SEVILLE / 23 May 2022.


In the previous post we talked about salutogenesis and stressed that, as opposed to an eminently technical approach focused only on pathogenic aspects of materials and constructions, it is also necessary to consider the assets that are beneficial to health. In other words, it is necessary to focus on those architectural aspects that favour well-being, comfort and prevent illness in the long term. One of the determining factors in achieving this objective is to give meaning and significance to buildings, so understanding their cognitive perception is fundamental.

The influence of space, from an emotional and cognitive point of view, is an extremely abstract problem. Research aimed at understanding the needs of people with cognitive deficits is of particular importance for its understanding. Firstly, because they help to understand aspects that normally go unnoticed by a healthy person and, secondly, because the architectural solutions that work for these groups are eventually extrapolated to society as a whole, due to the undoubted advantages they entail. This is the vision that the Healthy Architecture & City research group has in the projects it carries out on environments inhabited by users with Alzheimer’s disease.

Interest in investigating the spatial needs of people with dementia emerged in the mid-1960s in the USA, with the design of new models of care for people with cognitive deficits who, until then, had been admitted to psychiatric institutions. The innovative Medicare and Medicaid care programmes provided the necessary financial support so that these people could reside in centres that focused on their cognitive or social needs, not only on the symptoms of their illness. These were places that provided specialised care for specific needs of these groups and created personalised environments that enhanced the physical environment in which these people lived. It was a care model that progressed very quickly and served as a stimulus, during the 1980s, for the development of residential buildings that took into account in their design the emotional factors of the users for whom they were intended.

The demand for the construction of this new type of centre led to the publication of several architectural guides with technical and compositional solutions. These publications prescribed measures and criteria for spatial organisation based mainly on the architects’ design experience, as well as on the empirical experience of carers and workers in the care units. However, only very occasionally were solutions based on results obtained from clinical trials and research with users. In these manuals it was proposed that an environment for people with dementia should have design guidelines that respond to criteria of accessibility, safety, orientation and functionality, criteria that were already contemplated in the construction of buildings for groups with functional, physical or sensory diversities.

It was the architect Margaret P. Calkins who, in 1988, proposed that a person-centred focus provides a more cohesive basis for the designer, as it links the different technical recommendations and regulations in a more meaningful way, giving meaning to the project. Accessibility and safety are inherent in the recommendations of the building practices of these housing centres, but they are subordinated to higher-level, person-centred objectives and therefore entail a different adaptation and hierarchisation of the environment. The innovation at that time was the introduction of concepts based on a subjective perception of space, such as integration or personalisation.

With the aim of promoting and favouring the autonomy and independence of the person with cognitive deficits, in 1991 professors Uriel Cohen and Gerald Weisman added new criteria such as facilitating the development of their instrumental activities of daily living, optimal sensory stimulation within an environment and the provision of spaces to maintain the family and social links of the patient for as long as possible.

Parallel to these experiences, a group of neurobiologists demonstrated that neurons are born in the hippocampus throughout human existence. Shortly afterwards, at the end of the last century, scientists Russel Epstein and Nancy Kanwisher discovered that a part of the brain is activated by the perception of environments or spaces that constitute a novelty for the person, i.e. when new places are explored and discovered.

In 2003, neurobiologist Fred Gage presented a key idea at a conference of the American Institute of Architecture: changes in the environment change the human brain and therefore modify its behaviour. This was the start of a new interdisciplinary relationship between neuroscience and architecture, which eventually bore fruit in a new disciplinary field called Neuroarchitecture, which has its main centre of reference in the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, located in San Diego (California).

The relationship between architecture and neuroscience is serving to systematise the knowledge acquired so far in relation to the influence of the environment on human beings and, above all, it is useful for establishing a scientific methodology that studies, in an objectively contrastable way, the relationship between built form and space with people’s cognitive capacities and motivation.

Neuroarchitecture investigates how human beings behave in different environments and how various aspects of an architectural environment can influence emotions and states such as stress, emotion, memory or learning. Its challenge is to understand how the brain works in the face of certain variables and spatial solicitations, to understand why there are places that favour or harm certain states of mind and to understand how the habitat affects human mental health and behaviour. In the construction of this new discipline, the theoretical contributions of the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa and his understanding of architecture as a haptic and phenomenological experience have played a particularly important role.

This type of architectural practice, developed over the last thirty-five years, has served to confirm that the physical environment has a direct impact on people and their everyday behaviour. There is therefore a growing interest in knowing and understanding how and why mental health requires responsible and sustainable environments and spaces, places that provide wellbeing, enable people to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles and, above all, to experience emotions. In the face of technology, architecture is not an option, because we inevitably live in it.

On 1 April, Law 6/2022 was published in Spain, which establishes and regulates cognitive accessibility and its conditions of requirement and application in buildings, cities, transport, etc. Given the impact that this law will have in the coming years and its repercussions on the design and planning of buildings, we will shortly be devoting an exclusively monographic post to it.


Santiago Quesada García is Doctor of Architecture, Professor of the Department of Architectural Projects, Head Researcher of the Healthy Architecture & City group (TEP-965) and Principal Investigator of the projects ALZARQ of the Ministry of Science and Innovation and DETER of the Junta de Andalucía.

Post published in the Bulletin of the IUACC nº 136 of 23 May 2022


Image of the post:
Study models for the University Library of Cottbus (Germany) Herzog & de Meuron, 1998.