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CAA Book Review: Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives
New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 384 pp. Cloth $40.00 (9780061957802)

Reviewed by Mark Alan Hewitt, FAIA, College Art Association, May 3, 2018

Critics lamenting the sorry state of today’s built environment are legion. Only a few recognize that many of those responsible for this situation are members of a professional and academic establishment that emerged during the past quarter century, virtually controlling the discourse in the design professions throughout the world. Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a distinguished architectural historian who taught at Harvard for ten years and was the architecture critic at the New Republic for eight, begins her new book by suggesting that she is one of these enlightened few.

In previous books about Louis Kahn’s monumental architecture and Moshe Safdie’s global influence, Goldhagen has argued persuasively for a more catholic view of modernism than many historians of her generation. Writing here for a popular audience, she confronts the malaise of contemporary design, a situation so corrosive that “boring buildings and sorry places are nearly everywhere we turn” (30). The book begins with a litany of failures. Contemporary stars such as Daniel Libeskind and Jean Nouvel design spaces that are nerve-racking, stressful, and even bad for one’s health. Developers build houses in suburbs that promote obesity and alienation. Instead of learning necessary design skills, architecture students compete for their professors’ attention and are “usually rewarded for dramatic, gestural, attention grabbing forms” (34). Millions of people in developing countries live in substandard dwellings and endure life-threatening pollution and unsafe habitation, harming children and families. The world’s population will reach nine billion before 2050, and we are ill prepared to house the additional billions in our cities.

Goldhagen presents a bold message for those who control the production of buildings and infrastructure. Design matters, and we now have the science to prove why bad buildings—ugly, discomfiting buildings—affect our emotions, physical health, and sense of identity. Much of the book lays out a sensible argument about the importance of neuroscience and cognitive psychology for the design professions, especially the provocative theory of “situated (or embodied) cognition.” As Goldhagen explains this new concept, “our minds and bodies—actively, constantly, and at many levels—engage in active, and interactive, conscious, and unconscious, processing of our internal and external environments” (47). The science behind embodiment gets short shrift, so it is sometimes hard to understand what she is talking about when tossing out terms such as “allocentric,” “primes,” and “canonical neurons.” But there is a lot of useful research that could help direct designers and builders find better solutions to society’s need for healthy, attractive environments.

Mark Alan Hewitt, FAIA was on the Steering Committee for the inaugural Place-Science meeting in Sweden.

Continue reading at the College Art Association