M/M Interview with Stefano Serafini

M/M interview with Stefano Serafini on ISB Summer School in Neuroergonomics and Urban Design

This interview has been published with permission by Manner of Man, where it originally appeared, in December 2012. Manner of Man, founded by architect Nicola Linza (USA) and Cristoffer Neljesjö (Sweden) in 2010, is an authoritative magazine devoted “to bring together authentic voices from the world’s elite”. It advocates such values as good taste and elegance, intelligence, and ethical integrity, while examining the socio, economic and psycho demographics of leading success men.

As director of the Summer School in Neuroergonomics and Urban Design at the International Society of Biourbanism in Rome, how is the methodology and epistemological background of your programme very different from what one usually finds in Architecture schools?

The fundamental difference is: “The design is out there already.” Follow the force of gravity. Follow people’s needs. Creativity is not about a “genius” who finds great ideas in his head or in books and then fights to impose them on reality. On the contrary, creativity means flowing smoothly with the very structure of what exists – human physiology, nature, society, culture – and unfolding it at its best by recognizing needs, constraints, and conditions. Reality is smarter than you are, even if you are racing for the smartest-guy-playin’-design prize. Now, unfortunately, the urban mainstream produced by our individualistic society along the last two centuries doesn’t care too much for listening to reality. Think of the very concept of Urban planning, a paradigmatic instantiation of the top-down approach. Think of the ideology brought on by such renowned theoreticians as LeCorbusier abstractly considering the urban environment just a huge flow space between “machines for inhabiting”.

In fact, our Summer School has been an inceptive lab towards a paradigm shift in urbanism and architecture. We call such a shift paradigm “biourbanism” fundamentally because it’s rooted in a revolution occurring in the Life Sciences, but also because biourbanism brings a vision of cities as living organisms, according to the latest emerging idea of what an organism is.

What is this biological revolution about? At the beginning of 20th century, authors such as Geddes proposed an organic model while referring to cities. But what was an organism to him and to his generation? Nothing more than a complex machine planned from an external force, yet he seemingly was saying the exact opposite. Such an external force could be the élan vital, God, or Darwinian natural selection – no matter. Organisms, like cities, were considered products of an Agent separated from them, a model that at the very end fits into our capitalistic production system.

Allometric scaling, complexity, self-organizing processes, small worlds, laws of forms, epigenetics, constructal law, systems biology, and other interesting cues, have been showing gradually during the last years that the very nature of “organic” beings, such as cities or animals, is just one with the reality they emerge from. Rules and constraints governing structures are written in forms, and these forms shape structures. On their side, forms and structures are intertwined with the environment and the so-called “surrounding conditions.” The form/function of wings has emerged as a “catastrophic” event in several species, unrelated from a genetic point of view, but strictly connected to the internal and exterior world (chemicals, physics). The emergence of wings follows what Antonio Lima-de-Faria has called “biological periodicity”, an intrinsic order, independent from any outer “agent” or system of choice. So one can find wings in birds, insects, reptiles (pterodactyls), fishes (flying fish), mammalians (bat)… and even airplanes.

And what about an ocean wave or a beam of light? They are clear examples of “design which works”, a design that is one with the very order of reality. Nor Natural selection, nor the Great Architect, have given shape to the wave or to the light beam. Such perfect forms and working dynamics, come straight from the geometrical skeleton of energy and matter, from the way atoms, photons, and molecules interact.

Outstanding authors such as the mathematician René Thom, the geneticist Lima-de-Faria, or the engineer Adrian Bejan gave us the tools to understand structural reality from this “internal” point of view. Our difficult task is transferring this mindset into Design, which shall result in a better orientation towards human beings’ reality, and not to an abstract ideal of what a human being “shall be”, e.g. according to market, ideology, or other dogmatic visions. We want design for humans – not design humans.

That’s why, in fact, we deal essentially with epistemology, i.e. with reconsidering critically, not urbanism in itself, but the cultural frame that makes modern urbanism what it is, a failure. As you know, several theoreticians have spoken about the centrality of human beings in architecture, since the very Vitruvius (1st c. BC), to LeCorbusier. Many have considered cities as organisms, for instance Geddes, Muratori, Howard, Mumford, etc. But the real point is: in which sense human beings shall be the unit of measure of urbanism? What a human being is? And what an organism is?

As architects are not acquainted with epistemology, neurophysiology, and biopolitics, and time was not so much, and part of the academic staff was new to the architecture world, our school’s methodology resulted to be a bit tiring. Yet, our group took courageously part in a hard three full-days brainstorm, and tried to absorb/communicate a lot of information about the last frontiers of neurosciences, complexity, and theoretical biology. Such a bunch of data was meant to challenge the mindset of last centuries’ architectural and urban planning practice. We are talking about a vision of the world shared not only by architects, of course. The paradigm shift that is going on among practitioners has a lot to say, for example, to psychologists, physicians, economists, and so on.

One could refer to the methodology of collecting information as taught by Design Thinking. This is a very concrete process to ground a bottom-up design. Real needs expressed by clients, or by the community, are there to point out the good answer. Listening to them – learning how to listen to them – means avoiding a designer’s projections or impositions, which could (and in fact, usually, do) spoil the effectiveness of design. What if – say – a politician used the same methodology?

The other half of the Summer School then has been devoted to analysis and practice, but the real work, that is, making an output of the information received, will go on during the next months and years. Most of the participants are young and very talented. It will be a pleasure to see how they will digest this experience and will build biourbanism.

How was your Neuroergonomics and Urban Design programme conceived? What are the ultimate goals?

The programme envisioned theory, experience, analysis, and practice. The main focus was the human body, as the first scientific evidence of human nature. Not an abstract body, but the concrete and individual tool that everybody can use when dealing with grasping information from the environment. The body as erlebnis, experienced life, first, and then also as a subject of the sciences. Experiencing body, and putting it in direct relation to different kinds of urban spaces, was thus a fundamental part of our work. We learned how our body is informed by the environment and how it can be used to change and enhance it. Body is the most subtle instrument to measure a place’s qualities, and detect its potentialities and affordances.

So, theoretical lectures challenging the old epistemology were accompanied by body-awareness exercises and followed by walks through very different urban environments to check how our body reacts to such differences. We analyzed the ancient city centre of Artena and its modern urban sprawl; and visited the middle-ages city of Sermoneta, and, immediately after, Sabaudia, a model of the modernistic “city of foundation”.

Finally, we spent time in solving an urban problem in Artena by using the inputs and the hints received during the school. The latter was intended as the first movement of a process that is supposed to go ahead during the academic and professional life of participants: I’m sure they will introduce a new trend in Urbansim during the next years.

As concerns say specifically a personal space such as a residential architecture, what do you feel is a predominate aspect of neuroergonomics or is it a matter of more than one aspect coming together as a Universal whole?

Neuroergonomics means in a sense “anthropologically caring”. Urbanism and architecture have lost connection to human beings because they don’t care about human nature – and I don’t mean here any metaphysical, but the psycho-neuro-immunological structure of our body. Neuroergonomic urbanism is in first instance that one which doesn’t hurt my organism. Noise, traffic, bad shapes, gigantic architectures, big distances, zoning, pollution, danger, urban solitude… how many urban geometry issues are related to human health? And they are at the same time connected to social, economical, and even political weal. A polluted, huge, and noisy square makes my blood pressure raise and my catecholamine release, but also, directly and indirectly, fetters social interaction, business, and political freedom.

In such a way, neuroergonomics should cover (“humanize”) all the scales of urban design including transportation, communication networks, service design, architecture, and interiors level because everything is connected as a whole.

Architecture cannot just be opinion so what relationships do you find most relevant in changing the course of architecture tomorrow to address the real needs of people?

The relationship to ourselves, on different scales. Connecting to reality, or to others, or to communities’ needs is impossible if one is not connected to himself. And one can start doing it, through body. This means awareness and respect of your own bodily feelings, despite what others say, e.g. the academy, fashion, market. If a huge skyscraper is without scales or a connection to the context, it makes my stomach tense or makes me feel insignificant. I don’t care about what architecture journals say about its “geniality” and “beauty”. I care about its real effects on me. Not on my mind, my culture, my aesthetics – on me and in the first place on my body. That’s the main term of comparison I can use to evaluate the impact of such a building on other people, on a community, on a city’s economics, etc. Then, of course, more “objective” measurement must take place: data collecting, medical and sociological literature, interviews and analyses etc. But the core of the process is the human being, and I don’t mean here only the planner, but the citizen. We have no time to speak about a seeming oxymoron we have worked on – peer-to-peer urbanism, a bottom-up process for people to plan cities and communities, where the professional planner’s role is reduced to just a technical support.

As there is no scientific basis for how the so-called Star architects approach their work, what are in your view the most dangerous aspects to their lack of sustainability and the timelessness of their architecture?

We live in a society of the spectacle. Starchitects are just the emerging toe of a huge iceberg. There’s a fantastic business machine beneath them. Global corporations’ way of imposing their own interests on the world. It’s always the same, regardless of whether we are talking about pharmaceutical industries, military and weapons trade organizations, eco-mafia, or concrete. Even the insolence is the same. “Fuck the context” is more than a designer’s boutade. That motto synthesizes the spirit of the time.

Your programme involves unique mind-body activities pertaining to architecture. How are those mind-body activities organized, presented and used during analytical and design processes?

It’s all about self-awareness and rediscovering the centrality of the body, e.g. in the communication processes. Our tutors did a great job, involving specific knowledge about mimesis, non-violent communication, theatre, yoga, and bioenergetics. Yet, I would confess that an important role has been also covered by good food, sun, dance and conviviality. And physical, raw, natural beauty of places and people.

Of anytime period, do you have a favourite building or say overall built environment? If so, which would it be?

Not only one. I love the organic and meaningful wholeness of Italian middle-age towns, encrusted like gems into natural landscapes. But the most loved built environment, for me, has yet to come. We’ll make it come to light.