On a flight into Phoenix I was thinking of light as a metaphor for ideas. I thought of the city lights as a field of minds in a network of shared ideas. As I found my way to Taliesin West in northeast Scottsdale, memories ebbed and flowed with the illumination of the roads that, at each turn, gave way to an experience that embedded itself in my personal map of this metropolitan area in the Arizona desert.
There is always a moment before reaching Taliesin West at night where city lights disappear. Suddenly suspended in the darkness of the desert, I turned on my inner light—my knowledge of the place that has been embedded in my memory through living at the camp where Frank Lloyd Wright pioneered the principles of Organic Architecture. Slowly, the camp reveals itself through deliberate lighting, as ideas to be contemplated. I walked through this silent masterpiece, listening to the old ideas and observing the potential ones to come from Minding Design, a symposium on neuroscience, design education, and the imagination.
Last November the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and School of Architecture hosted this full day symposium, bringing together the ideas and research of architects and neuroscientists in a series of presentations and panel discussions. Juhani Pallasmaa, Michael Arbib, Jeanne Gang, and Ian McGilchrist were the keynote speakers in a dialogue that explored the opportunities of cross-pollination between architecture and neuroscience. The range of discussions was impressive and left my mind saturated with seeds of light/ideas and questions to contemplate and assimilate into my own design process.
The most commonly held and influential idea about design is that it’s the art of bringing essentially unrelated parts into a “composition” or an “assembly”. The funny thing is, from a scientific point of view, this idea is entirely wrong. A much better idea about design is that it’s the transformation of one whole into another whole. Not only is this definition more accurate, it’s also crucial for achieving an adaptive design.
Let’s talk about the important implications of this distinction between assembly and transformation.
Why is it scientifically wrong to say that design is the “composition” of essentially unrelated elements? Because nothing that works as a complete system is really “essentially unrelated” — though the sciences used to operate more or less successfully from that abstract premise, and much of technology still does. By contrast, the sciences of the last century have taught us more and more about the essential inter-relatedness of the Universe, from the largest scales of the space-time continuum, to the push-pull world of the quantum. In the biological sciences, we’ve come to understand the multi-layered, historical interdependence of systems, especially evident in the web-like relationships of ecological systems. Wherever we look in nature, we find vast and intricate networks of connections.