How Neuroscience Reframes Architectural History (on YouTube)

Story + video by Ann Sussman, RA

This video was posted last week at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) 2020 conference:

It reviews a poster, first presented at the 30th Annual International Trauma Conference in Boston, MA in 2019, which combines new understanding of how trauma changes the brain, altering perception, with new understandings of how normal or neurotypical perception works, making a viewer unconsciously prioritize taking in faces and areas of complexity and contrast. It seeks to answer an abiding question: why does modern architecture, post-WWI, look and feel so differently than traditional? Why is it so often blank and detail-free?

Certainly, an urge to bury the past, after WWI (1914-1918) with the horrors of industrialized warfare and loss of 20 million people, encouraged a new design approach, as did new technologies enabling the expansive use of glass, steel, and concrete, and accompanying economic incentives. 

But the missing link in the story we tell of how modern architecture came to be, is how trauma changes the brain, distorts a survivor’s perception of ‘reality’, and can manifest itself in every design move a survivor makes decades later without their awareness or conscious control. We can now explain a key reason why ‘modern’ architecture looked so different from that of the past – it represents a direct expression of the horror of the trench warfare that preceded it.

An effective way of ‘seeing’ this is by looking at the house built by a ‘founding modernist’, none other than Walter Gropius, (1883-1969), himself, the founder of the Bauhaus. On a rural road, twenty miles west of Boston in Lincoln, MA, the iconic ‘modern’ building looks little like the traditional New England houses in the area with their pitched roofs and shutters. Built twenty years after the Great War, in 1938, Gropius’ home has a flat root, slit windows and hidden front door. Undeniably, it was unique for its time, but reviewing its design today, psychologists describe it as actually firmly rooted in the past – Gropius’ own horrific one as a German soldier on the ghastly Western Front. We learn here how the neuroscience of trauma and how it changes the brain also reframes the history of modern architecture and helps us better understand what humans need to see to be at their best.

More information about how neuroscience informs our understanding of architecture and reframes its history, is elaborated in two new books, Urban Experience + Design, Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm (Routledge, 2021) and in the 2nd edition of Cognitive Architecture (Routledge, 2021) which came out in July. We’ll have more to say about this latter book and its eye-tracking research, which references our work at, in coming posts.


Thanks to for featuring this video, October 7, 2020:

+ for printing related articles in September, 2020:

+ in Portuguese, thanks to for providing this translation:

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1 Response to How Neuroscience Reframes Architectural History (on YouTube)

  1. Pingback: How Boston’s Glassy Seaport Fails + Why It Always Will! | The Genetics of Design

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