• Designing With Empathy

    The Slow Space Movement stands for buildings that are good, clean and fair, but what exactly do we mean by that? This is our inaugural piece in a series of articles exploring this thematic trifecta of what we understand slow space to be, beginning with “good.”

    In our practice at Aamodt / Plumb, we define a good building as a building that holds meaning for the users, brings them joy and connects them to the world, to others or to themselves in some way. A good building does not just satisfy our basic needs but helps us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. It mediates between our being and our environment, providing a filter through which we can see ourselves and the world. It is not a benign shelter, but a lense that we create for experiencing the world and ourselves within it.

    As architects, designing a good building is a hard, if not impossible, task, but one that we choose to strive for every day. One of the ways we can pursue good building is through empathy.

    Feeling what they feel
    Architecture and Empathy

    Architecture and Empathy, 2015. Published by The Tapio Wirkkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.

    Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling the emotions they feel. According to Juhani Pallasmaa, empathy in architecture is when “The designer places him/herself in the role of the future dweller and tests the validity of the ideas through this imaginative exchange of roles and personalities.” (Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Empathic and Embodied Imagination: Intuiting Experience and Life in Architecture” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    Empathy is one of our basic human traits and one that differentiates us from other species. It evolved to nurture babies outside of the womb, as our upright position forced babies to be born before full gestation. Babies continue to develop through skin to skin contact with their mothers. Without this babies fail to thrive and suffer irreparable physical and psychological damage, and sometimes death. Architect and philosopher Sarah Robinson has argued that the skin is the most fundamental medium of contact with our world.

    Architecture and Empathy

    “Boundaries of skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy

    “Empathy allows us to connect to the world through our own bodies and in turn, the world opens itself up to us as we feel our way into it. As the mutuality of the mother-baby relationship exemplifies, we dwell in a reciprocating circuit. We are built to be received into a world to which we must connect, into a world that fits us. Empathy is the deep reflexivity at the heart of life.” (Robinson, Sarah. “Boundaries of Skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    The leather-clad door handles at the Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto are an example of how sensitive the architect was in designing the physical point of connection between the user and the building. Instead of leaving the cold metal bare to draw heat away from the body, he wrapped them in leather so the contact would be skin to skin.

    Embodied simulation

    Recent discoveries in neuroscience have identified exactly how empathy works within our bodies. Mirror neurons in the brain create a mechanism, called embodied simulation, that maps the actions, emotions and sensations of other people onto our brains as if we were experiencing them ourselves. Embodied simulation is not just limited to empathizing with people, it extends to objects and space. MD PhD Vittorio Gallese, who along with his team discovered these mirror neurons, says that “Embodied simulation not only connects us to others, it connects us to our world — a world inhabited by natural and manmade objects … as well as other individuals.” (Gallese, Vittorio. “Architectural Space from Within: The Body, Space and the Brain” in Architecture and Empathy)

    “The notion of empathy recently explored by cognitive neuroscience can reframe the problem of how works of art and architecture are experienced, revitalizing and eventually empirically validating old intuitions about the relationship between body, empathy and aesthetic experience.” (Ibid.)

    Human-centered design

    Empathy is a cornerstone of human-centered design, a buzzword that has been nicely packaged and branded by IDEO, the interdisciplinary design consulting firm.

    “Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving and the backbone of our work at IDEO.org. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.” (IDEO Design Kit)

    This description is how I always understood architecture, but I am grateful to IDEO for spreading these ideas to the mass market. But why does human-centered design seem so out of fashion inside our industry? What is it in contrast to? It is in contrast to market-driven design, like developers who are often just concerned with maximizing square footage and reducing costs. We are all pretty familiar with these examples.

    Technology-driven design

    Then there is technology-driven design that I will call “tech for tech’s sake.” Quoting a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “If there’s one thing the technology community loves, it’s an over-engineered solution to a problem that isn’t really a problem. Double points if the root of that problem is: ‘I’m a young man with too much money who needs technology to do for me what my mother no longer will.’ ” (The five most pointless tech solutions to non-problems,” The GuardianAt the top of their list of the most useless tech solutions is the Juicero, a $400, Wi-Fi-enabled machine that squeezes single-purpose pods filled with crushed fruit and vegetables into a glass. This company raised $120 million in venture capital. PS: It turns out, if you just squeeze the pod, the juice will come out ready to drink. No machine needed. (Juicero has suspending the sale of the Juicero Press and Produce Packs in September 2017.)

    Tech as tech can: Render of Zaha Hadid’s design for the headquarters of the Central Bank of Iraq. Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

    Technology-driven design has dominated architecture for the past 20 years, where the cutting edge has been defined by what wild architectural form could be created by the latest software and material technology. The work of FOA, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry comes to mind. The green movement has also been swept up in technology-driven design, with everyone searching for the tech equivalent of the silver bullet that will solve our environmental crisis.

    “True sustainability demands more than technological solutions — it must be founded on an understanding of human nature that recognizes, affirms and supports our nascent vulnerability and interdependence.” (Robinson, Sarah. “Boundaries of Skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy.)

  • A Very Personal Journey Toward Slow

    There are five stages of grief and I went through all of them when I was diagnosed with MS in 2002: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and (finally) acceptance. I remember lying in bed in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, hooked up to the corticosteroid drip treating my flare-up, wishing MS was fatal so I wouldn’t have to suffer so long. The thought of carrying this heavy burden through everything I had hoped and planned to do was terrible. Eventually, with the help of some anti-depressants, I realized that my life is going to be long and I would have to find another way through to avoid being miserable.

    In another phase I thought I could fix myself through nutrition, acupuncture, vitamins and herbal remedies. I tried everything because the doctors didn’t have much in their toolkit for me at the time and the pain was not responding to medicine. But even these things didn’t work. I had hoped they would be quick fixes, things done to me, while I remained passive and steadfast in my beliefs about how I was going to live my life.

    I remained passive and steadfast in my beliefs about how I was going to live my life.

    Andrew and I were living in New York at the time and were realizing that the hassle factor of living in the city was not helping me. Things like getting groceries and doing laundry were a hassle and I was struggling with not having enough energy. And we were getting married so it seemed like a good time to move back to Massachusetts. We bought a house, renovated it, moved and got married. And by the time we were through with that I was a wreck.

    I was desperate the day I walked into this new-agey yoga studio. They advertised healing, and although I was skeptical, that was exactly what I needed. I started practicing regularly and for the first time I could actually feel my body before it was outright screaming at me for attention. I realized that I had been living as though I were just a head on a stick, internalizing all of my emotions until I finally got sick. Once that mind-body connection was made I started to trust my intuition and see how if I changed my mindset I could change the way my body felt as well. Instead of trying to fix my body to match my life, I started to fix my life to match my body. Finally I had achieved the last stage of grief: acceptance.

    I was just a head on a stick.

    One of the problems with having MS is that I don’t look sick, and for a long time I didn’t tell anyone that I had MS because I was afraid of how it would affect my career (denial). And since the dominant culture is work-work-work, more-more-more, fast-fast-fast, I didn’t think I had an excuse to slow down, at least not one I could tell people. When our daughter was born I used that as my excuse to cut back one day at work, even though she went to daycare 5 days a week. I had lost my time to rest on the weekends and I really needed it, but still I felt guilty.

    On the 10 year anniversary of my diagnosis I announced to the world, via Facebook, that I had MS. It was such a relief! Finally I didn’t have to carry a secret in addition to the discomfort every day. Now I give MS (and our 2 kids) as a reason for cutting back on work and saying no to things. But what is it about me that I even feel like I need a legitimate reason to slow down? And why do I feel guilty? A psychologist once told me that guilt is overrated. In this case that is so true.

    What are we missing as we race through life?

    I don’t actually believe you need an excuse to slow down. It’s just in my case I am still struggling with whether this was a choice I made or a choice I was forced into. On a good day I am thankful to MS for teaching me very positive lessons that I may not have come to on my own. My life is proof that the fast pace can lead to sickness, both mental and physical, and I believe that many people will come to realize this the hard way over the course of their lives. Not only that, but what are we missing as we race through life?

  • Why I Slowed Down

    My life took an unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with MS in 2002. I had just completed 4 years at the Harvard Graduate School of Design getting my Masters of Architecture. I went blind in my right eye while finishing up my final thesis project. I couldn’t hold the exacto knife anymore to cut the tiny pieces for my model. I chalked it up to burnout and Andrew and my friends helped me finish. After graduation I saw a Neurologist who gave me the bad news. That day Andrew was back at our apartment loading up the moving truck for New York City. I walked out of Health Services, sat on a curb in the middle of Harvard Square and cried. I was 28 years old.

    I spent some time in the fast lane in New York City during college. As a student at Barnard I worked hard and played hard, taking advantage of everything the city had to offer. As an Urban Studies major New York was the subject of all my classes. The possibilities of the city were endless and it sparked my curiosity and ambition. I wanted to experience everything, not just in New York but elsewhere. I studied abroad in Paris, lived in Oslo for a year after graduating and another year in Japan on a research fellowship. Then I landed back in Cambridge at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

    I was hardworking and ambitious – typical type A personality – but the workload and pressure were too much for me. By then end of my second year I was experiencing pain that would leave me breathless. By then end of my fourth year I had my diagnosis.

    The silver lining was that I met Andrew Plumb at the GSD and we have been together ever since. We started our lives as architects together, both embracing the diagnosis, unsure of what it would mean for our lives. Our ambition was unchanged but we had to explore different ways of pursuing it. We did not follow in the footsteps of our classmates going to work for Starchitects at 80 hours a week. We chose firms where we could learn and grow and still lead a calm and quiet life necessary for my health.

    In architecture, long hours are synonymous with hard work. But I couldn’t put in long hours anymore, so I had to find ways to work smarter, not harder. But my type A brain wouldn’t quit so it took more than a decade to reprogram myself. My default had become more, more, more, reinforced by pretty much everything around me. All I had was trial and error and I made plenty of mistakes along the way. You can read more about that in another post.

    You can do anything you want, but not everything you want.

    David Allen has this great quote that has become part of my new life philosophy. He says “You can do anything you want, but not everything you want.” I initially read his book, “Getting Things Done,” to learn how to do more in less time. In my pre-MS years I was all about doing everything and I thought that was the definition of success. I was still in the mindset of more. Instead, the lesson here is about less. It is about learning to focus on what truly matters and doing those things really well. This is the slow approach and it has become my new definition of success.