When Open House New York was founded fifteen years ago, its mission was very simple: to give the public the opportunity to experience the architecture of New York. And over the past decade and a half, most of us have tended to focus on the architecture, but the opportunity for experience has always been as important to Open House’s mission as the buildings themselves. From its inception, Open House recognized and celebrated that architecture and cities are not just a visual art form, but have a spatial and temporal dimension that we will only ever fully understand and appreciate through the experience of them.
But what do we mean when we talk about experience, and how do our experiences of the city affect us? Architecture critic and writer Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s new book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives (HarperCollins, 2017), synthesizes an extraordinary array of research from neuroscience, environmental and ecological psychology, architecture, and more to provide a deeper understanding of what it is we feel and experience as we move through the world. An impassioned call to action, the book reveals how profoundly the built environment impacts our physical and emotional lives and argues that it is our collective responsibility to demand buildings that better respond to the people who use them.
OHNY’s executive director Gregory Wessner sat down with Goldhagen to discuss the book and the nature of our experiences of the city.
Wessner: Let’s start by talking about what made you want to write this book.
Goldhagen: I have always loved architecture. My father was an urban planner and we traveled a lot. But I wasn’t aware of how profoundly architecture affected me until a trip to Italy. I walked into the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna and was just stopped in my tracks. I was transformed — transported, you might say. And I thought, “Wait a minute, what just happened here? Why did that I have that experience?” From that point on, I’ve been trying to figure it out.
This book does a remarkable job in explaining how and why we experience the built environment the way we do. So when we talk about “experience,” what are we talking about?
When you say the word experience, most people assume that you are talking about something that is highly personalistic and subjective. To some extent, that is true, but only to some extent. The “experiences” we have come through our cognitions, and we know and are learning more and more about how human cognition works, much of which is generalizable across peoples, and across cultures. Not all of it, of course, but quite a lot.
I got to cognitive neuroscience through the back door, so to speak, because I’ve always been interested in consciousness; what it is, how it structures our thoughts and experiences, how it operates. Anybody who was reading Foucault in the 1980s thought about the nature of consciousness. The difference is that, in the 1990s, I began reading in the sciences enough to realize that what we now know about human cognition is totally different than it was even twenty years ago, to a great extent because of the development of new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging, which allow us to depict the brain’s operations in real time. Partly as a result, we are beginning to understand more and more about the profound ways that built environments affect us — our feelings, our memories, our health.
For example: the way our brains consolidate long-term memories (in the hippocampus, which we also use for spatial navigation and place recognition) means that the places we occupy are a part of any autobiographical memory we form. Since it’s through autobiographical memories that we constitute our sense of ourselves — our identity — that means that our built environments, and their design, play a big role in identity formation. There’s so much more of this kind of information that shows the importance of the built environment’s design to our sense of well-being, physically, and emotionally, and to how we function as individuals in group settings, in a society.

Photo: Kathryn Yu

And specifically what aspects of buildings are we talking about?
Scale, color, texture, materials, light — its quality, its temperature, even what time of day you’re exposed to it — but also sound, smell, shape, the associations we have with different things. Many of these are formal components that designers do consider, but without access to this ocean of information that’s available out there about how people actually experience these things, and about the psychology of human perception. To take one example: people’s most salient emotional memories of this or that place in the built environment have much less to do with its actual form than with things like its acoustical properties, materials, textures, scale, and small details. Also, most of people’s cognitions are highly associative and metaphorical, and we are extremely susceptible to being influenced by elements in our environment that fall outside our conscious awareness.
I’ve read elsewhere that our brains like a certain amount of predictability or stasis in our environments, because it helps us filter all the information we have to process each day. Is it possible to make a connection between the brain’s inclination to predictability and the impulse to historic preservation?
Actually no, I don’t think that’s what it is at all. I think that many premodern buildings have more materiality to them and more well-crafted, scale-giving details. Such things create opportunities for our bodies and minds to engage with a building, to enter it imaginatively, so to speak. Historic preservation is often seen as this super nostalgic movement; certainly it can be, and even often is. I’m not the hugest champion of preservation — I believe architecture should move forward — but it is all too often true that what gets destroyed simply happens to be superior to what replaces it, not because of the history they supposedly contain but because they are experientially better designed.
How much of our experience of the built environment do we share in common as humans, and how much is shaped by the specific narrative of our lives, like where we grew up and such?
We do know that what women in general look for and want from spaces differs in some ways from what men see and want; that children see and use spaces in ways quite different from the elderly, and so on. Still, there is also a lot about the ways people experience built environments that is not different. We shouldn’t allow the discussion of the social construction of culture, gender, and identity differences to stifle the investigation and discussion of what we share in terms of cognition and perceptions just by virtue of being human. It’s undeniable, for example, that red activates a certain set of neurons that get you excitable. Sharp angles and diagonal walls can create stress and anxiety. They just do.

Photo: Nicholas Lemery Nantel

You had started this conversation talking about traveling when you were younger. What does the experience of tourism tell us about the nature of experience?
Traveling is powerful because, first of all, your expressed purpose is to go look at something. In your everyday life, that’s not your purpose; you’re trying to get to work, pick up things to make dinner, whatever. So you’re paying attention to your environments when you travel, which isn’t usually the case. Furthermore you’re seeing unfamiliar things. Defamiliarization (which I first wrote about in my Kahn book) is a powerful experience. That’s the moment at which our nonconscious cognitions get jolted into our conscious experience and you think, “I’ve never seen anything that looked exactly like that before.” And you really see it, with your body and all of your senses.
And the brain gets rewarded through that activity of trying to figure out something new?
When you’re thinking about a problem and you solve it — which is similar to the experience of looking at a new building or place and thinking, “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” — your brain get little jolts of dopamine. That feels good. It’s a chemical reaction.

Photo: David Hogarty

I suppose that is what is so powerful about the Open House experience — the defamiliarization of the audience’s day-to-day experience of the city. Open House lets you see and experience things that you normally don’t get to see. So my question then is, how do we make ourselves more conscious of the day-to-day, with the presumption that the more conscious you are of your surroundings, and the less habituated you are going from home to work to wherever, the better your experience will be and the richer your life will be?
That has a lot has to do with training — basic education on the importance of the environment for everyone, then training clients and developers, and then training designers in the principles of experiential design. If we devoted half the amount of time we devote to teaching kids to read to giving them a basic understanding of the built environment and its role in their lives, they would do better. Ditto clients. People would begin to demand more.
In terms of Open House New York, defamiliarization is a part of it. There’s a certain voyeuristic part of it, that’s like, “Oh wow, look how these people live or work or whatever.” It’s also the simple fact of actually standing in these spaces. Experience is multi-sensory, it involves not only our sensory systems but also our motor planning systems, and it involves temporality. Sitting in an auditorium looking at slides of some architect talking about her work is just not the same thing. In that way, Open House is a very powerful tool.
There has been a tremendous amount of new building in New York over the past fifteen years. What projects do you think have been successful, from the point of view of experience?
Even crappy developer buildings are better than crappy developer buildings were fifteen years ago. I think digital technologies, and changes in the production of materials and so on, are beginning to facilitate the creation of a better vernacular. That being said, there is a staggering amount of room for improvement. Let’s take urban residential housing developments. Money goes into the lobby or the big look-at-me formal gesture, not into the spaces. So experientially, they remain poor.
In short, the value that society currently accords to the design of the built environment is simply incommensurate with the impact — the very, very large impact that we now it has on people’s lives. That’s the first thing that has to change.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo selection by Ben Pardee.