The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

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APRIL 2021 Issue

You Are Where You Are: Sarah Robinson’s Architecture is a Verb

Sarah Robinson
Architecture is a Verb
(Routledge, 2021)

Rounding the dimly lit corner, you approach the entrance. It's a formidable entrance, a wall of unornamented concrete. You reach for the door handle and are met with cold steel; it's an angular affair, less knob than knot. Straining against the massive weight of the pivot, you make your way inside into the cavernous lobby, an opulence of mirrors furnished only with a tall, lifeless desk. Accompanied by the distinct scent of an aggressive sterility, you work your way through the maze of marginally navigable corridors, finally, after a few hours, accomplishing what you set out to. Before making your exit, you stop to use the restroom, where the hypermodern faucet leaves you grateful no one's witnessed your struggle to engage it. But no matter; the day has been a success. Why is it, then, that you leave feeling diminished—physically and emotionally drained, even a little abused?

With a powerful argument of sweeping scope and depth, Sarah Robinson's new book gives us the answer to this question. You leave feeling diminished because the architecture is hostile. Like so many buildings designed over the last 50 years, this one was not made to serve human bodies, but rather for the sheer spectacle of its austere forms. It did not greet you warmly, or anticipate any of your needs. It didn't even bother much to accommodate you when these needs arose. Indeed, so intent was it on its status as an aesthetic object that its entire existence seems to have been predicated on your distance as a beholder. All of this matters, Robinson argues—and much more than we think. For far from being inert objects wholly separate from ourselves, the structures in our built environment do something to us. By choreographing our movements and framing our perceptions, buildings shape our consciousness, inflecting our thinking and influencing our moods. To an astonishing degree only now being confirmed by science, where we are is inextricably connected to, and co-determinate of, how we are. Life-impoverished buildings, life-impoverished lives. 

This is not, however, a book that dwells on the negative. On the contrary; part theoretical manifesto and part practical guide, the book advances an emerging approach to architecture that offers a radical corrective. Robinson—herself an architect who practices in Pavia, Italy—draws on an enormous range of scholarship to support her thesis. Insights from philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and the cognitive sciences weave in and out of those from literature, animal studies, and architectural history, all making for a thrilling compendium of ideas old and new. Written in refreshingly clear prose that tends toward the poetic, the book will appeal not just to architects and architecture students but to anyone longing for a revitalized world. With our own field similarly denuded by decades of soulless theory, visual artists especially will find much inspiration here.

Of all the disciplines Robinson borrows from to substantiate her thesis, the most significant is neuroscience. Indeed, as she demonstrates by way of a wealth of compelling case studies, recent findings in this field have such profound implications for architecture that for the latter to ignore them would be not just irresponsible but inhumane. Several new discoveries undergird her thesis. First and foremost, it is now the consensus among scientists that the human body is a knowing body. So long considered the lowly counterpart of the mighty mind, the body has now been shown to be the very locus of our intelligence, the instrument with which we do not just our sensing and feeling but also our thinking. The second is that the knowing body is also what Robinson calls a resonant body; in constant dialogue with our surroundings, our bodies are rhythm-sensing and -transmitting organs that bend toward synchrony with the rhythms around us—animate and, significantly, otherwise. Then there is the remarkable fact of our neuroplasticity. Evidently, so attuned are our bodies to the particulars of our environment that consistent exposure to the same stimuli changes the very wiring in our brains. And finally, as the emerging field of 4E cognition suggests, consciousness itself is now understood not as something that happens exclusively inside us but as a distributed phenomenon born of our interactions with the world. 

Part of the larger cultural movement growing around theories of embodiment, Robinson's approach is a practice she calls situated poetics. At its center is not just the human body but the body in dynamic engagement with its environment: the knowing, resonating, and interacting body that thinks, feels, and knows with and through what surrounds it. Recognizing this fundamental reciprocity is crucial to the new model, for as Robinson suggests, the inhumanity of recent architecture is a direct consequence of the now obsolete, though stubbornly persistent, ideology that denied it: the assumption that the world is made up of binary oppositions. Body and mind, organism and environment, self and other, nature and culture: no longer conceived as mutually exclusive polarities, these are now understood to be mutually informing, interpenetrating, inseparable complementaries. In a particularly beautiful passage, Robinson offers readers a powerful way to conceptualize this interdependence. Describing the relationship between consciousness and our environment, she writes: 

A river's flow is determined by the shape of its bed, the confines of its banks – and from source to delta, is itself a process of gradual accumulation and redistribution. Slowing in the depths and speeding in the shallows – if a river is impeded – its languid surface issues the white froth of resistance. And if dammed, it swallows its surrounding banks. Like a river, consciousness not only flows, but does so in varying intensities and pulses according to the variables of the shifting situation.

As a relational approach to architecture, situated poetics is design focused on body-building interactions. Unlike its predecessor's affection for the grand and monumental, however, the new model is concerned with interactions small and humble: all the routines of daily life that we perform while thinking about other things but whose textures register in the intelligence of our bodies. Rising, bathing, eating, sleeping; walking, window-gazing, ascending stairs, descending: with great attention given to the embodied experience of each, all such acts are transformed into meaning-laden rituals.

While honoring ordinary acts with respect to the body, it is also an approach that honors the cycles of nature, weaving awareness of their rhythms into its spatial poetics. Other core values include an embrace of mystery, a respect for the innate presence of a place, and a recurring invocation of what Robinson calls primal metaphors: forms that take us back to the earliest origins of our species. Nest, cave, plateau, forest: architectural forms that invoke these primal places appeal to us so deeply, Robinson suggests, because our sensory systems evolved in a time when they were our home. (Anyone who doubts the power of primal places is advised to go out and spend an hour under some trees. The writer defies anyone to return claiming indifference.) Finally, unlike so much recent architecture intent on reflecting the discordance of our world, situated poetics seeks to cultivate personal and collective healing. It is, in Robinson's words, "an attitude of tenderness" that expresses itself in "acts of exquisite care."

While the first half of the book lays the theoretical groundwork for Robinson’s approach, the second half brings the abstract to life in corporeal form. Here, over the course of five illustrated chapters, we're taken on a tour of existing architecture that embodies elements of situated poetics, exploring not just buildings but also parks, fountains, playgrounds, and gardens. Loosely framing the tour is Robinson's "taxonomy of interactions," a conceptual scheme intended less to systematize than to draw awareness to all the subtle and not so subtle ways in which we interact with buildings. While all of the interactions in the taxonomy will be familiar (remembering, imagining, storytelling, thinking, playing), few readers are likely to have thought much about the role buildings play in any of them. This, along with Robinson's wonderfully evocative descriptions of the sites, makes this second half the most exhilarating part of the book. 

Both the taxonomy and tour begin with breathing, our most basic interaction with the world, and the one we take most for granted. Robinson begins by pointing out that while we tend to think of architecture in terms of solid forms, it is in fact mostly constituted of air. Orchestrating the quality and flow of air by way of doors and windows is one way that architecture choreographs our breathing. There are, however, others less obvious. One such involves the use of rhythmically moving forms, whose patterns awaken our viscera and nudge our nervous systems into synchrony. Robinson cites as one example Ned Kahn's "Wind Arbor," an enormous building facade in Singapore made of delicate metal shingles that shimmer in the breeze. Like the surface of a pond, the facade glistens and ripples in ever-changing patterns: the building breathes to the tune of nature, and human bodies respond in kind. Other examples include buildings whose surfaces breathe more literally: so-called foliage facades, which integrate plant life into their protective membranes.

Touching also figures prominently among the interactions. Robinson is especially compelling when it comes to the primacy of touch. Noting that, "In an increasingly virtual world, the starvation of physicality seeks its compensation," she shares the observation that when tourists finally visit the places they've long dreamed about, one of the first things they want to do is touch. "To sense presence," she writes, "there is no more accurate indicator than the sense of touch." One memorable example in this section is Polina Chebotareva's "Urban Carpet," a woven textile for sidewalks made of slats of charred wood. One can imagine the pleasure of coming across this unexpectedly, of moving from the hard resistance of concrete to the warm give of wood, the woven texture of its surface massaging one's soles, the percussive rhythm it creates pulsing through one's body. A smaller but no less meaningful gesture is Alvar Aalto's practice of wrapping handrails and door handles in leather. Skin greeted by skin: one can hardly think of a better way for a building to express welcome.

Some of the most moving sites in the book are those designed to facilitate entire complexes of interactions. Of these, Carlo Scarpa's Brion Cemetery in Italy might be the consummate example. Commissioned by a wife in honor of her late husband, the memorial is a collection of architectural elements that includes a chapel, a meditation pavilion, a pool, and several lawns, all of them arranged with exquisite attention not just to the individual elements but to the spaces between them. (Having just traveled to Japan, Scarpa was influenced by the use of space in Kyoto's rock gardens, the latter of which are also lovingly featured in this book.) Built to mark one of life's most profound rites of passage, every aspect of the cemetery is designed to nurture grieving and healing. The walls surrounding the compound lean inward, in, as Robinson puts it, "a gesture of embrace." As one enters the site, the ambient temperature and light drop, effecting a shift in consciousness that draws one into the present. The stairways' asymmetric risers alternate between smooth and rough surfaces, slowing walkers' pace, aiding contemplation. Approaching the chapel, visitors walk on water by way of irregularly placed stepping stones, an act as spiritually resonant as it is sensually soothing. Patterns of light and shadow, the gentle sounds of running water, the smell of the seasonal foliage: Just experiencing the place vicariously through Robinson's words, one gets a deep sense of whole-body engagement, and of the beauty and solemnity of a place made for remembering.

In the book's final chapter, Robinson returns to the theme of healing and architecture's potential role in our reclamation of the body. Noting that breathing is the ultimate act of communion with the world, she uses it to underscore our bodies' need for rhythmic oscillations. Light and dark, closure and openness, rough and smooth, silence and sound: design that gives us both is nurturing design. But above all is our need to simply use our bodies. Exposing the downside of our marvelous neuroplasticity, she reminds us that if we don't exercise the exquisite sensory apparatus bestowed on us by evolution, we're sure to become ever more insensate, ever less human. In a final plea for a built environment that respects and nurtures our biology, she reminds us: "Our own bodies are our most sensitive tools for knowing the world, and developing and refining these hard-won capacities and aptitudes would seem to be the true calling of our innate plasticity."

In more ways than one, the timing of this book could hardly be more apt. As so many of us have spent the last year holed up inside our homes, we're more aware than ever of our immediate environment—and probably more aware than ever of how we feel about it. Perhaps we're also more aware of our daily routines and rituals, many of us bearing the sameness with dispirited resignation. But now is also an opportunity for affecting new beginnings. Recognizing the potential of the moment, what if all of us were to become more aware of ourselves as biological organisms—organisms with physiological needs we deny at our own peril? And what if we were all to become more conscious of our habitats as active agents—places whose rhythms, shapes, and textures mold our being every day? And what if, finally, we came to see ourselves as neither "in here" in the one nor "out there" in the other but as successions of arisings that occur where they meet? For if architecture is a verb, so too are we. You see beads of water glistening on that leaf, and there you are in the seeing-glistening. You run your fingers along a stony surface, and there you are in the touching-texturing. The aroma of coffee emanates from a nearby window, and there you are in the inhaling-emanating. Many such small acts accumulate, and there you are in the pattern of their shifting. Thus extended, thus invigorated, you go back home. There you discover that parts of you are caustic, so you tenderly rearrange your small corner of the world. Other yous do the same, and then more and more and more … until finally you find yourself nested in a built environment that everywhere you go reaches out to greet you—and then there we all are, a million times over, in that handshake.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

All Issues