Architects are healthcare professionals

Natalia Olszewska

29 June 2022

Architects and urbanists become healthcare professionals


“There are certain basic principles of physics that you have to follow to ensure that a building doesn’t fall down. It is the same thing with human science – there are certain underlying principles of human biology and neuroscience that suggest how we ought to build”, says Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist and experimental psychologist who works at University of  Waterloo in Canada and studies how the built environment influences human emotional reactions. [1]


Our brains, and our biology, are affected by architecture. In the last few decades, noninvasive brain imaging such as the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or EEG (electroencephalography) has become prevalent, enabling us to explore neural mechanisms underpinning perception of art, including architecture. But let’s come back to the beginnings of (neuro)science-informed design…


The anecdote says the story of the ‘neuroscience for architecture’ field started with Jonas Salk, the American virologist known for the development of a vaccine against Polio.

In the 1950s', Salk spent a few weeks in Assisi, Italy, while working on the vaccine.

This is how the scientist recollected on his stay in Assisi:


“The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past. Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio. I returned to my laboratory in Pittsburgh to validate my concepts and found that they were correct.” [2]


Jonas Salk remained under the impression of that event for the rest of his life. Many years later, when he became a scientific celebrity, Salk decided to invest his time and money in construction of the research center located in La Jolla, San Diego, which was later named as the Salk Institute. The building was designed by the famous architect Louis Kahn, and the institute over time became one of the most prestigious neurobiology research centers in the world. Shortly before his death, at the beginning of the 1990s, Salk put forward the idea that the impact of architecture on our brains had to be explored and better understood. In 2003, almost a decade after Salk’s death, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA[3]) was founded. As John Eberhard, one of the pioneers of the new field, the visionary architect and the member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) stressed:


“If our profession commits to a research-oriented pursuit of knowledge in the 21st century, architects will not only enjoy an enhanced reputation as professionals vital to the health of their communities, but they will also have the knowledge to do better work.”[4]


According to Eberhard, neurobiological research insights could help with the design of hospitals where people would recover more quickly, design of schools where students' creativity and learning capacities could be reinforced, or offices where people would collaborate more efficiently.


Since the beginning of the second millennium, neuroaesthetics, another field relevant to the architectural profession informed by neuroscience research, has been emerging. The term ‘neuroaesthetics’ was coined by Semir Zeki, the world renowned neuroscientist working at the University College of London, who dedicated a few decades to research on neural correlates of beauty perception. As Susan Magsamen, the executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, a research to practice center for applied neuroaesthetics, and a part of the Brain Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine says: “In simple terms, neuroaesthetics is the study of how our brain and biology change from exposure to the arts”. Magsamen expands the definition to also include nature, and not just human-made art. [5]


Thanks to initiatives of researchers, designers, museum curators and architects, applied neuroaesthetics has started to develop across the world. ‘A Space for Being’, a famous example of the exploration presented during the Salone del Mobile in Milan back in 2018[6] demonstrated how neuroaesthetics could impact architectural design. The project was conceived by Ivy Ross, vice president of hardware design at Google, in partnership with New York–based architect Suchi Reddy and previously mentioned International Arts + Mind Lab. during the Salone del Mobile in Milan back in 2018.


What is the efficacy of neuroscience for architecture? Neuroscience can inform and support design decisions as they bring information on how humans think, feel, act, perceive environments and interact with them. It shifts a focus from visual aesthetics towards a multisensory and embodied experience of architecture. Moreover, it helps designers to consider various experiential perspectives (be it cognitive, behavioral, sociological) of specific populations, i.e. elderly, children, neurodiverse users, patients affected by dementia. Last but not least, scientific quantification and interpretation of human experience through the application of portable neuroimaging instruments and biosensors improves design efficiency as a method of design impact assessment.


Architectural profession starts to recognize the potential of this new, quickly evolving field. First educational programmes have emerged worldwide, for example a postgraduate course ‘Neuroscience applied to architectural design’, which was organized for the first time back in 2017 by the IUAV University in Venice, Italy, the architectural school with rich and important traditions. I was lucky to be among the first year graduates of the programme, and since 2020 have worked as its faculty member.


There are also first early adopters of this new design paradigm in the world – architectural and design studios, real estate companies, tech giants and individuals. Impronta, one of the first consultancies in the world specializing in application of neuroscience in architectural design, which I have been co-creating with Ezio Lilli since 2020, has established important partnerships across the globe, for example with Studio Workplace from Poland, and with multidisciplinary design firm Forge Media+Design based in Toronto, Canada. These transdisciplinary collaborations are based upon a co-joining of extraordinary subject matter expertise with no pride of authorship, with a desire to reconceptualize spaces and places from the perspectives of those they concern the most – their users. Similarly to the founders of ANFA, we believe that our ability to leverage neuroscientific insights through evidence-based interventions may help us amplify human potential and well-being and improve public health.





[4] Eberhard, John P. (2007). Architecture and the Brain: A New Knowledge Base from Neuroscience. Greenway Communications LLC

[5] Evitts Dickinson, E. (2019). Beauty and the brain. John Hopkins Magazine