One of the realities that provides me unique insight is that I’m both a civil engineer and a land use planner. I have a Professional Engineer (PE) license and American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) certification. I worked for five years strictly as an engineer and then, after graduate school, I spent another decade doing mostly planning work.

These two professions -- engineer and planner -- may seem to the outsider to be very similar, but they tend to attract very different types of people. While there are many exceptions, engineers tend to be linear thinkers while planners tend to be more abstract. In engineering school we made jokes about clueless planners and in planning school we made jokes about myopic engineers. They were both equally funny.

In the 20th century, our obsession with efficiency gave rise (and power) to the specialist. In the civil engineering profession, we have traffic engineers, hydrological engineers, structural engineers (with various sub-disciplines), project engineers, etc... While we still experience this kind of segmentation by specialty in many fields, we seem to be experiencing a renewed appreciation for the generalist. More pointedly, decades of hyper-specialization leading up to a suddenly hyper-connected world has made highly valuable those people who can incorporate insights from outside of their own profession.

Steve Jobs was an engineer. He was also an artist. It was the merger of those two very different pursuits that gave us the elegance of modern computer graphic interfaces. Keep in mind, he was mocked by many over his obsession with the look and feel of his devices. Apple is likely to be the world's first trillion dollar company.

It's in that spirit -- making an intellectual connection across two very different specialities -- that I shared an article last week on our social media feed entitled "The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture." It was written by Ann Sussman, an architect and biometric researcher, and Katie Chen, who has a degree in applied psychology. I find this work utterly fascinating.

Before we go any further, I must do a short diversion on the word "disorder" as it's not only in the headline but throughout the text of the article. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that provide people with a spectrum of symptoms, skills and challenges.

People not familiar with cognitive science or ASD often key in on the word "disorder" as having some type of negative connotation, along the lines of a defect, when in fact the word refers to a disruption of cognitive systems (think chaotic, not defective).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder should be thought of in the same way. Extra emphasis should always be placed on the notion of a spectrum and, as one of my family members who specializes in early childhood development is fond of saying, we're all on the spectrum somewhere. 

It's not surprising that people perceive the world differently, but what is fascinating is how people with very busy and hyperconnected brains, as those with ASD, and people who have suffered brain trauma, as with PTSD, calm their brains in order to deal with the overload they experience. From the article:

For it turns out people on the spectrum often struggle not only with social relations but with visual overload referred to as hyperarousal.

Hyperarousal is sometimes described as an exaggerated sense of fight or flight. Imagine a brain that is processing lots of information without the ability to automatically sort and then quiet those things that aren't important. It's overload. From the article, here are two pictures of a house:


On the left is a heat map showing where someone with a typical brain will focus their attention. On the right is how someone with ASD views the same house. Here's what Sussman and Chen state in the article:

Notice how a person on the autism spectrum, at right, avoids details like windows (which might suggest eyes) while a typical brain instinctively goes straight for them, without conscious awareness.

Pause here for a second and imagine Jane Jacob's eyes on the street concept. It's comforting for me to walk down a street full of windows and houses with front porches and pleasant symmetry. I generally welcome the interaction with my neighbors and, while not creepy about it, can't help but glance over now and then to see if I can catch their eye. I think that is typical. 

Now imagine that your brain doesn't work that way. Imagine that your brain is completely overwhelmed by the eyes on the street. It's too much to take in, even just the buildings. Or it's an uncomfortable reminder that someone (unfriendly) may be tracking you. Now, is it possible you'd find some comfort — or perhaps just a noticeable reduction in tension — passing a building that instead looked like this?

Since I read the article by Sussman and Chen, I've been thinking about the trauma — and the cultural inflection point — that was World War I. It's hard to understate. 

The Great War marked the beginning of industrial scale killing. For England, France, Germany and Russia, the casualties — over 41 million — were more than all prior European wars combined. It's a staggering number, even today. 

And the way they died had an even greater effect than the raw numbers. World War I removed all the gallantry of warfare as soldiers were fed to the machine guns in wave after wave of senseless slaughter. The poison gas, the artillery, the trenches....nobody had seen this before and nobody knew what to do. It was the first total war, where the privations were not only felt on the battlefield but military strategy included demoralizing your opponent's home front. The war began with a Kaiser and a Czar (both a derivation of an ancient Caesar) and ended with a Bolshevik revolution as well as sowing the seeds of Nazi Socialism and what has become European socialism. The Europeans of 1919 could hardly relate to themselves of 1914.

In 1934, F. Scott Fitzgerald released Tender is the Night about a couple living in the south of France shortly after the war. This quote has haunted me since I first read it, summing up the cultural change, the smashing of idealism felt by a generation:

This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.

I can imagine traumatized troops returning from war — in an age way before PTSD was known as anything other than "shell shock" at best, and cowardice at worst — looking at the great churches and cathedrals in their hometowns and finding them spiritually bankrupt. I can see them looking around at their idyllic towns and, as things went about normally as they had for centuries, finding it all beyond shallow. I can picture the brains overloaded — chaotic and traumatized — without much recourse for calming them. 

Ponder the same thing in Roman times. The legions return from traumatic hand to hand combat to their homes and villages where nothing much changed for centuries before or after. Even if a generation of them had been traumatized, the stability of their culture and environment would have overwhelmed their disorder. That's not what happened in post World War I Europe.

In Europe, things were changing rapidly. The armies of World War I would go to war on foot and horseback. Two decades later, they would go by truck and tank. These were two decades of rapidly accelerating change throughout all of society. It would be unsettling for someone with typical cognition. Imagine what it was like for those back from the front lines. Those with chaotic, stressed brains.

Gropius House,  Photo from Wikipedia.

Gropius House, Photo from Wikipedia.

This is why, when Sussman and Chen share a photo of a home designed by Walter Gropius, it made me sad. It looks like a pillbox. You can't see out or in unless you stand up and peer through, just like in a bunker. Is this type of design that he needed to feel comfort? To settle his brain?

Here is an except from Gropius's bio on Wikipedia

Walter Adolph Georg Gropius (18 May 1883 – 5 July 1969) was a German architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, who, along with Ludwig Mies van der RoheLe Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, is widely regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modernist architecture.
Walter Gropius was drafted August 1914 and served as a sergeant and then as a lieutenant in the signal corps in the First World War. He survived being both buried under rubble and dead bodies, and shot out of the sky with a dead pilot. He was awarded the Iron Cross twice.

I don't know the answer to this — I'm neither an architect nor a cognitive scientist — but I'm grateful someone is exploring this possibility.

There is a lot of debate over whether autism is increasing or whether we are just become better at diagnosing it. There is less stigma today than there was a generation ago, and this may be the primary factor in the change from 1 in 2,000 children in the 1970's being diagnosed to 1 in 150 today. Conspiracy theories over vaccinations aside, it's not hard for me to believe that the myriad of chemicals, plastics and gases that we're routinely exposed to today are changing us in ways that could manifest in more of us having a busy brain. Many experts believe that ASD rates are increasing. I don't know.

With war now a seemingly endless American pursuit, it seems certain that PTSD cases will continue to increase.

What impact should this all of this have on how we build our cities? How do our cities impact cognitive disorders? I will acknowledge being both a huge fan of traditional architectural styles — particularly classical architecture — and having a loathing for modernism and nearly all its variations. I've argued, as have others, that classical architecture is timeless, thus resilient. I want eyes on the street, front porches, windows and neighbors waving as I pass. I've argued that we should be humble and learn from what worked in the past, not so eager — and arrogant — to dispense with it.

Yet is my call for humility a form of arrogance? Am I ignoring the very real trauma that influenced a generation to seek something new? Am I ignoring the difficulties that (a potentially growing number of) those with ASD and PTSD experience day in and day out? It breaks my heart to think that something that gives me such comfort -—a well designed street lined with friendly homes and shops — could cause someone else great pain and anxiety.

I have more questions than answers here. I've ordered Sussman's book, Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, in the hopes that I can learn something from it. From the article

And yet all of the underlying neuroscience here suggests something else new, exciting and positive—the path forward for architecture in the 21st century. Understanding that our brain is an artifact of 3.6 billion years of evolution frames this new direction, as is accepting the truth that unconscious brain activity directs our conscious behavior. Acknowledging that human perception is relational, befitting a social species, fills out this new framework for an architecture that promotes human health and social welfare.

Sussman and Chen raise way more questions for me than they give answers, but I'm deeply grateful that they did. Whether this leads anywhere or not, we need to encourage this kind of cross-disciplinary conversation wherever we can. There is work being done in the cognitive sciences that stands to revolutionize how we understand humans, human society and our cultural adaptations. Keep an open mind.

Top image from Wikipedia.

Related stories