — and do it in ways that enhance children’s growth.

A dream ideal? Not really. Not if the 2-year-old Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, based in the District and California, fulfills its long-term mission of encouraging research to build bridges between the two worlds.

The academy, a coalition of professionals from both fields, was started officially at the American Institute of Architects’ convention in San Diego in spring 2003. At the same time, District architect John Eberhard, the academy’s founding director, was named winner of the AIA’s two-year $100,000 Latrobe Fellowship, which is aimed at promoting research to advance the architectural profession in some way.

Inspired in part by the late Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, who was greatly interested in the spiritual ramifications of architecture, Mr. Eberhard says he long has been intrigued with how and why “spaces and places in architectural settings affect people in them.”

So much money is rightly invested in curing disease, he says; the academy’s mission is seeking to learn “what things delight human beings, not only what kills them. And what is happening in their brains when they do so.”

The key to realizing the academy’s mission lies in setting up empirical studies to be able to explain effects in biomedical terms.

Mr. Eberhard used the Latrobe Fellowship to produce an overview of what he calls “architecture and the mind,” the title of a report delivered at this year’s AIA convention in Las Vegas. “Research results emerging from neuroscience provide knowledge of the basic biology of the brain, of how our minds use the brain to process experiences, and of why the human brain has evolved in this way,” he wrote in a preface to the report that details the basics of neuroscience and its likely applications for architecture.

“Not since the contributions made by physics at the end of the 19th century (structural design methods, acoustic design formulas, lighting calculations, etc.) has science been so well-prepared to expand the knowledge base available to the profession of architecture,” he writes on the academy’s Web site (www.anfarch.org).

Part of his fellowship activities also included surveying possible educational applications, such as outreach courses for architects and doctoral programs in architecture and neurosciences. Mr. Eberhard, 78, has been director of research for the Sheraton Hotel Corp. as well as head of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture and dean of the School of Architecture and Environmental Design at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

“Architecture will have a whole new body of knowledge of what it means to be an architect,” he said in a 2003 interview, cautioning that it will be 10 or 15 years before this can happen.

With just two small offices, in the District and in San Diego, the academy is a “virtual” organization that works through consultants and what Mr. Eberhard calls “a lot of volunteers.” It has no laboratories of its own, but it stimulates discussion on likely research topics by sponsoring workshops and symposiums such as one in April 2004 that explored the role of space in enhancing worship experiences. An August workshop will be dedicated to “wayfinding,” an architectural term for how people find their way in strange environments.

“We don’t have absolute knowledge of what we are going to find. It is a matter of repetitive testing,” says AIA head and academy board member Norman Koonce about the academy’s general program. “Several workshop topics have particular implications for scientific research related to health care.”

The current Latrobe Fellowship, which is funded by several thousand AIA fellows who are top-ranking AIA members, was awarded this year to architect Gordon Chong of San Francisco’s Chong Partners Architecture along with Kaiser Permanente and the University of California at Berkeley for research on “Multicultural Influences on Healthcare Design.”

Building on the work done by Mr. Eberhard, their goal is to create a model design for a fully equipped medical care facility for people of many different cultures.

“It’s an expansion of what the academy has been doing,” Mr. Chong says. “The academy encourages and frames issues, whereas what we are doing is undertaking research. … Health care is a natural because it involves science, and scientists are more receptive to what we are doing rather than, say, retail or marketing. And buildings are important in an environmental setting because they influence communities in many ways.” The university, he says, “will give rigor to the research we believe necessary to make the work credible.”

Studies have been ongoing for 30 years regarding the design of health care facilities, says Dr. Esther Sternberg, director of the Molecular, Cellular and Behavioral Integrative Neuroscience Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, who is one of the academy’s board members participating in next month’s workshop. She mentions an environmental psychologist’s work that showed how patients whose beds were next to windows improved faster.

“But that [study] doesn’t take it all the way through the basic science of brain function,” she says.

The task of bringing the disciplines of architecture and neuroscience together “involves learning completely different languages on both sides,” she asserts. “Architects have certain approaches to problem solving that in many ways is based on intuition. Neuroscientists design hypotheses to support or dismiss theories. That doesn’t mean knowledge bases can’t inform one another.”

“Working with the National Institutes of Health, we have been privy to their development of mechanisms to show in what way enzymes are being secreted in the brain that bring about identifiable responses in the human body,” says Mr. Koonce, making note of research done on the relative ability of patients to recover from heavy anesthesia. (“A patient who, when awake, has as a pastoral painting and not apparatus as the first object they see, recovers full consciousness twice as fast,” he explains.)

“[Neuroscientists] also now are gaining the ability to identify ways in which the physical environment causes those responses. Tom Albright [professor of the Vision Center Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studiescq in San Diego] has made some statements about the fact that it is the environment that actually influences the way the brain is shaped and formed,” he says. “If we are successful in uncovering what I think we can, we will compare ourselves to medical professionals in the late 19th century when they had all the medical training possible, but at that time they didn’t even know germs existed.”

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