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How 4E cognition changes architectural design education


Advances in cognitive science have important if unexplored implications for the design of the built environment. These findings have yet to be introduced, much less applied in architectural education. Architectural education must change not only to meet the urgent demands of the climate crisis and environmental sustainability, but also to actively promote human and more than human health and well being. Research from the cognitive and behavioural sciences has much to contribute to this mandate. This paper proposes practical ways that the findings of 4E cognition—which holds that cognition is embodied, embedded, enacted and extended—can be integrated in educational settings through embodied and immersive teaching, in-depth cross-disciplinary research and experimental making and evaluation.

Designers have become applied behavioural scientists,

but they are woefully undereducated for the task [1].

—Donald Norman

Understanding the way people behave would seem to be of utmost concern for the architect—our career, after all, is dedicated to creating spaces for humans. Yet, most of the education of an architect is dedicated to developing formal and technical skills—form must follow function—we declare. And the dual nature of our mandate is encapsulated in that mantra. Our pursuit of form unlike the artist’s, must be disciplined by function. Our forms must perform, but function for us is not quite the same term as understood by the engineer. In our hands, function must always find its aesthetic. We are always in-between—ours is an art, but not quite and an applied science, but not quite, either. The sciences we learn are physics and mathematics, and our understanding of the human being for whom we are designing is understood according to these physical terms. The human body, for example, is considered according to its external dimensions, so we can properly calculate doors, stairs and sidewalks; or in terms of thermal comfort which is reduced to narrow bandwidth of a few degrees. Human needs like memory, imagination, psychological coherence or a sense of awe—in other words, matters of both mind and body—are rarely, if ever, discussed. The tacit assumption in our training is that valorising aesthetics and form somehow appeals to this mental dimension. Yet this is seldom explicitly stated and if addressed, is done so without any rigour. The overwhelming majority of architects-in-training learn nothing about the behavioural sciences of psychology, sociology or cognitive science. Yet a revolution has been taking place exactly in the disciplines that our training has overlooked. The key insight of the cognitive sciences, the discipline that has inaugurated many of these shifts—is not only that mind and body are not separated, but that both are embedded in and shaped by our environments. And since we now spend more than 90% of our lives inside buildings, [2] the environment in question is the built-environment. We are learning more daily about how the built environment shapes the minds and bodies of generations. And although architects have been largely unaware of these developments, these findings have sedimented the fact that designers have not only recently become applied behavioural scientists—but in their role in shaping the environments of our daily lives—they always, if unwittingly—have been.

The urgent call to change architectural education is not new. Thinkers like Juhani Pallasmaa, Harry Francis Mallgrave and Alberto Pérez-Gómez have long argued for an embodied approach to design education. Pallasmaa has contributed volumes to understanding the importance of a multi-sensory, hands-on methods of teaching and making [3, 4]. Mallgrave suggests that the architectural design studio should not be focused on the development of formal concepts but an arena for rigorous, interdisciplinary research [5]. While Pérez-Gómez has emphasised the importance of a humanistic, poetic and literary complement to the standard technological emphasis in design education. Other thinkers acknowledge the role of the built environment in promoting social change and inclusivity. Works such as Architecture depends [6], Spatial agency [7], Spatial design education [8] Developing citizen designers [9] offer alternative approaches to the strictly technological and formalistic emphasis of standard design pedagogy. These approaches share a great deal of common ground in their insistence that design plays a critical role in the well being of diverse communities and has the capacity to promote and sustain life in the broadest sense of that term. Transforming design education to meet these urgent needs and enabling architects to fulfil their essential role in promoting much needed behavioural, cultural and societal changes has never been more important.

Embodied, embedded, extended, enacted

The shift that has taken place in the cognitive sciences is so well developed at this point that the now prevailing paradigm upends almost every underlying assumption that has guided architectural education for the last 50 years. The first tenet is that human experience and culture is embodied all the way down. Cognition is not a purely cerebral activity as it was long understood to be, but rather rationality is born of the body and tempered and informed by emotion. Intelligence is therefore not locked in the skull but located in the mutual interactions of body, mind and world [10]. We are throughly embedded in our interpersonal, social, cultural environments, which entails that our buildings structure, choreograph and sediment our actions to materialise our collective cultural values and social practices. And what is more, the consequences of this intertwined relationship are transmitted to future generations through processes that supervene the genes [11]. So, the forms to which we have dedicated so much time in the studio are neither contemplated nor read, but enacted and embodied. To paraphrase the inimitable words of the philosopher/cognitive scientist Andy Clark, humans are bad at logic, but good at playing frisbee [12]. Because human action and cognition is embedded in and modulated by our situated contexts, changing the variables of the situation means changing our possible movements and actions. Like catching a frisbee in mid-flight, we experience our surroundings as an extension of our bodily capacities and possibilities. This implies that form must be understood mostly as a verb, and only fleetingly as a noun.

Architecture is a verb

Coming to terms with the corporeal facts that cognition is embedded, embodied, extended and enacted means that the architecture of our social space is not a separate reality or an opposing system, but an analogue of our abilities and vulnerabilities and extension of our activities and intentions [13]. This active approach asks not what building looks like—but what is does: what kind of interactions does it enable, afford, provoke, modulate, intensify, augment or strengthen? Asking what design can do, means that we must understand the built environment as consisting not solely of the geometries of enclosed spaces and sequences between them, but rather as habitats that interactively shape human habits. The word habitat and habit after all, share their root in the word ‘to live.’ Designing interactive habitats rather than freestanding objects obviously raises the stakes for the architect. It also opens many new avenues of possibility to enliven and enrich the repertoire of skills that an architect must develop. Creating educational contexts in which to develop, practice and refine these skills is urgently needed. It would be no exaggeration to say that no generation of emerging architects has had more pressure to create habitats that sustain life in all of its human and more than human forms. Our own ingrained habits of hoping for technological solutions or trusting in the improvisations of individual talent, are not enough to address the complex ethical and existential challenges that we face today.

How design education must change

The longstanding focus on form, function and materials must become the basis for the integration of the applied behavioural and social sciences, an understanding of cognition and emotion, perceptual and motor systems and ecological interactions. These subjects could be introduced in coursework and integrated, reinforced and practiced in the design studio. The first implication of embodiment entails that teaching methods that dynamically involve the body will be the most powerful modes of learning. Studies have linked the importance of tactile experience with ease in decision-making during the design process [14]. And contrary to the old dualism between thinking and making, previous material experiences were shown to guide pursuant material explorations before the actual physical manipulations of the material actually took place [15]. Actively using one’s body in the process of making is a powerful mode of thinking.Footnote 1 The traditional techniques of sketching, drawing, rendering and modelling by hand must therefore remain intact and can be supplemented with hybrid modes of representation like those of virtual reality. In fact, exploring and critiquing the back and forth communication between material and virtual reality will be an important contribution of future architectural education. Embodied simulation is another important finding that can be directly applied in both physical and virtual reality scenarios. We know for example that imagined movements can reinforce actual physical experience and vice-versa [17]. Researchers discovered that with certain physical training, the appreciation of a dance performance was increased because the participants could imagine themselves physically engaging in those certain dance movements [18]. Bodily training has a direct effect on imaginative possibilities. It is clear that architects will be designing both kinds of spaces—as online learning, teaching and working will be increasingly prevalent modes of interaction. A key contribution for architects will be to design virtual spaces that involve more of the senses than strictly vision, and to create those virtual meeting places in ways that promote well-being and at the very least—do no harm. The increasing prevalence of these hybrid modes of interaction puts all the more pressure on architects to create physical spaces that are sensuously engaging, grounded in bodily experience and physically stimulating and supportive for the entire organism.

Embedded and extended cognition entails that the place where architecture training occurs is of the utmost importance. We are absorbing constantly if non-consciously through all of our senses and our buildings are also our silent teachers—for better or worse. And all too often the lessons they impart will instruct us in what not to do. Perhaps new hybrid approaches to teaching can open up opportunities to spend extended stays in architectural and urban masterpieces, and study abroad programs and master classes that offer intensive immersive encounters in sites of cultural, historic and aesthetic significance.Footnote 2 In the field, context-based learning must emphasise multi-sensory approaches that go beyond strictly vision, to open ways of engaging with built contexts that sensitise emerging practitioners to the interactive mutuality between perception, behaviour and place. In the Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design master’s course at the University of Venice, students are guided through the winding streets of Venice with blindfolds. The acoustic and subtle spatial and atmospheric qualities come vividly to life. And in the same course students investigate the materials lab in a non-visual, narrative and experiential manner.

And since knowledge is enacted—this kind of experiential learning is critical. In addition to professional apprenticeship programs and internships—experiential learning can draw on some celebrated historical examples. The sensory training developed in the basic course of the Bauhaus pioneered by Johannes Itten and László Moholy-Nagy systematically trained the tactile and kinaesthetic senses, and was expanded by Oskar Schlemmer to include dance, Josef Albers to include colour and contrast and Otti Berger to include cloth textures Another example is the environmental awareness workshop pioneered by the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin, who in the mid 1960’s organized a series of experimental, cross-disciplinary encounters in San Francisco and the northern California coast that engaged dancers, architects, artists and others in a process that facilitated collaboration and group creativity. Contemporary examples include Maria de Piedade Ferreira’s Corporeal Architecture course that combines performance art and design at the University of Stuttgart and the work of María Auxiliadora Gálvez Pérez on Somatics for Architecture and Landscape at the University of Madrid.

Cultivating this kind of multi-sensory sensitivity and empathetic listening is the basis on which the skill to unearth the often unspoken needs and concerns of future stakeholders and users is developed. Indeed including a diverse voices in the design process is critical, yet often the basic capacity for this kind of intense engagement is difficult to teach.

Research across the science—Humanities divide

Our longstanding position in-between the applied sciences and arts and humanities makes architectural education one of the most opportune places for the integration of interdisciplinary knowledges. Students must develop these skills of in-depth research which goes beyond the usual triad of site, program and precedents. These basic concerns are useful points of departure that must be approached from multiple disciplinary viewpoints. The site, for example, could be studied in terms not only of the physical environment, but also in terms of its historic imaginative texture. How does the place live in the minds of the people who inhabit it, what are some of the local stories and what about them could be built upon, augmented, re-imagined? Of course this kind of inquiry calls upon skills that are not strictly technical, but involve a sense of empathy and a kind of deep listening—one that is ever on the lookout for subtle and unspoken clues. This inquiry could be a sort of excavation of the qualities of the site that could be preserved and transformed. The building program is a vehicle ripe for engagement with the behavioural sciences. Enriching the obvious metrics of spatial dimensions and adjacencies could be a study of how programmatic concerns could actively support human well being by imagining the bodily movement patterns and actual actions that could be afforded by these physical arrangements. Studying precedents could lead to a critique akin to a post-occupancy evaluation to learn what successes deserve to be highlighted and brought forward in new forms.

The type of research needed for an in-depth understanding of the multiple dimensions at work necessarily transcends disciplinary boundaries. And this sort of engagement requires developing a shared language as well as openness to methodological, temperamental and stylistic differences. Our allergy to these differences has obstructed the integration of the wealth of research in the human sciences into our practice, as Thomas Fisher lamented, “While studio faculty don’t hesitate about giving students all kinds of other determinants of form, the neglect of social science research stem from a deeper divide. Environmental psychology has a strong empirical, functional, instrumental bias, measuring people’s behaviour in order to change environments to improve our chances of being healthier, happy and/or more productive.. . Architectural theory over the last forty years has gone almost in the opposite direction, with an ideological, formal, skeptical tilt. This has led to a studio culture that focuses on propositions more than measurements, aesthetics more than human activity, and speculation more than demonstration [19].”

It is important to tolerate, but also to be aware of the implications of the different levels of description involved in different disciplinary approaches. Training in the humanities underlines the need for critical thinking and hermeneutic interpretation. Here we can gain insight from the complementary role that philosophy has played in research in the cognitive sciences. Concepts like mind, consciousness, emotion and beauty are open to multiple interpretations and there is often little agreement on their meaning. In their critique of obsolete scientific assumptions, philosophers can clarify conceptual orientations and help to develop the conceptual tools that enable cross-disciplinary dialogue. They also have helped to actively formulate novel, predictive and testable hypotheses for empirical research. While hybrid philosopher-cognitive scientists like Anthony Chemero conduct their own empirical work. Such collaborations have importantly helped to drive scientific change. In an analogous way, architects have been engaged in interdisciplinary research with neuroscientists, bringing their practical and historical knowledge to help to frame experimental questions [20]. And this kind of hybridisation need not dilute the humanistic bent of disciplines such as philosophy and architecture, but can enrich and concretise otherwise lofty abstractions reserved for the few to ground them in the daily lives of many. As Einstein himself put it, “A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth [21].”

Learning the framework of the scientific method can sensitise architectural researchers to the level of description that binds respective disciplines. The complex, systemic, richly layered nature of architectural experience requires developing nested layers of interpretation. The neuroscientist who is concerned with understanding behaviour at the level of the neural substrate is far removed from the anthropologist who is concerned with understanding that same behaviour at the level of cultural practices. Interpreting these multiple layers simultaneously opens a rich and in-depth—or thick description [22] of that behaviour. This dense interpretation must be the basis on which design responses are based. An example here is research that shows a strong correlation between ceiling height and creativity [23, 24]. The behaviour in question is creative production. The environmental correlate is perceived ceiling height. We know from the imaginative nature of perception, that perceived ceiling height is not necessarily a quantitative measurement. It is the skill of the designer to know that ceiling height can be perceived differently according to the myriad factors of bodily posture, mood, the presence of others, adjacent obstructions, daylighting, task lighting, the reflectance and tactile qualities of material choices. The work of the designer is to zoom in and zoom out between details and the whole ensemble—successful design is always a dynamic synthesis. We must be careful not to interpret behavioural research in formulaic terms and simple equations. The applications of scientific findings, which are inherently reduced, can only be applied with discretion—they are rarely one-to-one matches and must always be interpreted. The creation of contexts is by definition non-reductive, knowing what works in one context and not in others is the special skill of architects and designers.

Developing experimental design methods

The complex task of creating human and more than human habitats significantly increases our sense of responsibility. Being aware that the forms we create go on to actively form behaviour, shifts our practice from that of an aesthetic technician to a servant of public health. We are thus in a predicament—science is slow and design is fast and pressured—how can we know what the effects of our work will be on human and more than human actions? To compound the problem, the experimental methods that cognitive scientists use are not well-suited to the issues that architects face. Where the scientist is concerned with small differences that may be statistically important, designers need to understand patterns that have a larger impact. We must accept that our design solutions might be based on research that may not be perfect—but may be good enough. Here we can learn from product designers who no longer design solely products, but are expected to design experiences and interactions between human and computer interfaces. As Don Norman writes, “The social and behavioural sciences have their own problems, for they are generally disdainful of applied practical work and their experimental methods are inappropriate: scientist seek ‘truth’ whereas practitioners seek ‘good enough [1].’” Designs are rarely optimal or perfect but may be perfectly acceptable for everyday usage and we need to develop experimental techniques that consider such pragmatic goals. Norman suggests that designers develop their own experimental methods. He writes, “They should be simple and quick, looking for large phenomena and conditions that are ‘good enough.’ But they must still be sensitive to statistical variability and experimental biases. These methods do not exist: we need some sympathetic statisticians to work with designers to develop these new, appropriate methods.”Footnote 3

The imperatives of embodied learning could help build these new methods. Many schools already engage in design-build programs and the development of prototypes. These various scales of construction can be studied and tested in terms of their behavioural impact much like post-occupancy evaluations are intended to do. Hypothetical solutions devised in the studio must be subjected to the rigours of research and tested in the crucible of physical reality. These engagements can and should become vehicles for new ways of thinking and inquiry. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that experiments can only happen in sterile laboratories by those wearing white coats, and to affirm that making and evaluating are necessary and complementary modes of creative engagement. Experimentation and testing is an on-going, open-ended process that does not stop once construction is complete.

Cultivating expert generalists

Moving beyond our obsessions with hypothetical form and ungrounded theory, we must understand architectural space in the broader terms of creating contexts. Context is a much more flexible word perhaps than the word environment because it suggests a more than physical dimension. Architectural contexts are not only physical arrangements but include the human and more than human life that moves within and inhabits those contexts. Celebrating the breadth of knowledge gained in our education and integrating that knowledge in the rigours of making is a rare example of a truly thorough interdisciplinary practice. Faced with unprecedented climatic, environmental and existential challenges, we need to cultivate multi-faceted, deep thinking, civilly engaged practitioners. And in an age in which automation and algorithms are taking over routine decision making, developing the skills of empathetic inquiry and multimodal synthesis is ever more important. As physical and virtual modes of behaviour become all the more prevalent, we need to bear in mind that hybridisation can complement rather than dilute. And in a practice as complex as creating living habitats we must remember too that our professionalism consists of responsibly interpreting, integrating and responding to interdisciplinary facts.


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Robinson, S. How 4E cognition changes architectural design education. Archit. Struct. Constr. 2, 17–22 (2022).

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  • Embodied
  • Embedded
  • Enactive approach
  • Extended cognition
  • Experimental design research
  • Empathetic inquiry
  • Design and well being