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Neurosciences anche the full experience of architecture: the empathy of ancient and modern spaces. By Maria José Luongo

In 1972, 55 cities were constructed and destined to crystallize in a dimension beyond time and space. There are no bricks: branches, leaves, forks in the roads, glimpses of sky and clouds are the brainchild of the writer, Italo Calvino, who imagines an intense, unbroken dialogue between Marco Polo and the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan. The cities described by the Venetian traveller are those that can be seen not only with one’s eyes but through memory, desires, dreams, signs, interchange. They are sensory as well as architectural metaphors. Calvino calls them “Invisible Cities”, and yet, besides being inhabited, they inhabit us. Far from being mental abstractions, Calvino’s cities are “real things”, tactile impressions, landscapes, passions, atmosphere, bodies, water, light, sound.
Back in 300 B.C., Marco Polo would only have been able to visit cities perceptible to the eye: it was around that time that Aristotle described sight as the noblest of the senses because it is the nearest possible approximation to the workings of the mind, given the immaterial nature of the kind of knowledge that guarantees. The eye as the centre of the perceptual world exemplifies the disembodied vision of Cartesian man whose solipsism separates mind from body, subject from object, I from you. But if we were purely optical beings, aesthetic judgement would be precluded. And it is this which gives rise to Mallgrave and Pallasmaa’s criticism of contemporary architecture on the grounds that it is incapable of designing buildings on a human scale because of the excessive predominance of formal and “pure visibility” criteria. Rather, architecture needs to be placed in a multidisciplinary context which brings together anthropology, history, philosophy, aesthetics, biology and neurosciences.
In this way it is finally possible to arrive at an empirical answer to the query raised by Wolfflin in 1886 as to why we feel emotion in the presence of a Greek temple. Can the sense of wonder and sublimity arising from the contemplation of a Doric temple be explained in purely visual terms? Can our aesthetic sense be divorced from our everyday motor and tactile experience of reality? Recent laboratory studies have demonstrated that these different aspects coexist and cannot be separated in that we are beings endowed with a body which teaches us what weight is, what contraction is, what strength is. In constructing their temples, the Greeks did not consider just the visual impact; they created “empathetic” buildings which involve all the senses of the visitor. Which is why a Greek temple is a place accessible to everybody, because multisensory. This biocultural approach was given a considerable boost as a result of the discovery of mirror neurons which has provided us with a new notion of intersubjectivity which is neurobiologically founded and connotes what might be called “inter-embodiment”. The cognitive neurosciences have proved that some areas of the brain involved in the subjective experience of sensations and emotions are also active when those sensations and emotions are recognized in others: in this case we talk about “embodied simulation”.
The aesthetic experience itself is believed to be a multi-level process which transcends a purely visual analysis of the work of art: thanks to mirror neurons and “embodied simulation”, we empathize (albeit at a precognitive stage) with the suffering and happiness of others, we read the emotional states of other individuals through their smallest gestures, we simulate their actions and the intentions that lie behind those actions, we animate the physical environments with which we come into contact. Purely visual projects ignore the fact that our initial experience of a building is through our emotions, and the neurological traces of those emotions can be detected through visualization technologies. Gabriella Bartoli, Anna Maria Giannini and Paolo Bonaiuto have shown that while the attainment of a particular motivation is an experience of pleasure or usefulness (food, clothing, social recognition), it is only the concomitant fulfilment of multiple needs that equates to the aesthetic experience. This is the sensation which Dante describes after listening to Manfredi in Purgatorio: “When we hear or see something which binds the soul strongly to it, time passes and we are unaware of it”, and which Goethe’s Faust acknowledges, “Beautiful moment, do not pass away!”
The Doric temple, too, according to Wolfflin, can be seen as an empathetic space which generates a universal aesthetic experience: a column, for example, does not merely support the weight placed upon it; rather, it suggests an opposing force, aspiring upwards and life-affirming. The architects who built the temple – but this is true of any building – also anticipated the intentions of the people moving about inside it: if I see some steps, I want to climb them, but an alcove will kindle a wish to sit down. The implicit invitation to action typical of many architectural settings is one of the great discoveries which Kublai Khan makes while he plays chess with Marco Polo: we move in cities because cities move in us. If we design a building without taking into account the nature of those who will live it, we are ignoring our social responsibilities. Many civic environments are expressive of the lack of human values or, indeed, of any recognition of the need for spaces to be more and more empathetic and inclusive. And that also goes for the cities which our imaginations are constantly searching for, cities erased from memory because no account was ever given of them to an emperor by a traveller, or cities which are surfacing now, even as we describe them.