Can Right-Brain Buildings Nurture Left-Brain Thinking?

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Looking at the new Cooper Union building for its school of engineering (photo) made me realize one reason why the U.S. is losing its position as world technology leader. Engineers should be rational, analytical and, above all, clear thinkers. In other words, left-brainers. The new Cooper Union building was definitely made by and for right-brainers.

The concept of right-brain and left-brain thinking developed from research in the late 1960s by American Nobel Prize-winning psychobiologist Roger W Sperry. He discovered that the human brain has two very different ways of thinking. One (the right brain) is visual and processes information in an intuitive way, looking first at the whole picture then filling in details. The other (the left brain) processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces, then putting them together to get the whole. The archetypical creative artist is a right-brainer.

It strikes me that the right-brain/left-brain model is an interesting way to look at architectural design. New traditionalism (left brain) takes historic precedent as a starting point and adapts and evolves new forms from there. Neo-Modernism (right brain) involves a never-ending intuitive quest for visual novelty, rejecting all precedent. The most damning thing an architectural critic can say of a neo-Modernist building is: “I’ve seen that before.”

The new Cooper Union building was designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, and the structure fits very nicely into the “sculpture as building” category that characterizes much of today’s starchitecture. Frank Gehry also designed a sculpture-building for Case Western Reserve’s Management School (photo). But if we grant Winston Churchill’s proposition--“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us"--then I fear these two buildings will be turning out some pretty weird-thinking engineers and managers.

Of course, some people are delighted by these sculpture-buildings. One of the Case Western management professors praised the Gehry building because it will teach students “to strive for a kind of design that has no final goals beyond that of leaving more possibilities open to future generations than we ourselves have inherited.” To me, such a pronouncement is an inchoate assemblage of buzz words, lacking clarity and precision, thus providing intellectual cover for a wide range of sloppy thinking. It’s just the kind of fuzzy reasoning that one fears buildings like this will engender.

The left-brain/right-brain model of design methodology goes beyond mere issues of style and highlights instead how a designer thinks and approaches problem solving. Where functionality, durability, cost and life-safety issues are dominant, I personally want a left-brainer heading the project. And I certainly don’t want to fly in any airplanes designed by a Cooper Union engineer!