Simulation and Architecture, by Jenefer Robinson

I agree with the premise of this conference that recent architecture has suffered as a result of putting its faith in various – often ill-digested – philosophical theories, but the latest philosophical fad in architectural theory promises to be different. In his influential essay “The Eyes of the Skin” Juhani Pallasmaa embraces the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty: he attacks “ocularcentrism,” and argues that architecture appeals not just to the eye but to all the senses, and he praises the work of Wright and Aalto because it is “based on a full recognition of the embodied human condition and of the multitude of instinctual reactions hidden in the human unconscious.” What’s exciting about Pallasmaa’s thesis is that many of his claims are borne out by recent research in cognitive science.

The appreciation of architecture relies on moving through spaces, touching surfaces, listening to sounds reverberating (or not), smelling materials and the captive air, and feeling with one’s body the ambiances of the places created. But the appreciator cannot be everywhere at once in a building. The recent discovery of mirror neurons that activate when one performs a certain action (grasping, raising one’s leg etc.) as well as when one watches another person performing that very same action suggests that when we remember a building we have visited, we simulate the movements we took maneuvering through it, as well as the visual, tactile, and auditory sensations we experienced. Philosophers have suggested that simulation theory can explain how we understand and empathize with other minds, including the minds of fictional characters in novels and movies, but it applies much more straightforwardly to architecture, where what is simulated are our own past actions and movements.

Once we understand architecture in this way, we can also see how it can arouse emotions or emotional feelings. It is generally agreed that emotions appraise the environment in terms of its significance to me or mine: as the psychologist Nico Frijda puts the point: emotional experience is the “perception of horrible objects, insupportable people, oppressive events.” But emotions do not just appraise the world; they also ready the person for dealing with the situation as appraised, to attack (in anger), to flee (in fear) to hide (in shame) etc. Architecture presents us with Gibsonian affordances that evoke appropriate actions, movements, postures etc. which in turn induce emotional feelings: this portal is for entering grandly and invites feelings of self-confidence, whereas this dark narrow corridor is for scurrying through surreptitiously and makes me feel uneasy.

Harvard Citation Guide: Robinson, J. (2010) Simulation and Architecture, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 23 May 2010, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012]. 

One thought on “Simulation and Architecture, by Jenefer Robinson

  1. By extension of psychological facts, the exploration of a building can be the dynamic interaction of theories that embody personal psychology or the “mirror-events” of architectural experiences themselves.

    In this sense, architecture is a failed or successful juncture of any nexus of interactive “realismes”; theories inhabit space like people do – – –

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