Seeing the Building for the Trees by Sarah Williams Goldhagen

Metropol Parasol © Javier Orive

This article, recently seen on The New York Times, was kindly shared with us by the author Sarah Williams Goldhagen.

A REVOLUTION in cognitive neuroscience is changing the kinds of experiments that scientists conduct, the kinds of questions economists ask and, increasingly, the ways that architects, landscape architects and urban designers shape our built environment.

This revolution reveals that thought is less transparent to the thinker than it appears and that the mind is less rational than we believe and more associative than we know. Many of the associations we make emerge from the fact that we live inside bodies, in a concrete world, and we tend to think in metaphors grounded in that embodiment.

This metaphorical, embodied quality shapes how we relate to abstract concepts, emotions and human activity. Across cultures, “important” is big and “unimportant” is small, just as your caretakers were once much larger than you. Sometimes your head is “in the clouds.” You approach a task “step by step.”

Some architects are catching on to human cognition’s embodied nature. A few are especially intrigued by metaphors that express bodily experience in the world.

Take the visual metaphor of a tree as shelter. Most people live around, use and look at trees. Children climb them. People gather under them. Nearly everyone at some point uses one to escape the sun.

An In-Progress Photo of the Metropol Parasol © Ignacio Ysasi

Recently, architects have deployed tree metaphors in many different settings. At the Kanagawa Institute of Technology in Japan, Junya Ishigami created an elegant “forest” out of slender, white-enameled metal saplings that congregate in clusters and open into clearings of vocational work spaces. In Seville, Spain, a German architect, Jürgen Mayer H., gave definition and shade to the city’s Plaza de la Encarnación with his Metropol Parasol, a lilting, waffled construction of laminated timber.

Tod's retail store by © ArchDaily

Such projects follow earlier, very different tree-inspired buildings, like Toyo Ito’s well-known Tod’s, a retail store in Tokyo, and the Mediathèque media library, an exhibition space and cinema in Sendai, Japan, which is so well supported by irregular, hollowed-out, sinuous “trunks” (housing elevators and staircases) that it survived the enormous earthquake last March.

Why should tree metaphors appeal to architects? Why should they be useful, even good, for people? In the Seville project, tree imagery helps construct a distinctive public place that offers shelter and areas to congregate. As under spreading trees, the boundaries defining these spaces are permeable; easy to enter and exit, they offer nature’s spatial freedom yet help people to feel more firmly rooted where they are. And tree metaphors, deployed architecturally, simultaneously lament nature’s absence and symbolically insert its presence.

Tree metaphors also refer to the experience of living in a body on earth. Trees are static, stable objects. Someone connected to a community is “rooted” there; a psychologically sturdy friend’s feet are firmly “planted” on the ground. We use trees to describe human bodies and souls: the area from our neck to pelvis is our “trunk”; someone reliable is “solid as an oak”; someone exploring a new area of inquiry is “branching out.”

Buildings aren’t nature, of course. Tree metaphors like the branching-out facade of Mr. Ito’s Tod’s surprise people. But because the surprise comes along with the implied reassurance of structural integrity (they’re trees, after all), it prompts us to focus on the built environment, perhaps to reconsider its role in our everyday lives.

Architects may also like tree metaphors because a tree’s overall structure is regular, while its fine-grained composition, its tangles of branches, are irregular, an arrangement conducive to the kind of design experimentation offered by new digital technologies.

But the design opportunities that tree metaphors present fail to explain their appearance in such a diverse range of buildings. Trees are familiar. Tree metaphors allow for an architectural inventiveness that stretches people without estranging them.

Trees are just one of the growing number of embodied metaphors used in contemporary architecture: Zaha Hadid builds riverlike spaces, while the Japanese firm offers up a habitable mountainscape of a student center at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland.

SANAA © Rolex Learning Center

How many designers are clued in to the ongoing cognitive revolution and its potential for the built environment is unclear. But this collection of architects and projects herald more than just another stylistic or pyrotechnic, technology-driven trend. They point toward how the built environment could — and should — be radically reconceptualized around the fundamental workings of the human mind. We need, and are ever more in a position to create, a richer built environment, grounded in the way people actually experience the world around them.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, the architecture critic for The New Republic, is writing a book about how people experience the contemporary built environment.


Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "Seeing the Building for the Trees by Sarah Williams Goldhagen" 11 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>
  • Lake Jevine

    As someone who dated a cognitive neuroscientist for 3 yrs, I’m having a hard time grasping the relationship between the two fields of study as presented here. This is an article about metaphor, not science. The examples highlighted here are science-applique at best. The strongest argument for cognitive neuroscience in architecture today is that we design spaces to look like or feel like trees because humans like trees? What exactly is contemporary about this concept and how did this come about through the study of cognitive research??

    Trees are one of the oldest inspirations for architecture ( Egyptian columns as bundles of reeds expressed as the ribbing on flutes, then the ornate natural detailing of Greek and Roman capitals, actual tree houses in the Amazon, etc ). Therefore this has no direct relation to our current world over our past. For the author’s interest in the natural world, the roll of biomimicry would have been a better argument… the use of scripting based on swarm theory, the evolution of formal language as in the Seville pavilion shaped like mushroom or fungal growth ( not trees ), the similarity of functions between new building systems theories and plants, etc. At best this is an argument based on formal imagery with no regard for actual scientific research… which is where discoveries of cognitive research happen.

    That said, the idea of applying similar experiment-based research used to study cognitive neuroscience, is compelling to push forward in architecture… why aren’t people studying the effects of different types of designs, formal languages, materials, lighting, circulation paths, etc. on their occupants? The closest I can think of are POEs which do little to show proof of anything except whether or not people have adopted to their new spaces. We should be thinking about the realities of contemporary architecture, and its relationship and impact on our built world today; primarily cities. What makes a person live in a city? What makes them stay or leave? What do they like about it, hate about it? And within the architecture itself, what is the difference between working in a rounded room vs a rectilinear? How does it influence the way people interact? How about hard surfaces vs soft? Those are some of the questions that need to be asked regarding cognitive neuroscience, and those are the things that could directly impact architecture.

  • Luis Real

    Columns in ancient architecture weren’t inspired by trees…
    The Sevilla Pavilion is a tree, as everyone in Seville calls it…

    • Anastasia

      Sevilla’s Parasol local people named “mushrooms”, but tree…