We can do better.

This is the fundamental message of Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (Harper, 2017) by architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen. Published this week, the book delivers a forceful indictment about the impoverished state of our constructed world, based on the author’s deep experiences as an itinerant architecture critic for the New Republic and as an instructor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Most importantly, Goldhagen’s argument is not merely a matter of opinion; rather, it is based on enlightening studies in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that reinforce the consequential relationship between our buildings and ourselves.

Courtesy Sarah Williams Goldhagen

The impetus to write Welcome to Your World can be traced to Goldhagen’s 2001 American Prospect article, "Boring Buildings." “It is a truism to state that architecture composes the immediate physical environment of our lives,” she argued. “But in this country, we too often forget that high-quality architecture is also a social good, one that more than repays the investment.” In her new book, Goldhagen expands on her critique of culturally, aesthetically, and environmentally impoverished buildings with examples that she calls “four sorry places.”

Such settings include the slum dwellings, where one-third of the world’s urban residents live; the soul-sucking suburbs in which many middle-class Americans reside; schools for wealthy families that ignore best design practices for learning environments; and starchitect-designed landmark projects that fail to recognize basic aspects of human behavior. Refreshingly, the expansive sweep of Goldhagen’s condemnation eschews favoritism towards particular groups—such as renowned architects or vernacular builders. Rather, she focuses on what science tells us about good and bad design, regardless of socioeconomic level or geographic location. The most compelling moments in the book are those in which the author employs convincing studies to dispel commonly held beliefs, as demonstrated in the following examples.

Material over Form
In typical practice, architects privilege form over material. Long before they select particular assemblies or systems for a building, architects will have designed—and redesigned—a project’s siting, massing, and geometry. This emphasis is reflected in academia, where students study the formal aspects of a design over its material constitution. Goldhagen believes our experience of the built environment is the opposite. The brain processes contextual cues based on the nature of surfaces—not overall forms—and evaluates their physical qualities based on the summation of past material experiences. “Our responses to surfaces, consequently, are more likely to powerfully contribute to our holistic experience of place than our responses to forms,” she writes. “In short: form has wrongly been crowned king, because form-based cues elicit less of a whole-body, intersensory, and emotional response than surface-based cues do.” Based on a study by Canadian cognitive scientists Jonathan Cant and Melvyn Goodale, this realization suggests that architects should place more emphasis on material considerations in the design process, and at an earlier stage.

Steve Jobs Theater
Courtesy Apple Steve Jobs Theater

The Drawbacks of Simplicity
An acronym associated with architectural practice—among other industries—is KISS, short for “keep it simple, stupid.” This sentiment pervades much of contemporary design culture, which aims to minimize complexity and visual noise—often to extremes. Consider the ultra-refined simplicity of products designed by Apple, or the company’s new ring-shaped building designed by U.K. firm Foster + Partners. This kind of clear intelligibility is a positive effort at the object-level, but can be a detriment at larger scales.

For example, urban proposals for homogeneous tower blocks and street grids—such as Le Corbusier’s 1924 Ville Radieuse and Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1944 modern city project—have long received scathing criticism as dehumanizing dystopias. Yet the architect’s goal should not be complexity, as this quality thwarts comprehensibility and accessibility in the built environment. Rather, Goldhagen argues that designers must aspire to achieve "patterned complexity," which approximates how we encounter the natural world—simultaneously intricate and legible. According to the author, architects may achieve this objective via various strategies including “chunking” spatial volumes based on program, introducing visually compelling material languages, and creating surprise by shifting one’s expectations of a particular construction typology.

A Central Park shadow study published in the Municipal Art Society of New York's “Accidental Skyline” report
Municipal Art Society of New York A Central Park shadow study published in the Municipal Art Society of New York's “Accidental Skyline” report

Nature in the City
Big cities are often celebrated as ideal settlement models from an environmental perspective, based on their per capita reduced land area and ecological footprint compared with smaller, more sparsely populated municipalities. The fact that the natural landscape, while appreciated, is often minimized in large metropolises is accepted as an inherent outcome of the intensified demand for space. Generously sized landscapes such as New York’s Central Park or Tokyo’s Imperial Palace grounds are considered luxuries in cities that are otherwise dominated by impervious surfaces. Yet such green spaces are not extravagances but essential provisions, Goldhagen argues. She offers a multitude of scientific evidence for the powerful benefits of nature: medical patients offered views of trees are able to leave the hospital a day earlier than those facing blank walls; children exposed to adequate green spaces demonstrate superior cognitive functioning and reduced stress.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, green spaces comprise less than 10 percent of many of the world's largest cities—such as Shanghai (2.6 percent) and Los Angeles (6.7 percent). Political will emerges as a critical force here, as evidenced by the fact that cities such as London, Stockholm, and Sydney exhibit 35 percent or more green space due to their local governments’ prioritization of public welfare. Architects can similarly advocate for living landscapes as a fundamental requirement—not in the form of the typical suburban lawn, which Goldhagen denounces as an monocultural afterthought, but in well-designed environments crafted by talented landscape architects.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen
Sarah Williams Goldhagen

Building is Architecture
The boldest argument in Welcome to Your World is the eradication of the differentiation between architecture and building. This long-held dividing line—which defines architecture as an elevated, higher-level craft in contrast to building as the construction of ordinary shelter—reinforces the elitist, exceptional associations of the former while permitting the latter a “free pass” to meet a minimum set of aspirations. “The distinction between building and architecture, between designing for aesthetic pleasure and designing (or building) for ‘function,’ is misleading, wrongheaded, and defunct,” Goldhagen writes. “Everyone needs better—indeed, good—landscapes, cityscapes, and buildings of all kinds, everywhere.”

Such a lofty goal may seem overly ambitious; however, the fundamental contribution is the shift in perspective. By expecting more from all aspects of the built environment, as opposed to the comparatively rare moments when architects have the opportunity to design landmark commissions, Goldhagen is issuing a challenge to a much broader audience than just the AEC industry. Given the direct correlation between the constructed world and human development, we all have a reason to advocate for better design.