Photo by Helena Lopes

Modernist architecture melts our brains

Findings from lockdown suggest environments lacking the complexity of life may pose a threat to humanity

Artillery Row

Alarming results from a recent study suggest that genetically healthy babies born during the pandemic lockdown have intelligence equivalent to Down syndrome children. Is the lack of visual complexity of the indoor environment in which these babies were raised partly responsible? 

Exposure to the natural, complex patterns found outdoors was severely limited during the lockdown. The preferred architectural style today is minimalist: very different from the organized visual complexity experienced by countless generations of humans.

This finding has implications for future generations. What is the optimal shape of the built environment that will provide a healthy world for our children and grandchildren? Architectural culture lets style decide on the shape of our buildings and cities, and promotes those choices using advertising and marketing. There is no critical long-term analysis involved, nor is science brought into play. The global media justifies society’s addiction to the images that the cultural élite chooses for the geometry of the built environment. 

Questions about children affected by lead poisoning through paint used extensively over the past decades eventually led to restrictions, and to scraping the paint off old indoor walls. Getting rid of lead paint threatened no élite group, ideology or powerful industry tied to global finance. The press buzzed about it when studies first suggested a causal link; now we have legislation in place to prevent contamination. 

Michael Mehaffy and I wrote about an analogous problem with the geometry of the contemporary built environment, suggesting that a lack of organized complexity might be influencing our children’s intelligence negatively. Minimalist, sensory-depriving environments affect cognitive development negatively, and can reduce the size of growing animals’ brains. Children need information-rich sensory environments, and they suffer when forced to spend long periods in minimalist ones. 

Minimalist environments frustrate our perceptual apparatus

Now the Covid-19 pandemic provides disturbing evidence about the effects of our surroundings on children’s long-term cognitive abilities. A group of children born during the pandemic in Rhode Island, USA, have significantly reduced motor, verbal and overall cognitive performance compared to those born before the pandemic. Moreover, male babies and babies from poor families were affected the most. Early Learning Composite (ELC) scores were significantly reduced for genetically normal children born during the pandemic by 27 to 37 points (this approaches the profile of Down syndrome children, who score approximately 24 standard points below normal). 

The data are entirely independent of lowered intelligence in adults who have recovered from Covid-19, an effect that has also been measured. The babies in the above study were not infected. The possible factors responsible for reduced intelligence are therefore not due to the virus itself, which is why an over-exposure to minimalist interiors in which the babies were confined is among the principal suspects. 

Earlier results from Romanian orphanages show that low intelligence is a result of children growing up in minimalist environments. A large number of babies were brought up in conditions of severe sensory deprivation, as well as social isolation and stress. But the babies studied in the recent US study lived with and were emotionally connected to a loving family, so the factor of inadequate social interaction can be largely ruled out. What both groups do have in common is diminished exposure to visual stimuli from artificial organised complexity, which is typical of many contemporary environments. 

Are negative environmental effects (psychological and physiological) experienced due to the specific informational content? The implications challenge our present-day architectural culture, along with an associated set of entrenched beliefs in our society. According to those, it is inconceivable that a minimalist environment could have any harmful effects on people. 

News stories reported this frightening result, but nothing followed. World leaders were not ready to contemplate a looming and massive catastrophe for humanity, or they simply didn’t know what to make of it. Experts could not explain the effects. Will this disparity persist into adulthood? What will happen in twenty years, when these children have to take up their adult roles in society? What percentage of the world’s population is affected? 

This is not a conspiracy, but an addiction to “images of modernity”

A causal relation between information-poor interior environments and the measured results on children’s intelligence is suggestive, but not proven. Additional research studies are urgently needed. The human body evolved to process and interpret environmental information for survival. Minimalist environments frustrate our perceptual apparatus and might make adults anxious or uneasy, whereas the long-term effect will probably be negative as compared to a natural setting. But children’s brains are still developing their vital neural connections, thus their immediate environment shapes those circuits responsible for intelligence, thinking and interpreting the world

At the other extreme of a minimalist environment, an intentionally disordered environment is produced by deconstructivist architects. Here, forms do not align and there is no symmetry of any type. They eliminate reference to the vertical, even though our physiology requires it because of gravity. Interiors and exteriors twist and curve in an arbitrary, random fashion, evading natural expectations of stable tectonics, geometrical equilibrium and spatial coherence. Intelligence is based on connections, however. What’s more, the informational content of surfaces is still minimal, despite the twisting and turning on the largest scale. 

Critics, some individuals and specialised media might prefer minimalist forms on the one hand, and random forms on the other, and urge everyone else to follow. This is not a conspiracy, but an addiction to “images of modernity” attached to superficial style. After living with the pristine, shiny, smooth surfaces for a while, adults seek them automatically. Following trends is unfortunately part of human nature, even though these socially accepted norms date back only a few decades. Continuing addiction to popular images is difficult to break. 

Parents went along with transforming the built environment into one that is child-unfriendly, based on the relative lack of organized information in and on buildings. Industrial Modernism uses only certain materials and styles, unconcerned with their psychological effects on the eventual users. Persons accepting minimalism are hooked by the complacency of progress linked to shiny structures; they reject efforts to enhance the information content of the built environment. 

Design guides focus have not consulted the educational and medical evidence

Playgrounds designed in a “trendy” but ultimately off-putting style are not the answer, whatever their designers might believe or say. Design guides focus on schools and the children’s realm, but have not consulted the educational and medical evidence on what environmental details the children actually need and thrive from. Instead, spaces for learning tend to be shaped according to industrial-modernist aesthetics, which the architect believes the children will enjoy — without any prior or subsequent scientific testing. 

The entire world builds in certain standard or trendy styles, and construction drives the economies of many countries. Huge money and commercial interests are at stake, which explains why modernist architecture persists. A trillion-dollar global building industry builds showcase structures for willing clients, who happily support them as symbols of cultural and economic progress. For entirely pragmatic reasons, the industry follows the reigning fashion sought after by the global cultural élite. 

Adaptive, human-centered design is not popular because it does not correspond to favored design typologies. Ordinary architects/builders design most buildings around the world, which includes professional architects as well as owner-builders who are not licensed architects.

The average practitioner is often sensitive enough to question whether minimalist or distorted shapes and surfaces are appropriate for growing and learning environments. But architectural culture defers to images approved by the cultural élite, which consequently influence the entire discipline to a greater or lesser extent. We see non-adaptive, non-functional pieces on modest new buildings that copy the fashion shown in architecture magazines. 

With apologies to Comrade Ulyanov, a revolution in architecture will never come out of the public’s complacency. Columnists turning to the same old experts for enlightenment won’t receive any new or useful answers. Instead, they need to talk to medical doctors. Respected architecture critics regurgitating Bauhaus slogans justifying minimalism will distract attention from the medical data. Prestigious architecture schools and Starchitects will respond using standard platitudes about how Industrial Modernism is wonderful for our children. 

Readers expecting an immediate design re-alignment to focus on the psychological health of the built environment will be disappointed. Professional inertia perpetuates familiar methods and a set way of doing things. Visual contradictions generate the extremely painful state known as “cognitive dissonance”. The public suffers from cognitive dissonance when it hears consistent praise for shapes that cause alarm and anxiety. Architectural culture has reversed our innate preferences for forms, spaces and surfaces that promote our wellbeing — and now we are finally discovering the consequences. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover