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The Mental Construction of Soft Architecture

The Mental Construction of Soft Architecture

As architecture and space is experienced and realised by people, as viewers, users, occupants or inhabitant, it is important as a architectural designer to have an understanding of how our brain process architecture and space. As we experience the world through consciousness, an understanding of this topic would provide the best analytical tool to understand the implications of how architecture and the built environment mediates our perceptions and how spaces are being generated in the mind.

‘One of the essential features of consciousness is that it situates you in this world. When you wake up in the morning, you experience your-self as existing at a specific time, at a single location, and embedded in a scene: A single and integrated situation emerges.’ (Metzinger,2009)

According to Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience, a conscious mind consists of two part; the mind that receives a flow of sensory information from our senses and the self that introduces a subjective perspective within the mind. As we are not merely passive exhibitors of sensory informations, without a self in the mind, one are not considered fully conscious. If this is the case, and each person have subjective assertions to the information that flow through our mind, then space is different for every single one of us. Therefore, spaces are not static. There is not one final space house by architecture constructed by the designers, architects or builders, but multiple versions construct through the mind of its occupants.

The extended intention for this research is to attempt to understand how our mind understands spaces and play a role in manipulating sensory information reference from the built architecture as well as to identify how certain specific relationship between architecture and the mind can be constructed by a designer. These will be explored in detail for further research. For the purpose of this literature review, two schools of thought from the field of neuroscience and philosophy will be looked at and contemplate through the lens of an architectural and spatial designer to understand the different concepts of how a ‘self’ (which asserts subjectivity in the mind) is created and how it affects to the way we understand the world and drives the generation of different versions of space in the mind.



The Three Tiers of Consciousness

In Antonio Damasio’s theory of consciousness, he propose that there are 3 levels of self that can inhabits the mind: proto-self, core-self and autobiographical-self, where each kind develop upon each other in layers. (Figure 1). According to Damasio, the Proto-self is a preconscious biological precedent that acts as a precursor for the earliest manifestation of self. The Core-self, generated from core-consciousness, is a simple biological phenomenon build upon the nonconscious proto-self, where there is rise of awareness and knowledge of the interaction between the organism and an object and remains relatively stable across one’s lifetime. Lastly, the Autobiographical- self, generated from extended consciousness, is a more complex biological phenomenon that grows and evolves. As Damasio puts it, ‘Extended consciousness still hinges on the same core “you”, but that “you” is now connected to the lived past and anticipated future that are part of your autobiographical record. (Damasio, 1999)


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       Figure 1.


With this understanding comes the idea that space is not only different for different people but there is an updated space generated through the updated you with new information. This would mean that space is not only different each time you visited it because it is related back to the memory from the last time you visited, but more importantly that there are innumerable version of a space that refreshes and updates itself as often as your autobiographical-self (the ‘present’ you) is updated.

Breathing Light (Figure 2) is an installation art by James Turrell that explores the phenomenon of loss of depth perception as experienced in a white-out. Turrell filled a space with colour light that slowly shifted into whiteness, during which many visitors report experiencing alteration in consciousness such as hallucination. This requires extended consciousness, as it requires constantly-updated self from a constant generation of knowledge and memory (the colour in the present moment) to experience the shift of colours to a white-out. This project nicely illustrated the idea stated above and give rises to a lot of interesting ideas, questions and speculations to further contemplate upon in a role of an architect.


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       Figure 2. Breathing Light (Turrell, 2013)



Feedback Loop

Through the lens of philosophy, Douglas Hofstadter, put forward another theory of consciousness explored in his book “I am a Strange Loop” arguing that there are no “self” or “I” when the brain is born. Through time and collected experience the brain slowly grow and a ‘self’ is being formed. “You make decisions, take actions, affect the world, receive feedback, incorporate it into yourself, then the updated “you” makes more decisions, and so forth, round and round” (Hofstadter, 2007) In other words, the journey does not begin with having a ‘self’ that makes egocentric experiences but each individual ‘self’ is made up of the experience we accumulated.

This idea aligns with Damasio’s theories of consciousness and the constantly-updated autobiographical-self. Where Damasio believes that there is proto-self in which stimuli act upon subjects to generate consciousness, Hofstadter also believes that there is an ‘empty’ brain that houses no-one, a base for the generation of self.

Interestingly, the concept of self and its housing(whether that be the mind or the brain) could be applied to space and its housing – the architecture (and the built environment). Just as the self is constantly generated and updated in the mind, space is constantly generated and updated in the architecture. If this is the case, an ‘empty’ architecture (architecture without an occupant) can be compared to an empty brain or mind in that it houses only air and not ‘space’, not until someone enters it and then spaces are generated.

Hofstadter, (2007, Figure 3) in his experiment where he points a video camera connected to a television screen directly at that screen to creates this infinite feedback loop, discovered that a “locking-in” phenomenon arises: where the very first input(in this case the very first image sent to the TV) is “locked in” to the loop and generate an infinite regeneration of itself. Damasio’s core-consciousness can be compared to the ‘first input’ where it will remains locked-in and abstracted and feeds on itself over and over.

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       Figure 3: Video Voyage II, snapshots 5-8 (Hofstadter, 2007)


This project illustrates how the loop effect ‘softens’ the image through abstraction. Through the regeneration, the initial images becomes more and more abstracted, blended and blurred until they are indistinguishable. From 2-dimensional to 3-(or more) dimensional scale, this introduces the idea that the process of a constantly updated mental construction, deconstruction and re-construction of a space causes abstraction, roundedness and blurriness to the generated space that softens it. This mentally constructed spaces could be considered soft architecture, a separate entity from hard architecture, the built architecture that houses it.


Paradoxical Feedback Loop

Although this experiments illustrates a concept of a feedback loop, Hofstadter suggests that there is a higher level of feedback loop: a strange loop; where a paradox occurs in a shift in hierarchy, from one level of abstraction to another, and starts forming a closed cycle. He argues that the generation of ‘self’ (consciousness) is a ‘strange loop’– a paradox.


“And thus the current “I” — the most up-to-date set of recollections and aspirations and passions and confusions — by tampering with the vast, unpredictable world of objects and other people, has sparked some rapid feedback, which, once absorbed in the form of symbol activations, gives rise to an infinitesimally modified “I”; thus round and round… Somewhere along the way, as more and more things happened to it, were registered by it, and became internalized in it, it started imitating the cultural and linguistic conventions in which it was immersed, and thus it tentatively said “I” about itself “. (Hofstadter, 2007)


Similarly, Damasio’s anticipated future is directly referenced to the lived past and the lived past is formed in the present which is shifted from the anticipated future, which aligns with Hofstadter’s idea of the constant updated “I”. The lived-past and the anticipated-future does not generates the present independently. It cannot. That would be impossible as the anticipated future is the direct product of the lived past. The lived past generates the anticipated future that generate and shift into the present now, which shift to become the past the determined the next anticipated future to generate another the present now. Though, without the present now, there would be no contemplation of the lived past to generate the anticipated future. Thus, without one component, the whole loop failed to complete, just like the quality of a feedback loop.

From this, one could also argue that it is not a simple feedback loop but a paradoxical one as there is a shift in hierarchy. Therefore, the autobiographical-self and its extended consciousness could be categorised, by Hofstadter’s standard, as a “strange loop”. (Figure 4) The lived past generates the anticipated future that generate and shift into the present now, which shift to become the past the determined the next anticipated future to generate another the present now. Though, without the present now, there would be no contemplation of the lived past to generate the anticipated future. Thus, without one component, the whole loop failed to complete, just like the quality of a feedback loop.


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Figure 4.


In the view of architecture, this idea could relates to the Penrose stairs as known as ‘the impossible staircase’ made famous by the dutch artist M. C. Escher(Figure 5), in that there is a shift in hierarchy; a paradox which occurs when the top of the staircase becomes the bottom of the staircase and stuck in a closed cycle.


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Figure 5: Ascending and Descending (Escher, 1960)



Softer Architecture and Static Spaces

It can be concluded that space is never static. It is softens as it is constantly subjected to mental construction, deconstruction and reconstruction in reference to the hard architecture. As we construct this softer architecture, we are also re-constructing ourselves according to it, which then reconstruct it and therefore reconstruct us and so on and so forth in a loop, where each new construction are influenced by all the previous ones. Moreover, the new construction will always be linked back the first construction of this space (the first memory — the first experience of a space) which acts as a core of the loop. (Figure 6).

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     Figure 6.


Though with the understanding of a paradoxical feedback loop, mental-constructed architecture becomes even softer as there is more than a blurriness and a blends of different version of spaces but blurs in the actual hierarchy of the the constructor(conscious mind) and the constructed (space) until it becomes a closed cycle.

Notion Motion (Figure 7) is an installation by Olafur Eliasson which explores how space is manipulated through light and water. As a visitor steps on the floor, ripples are generated in the water below which is live captured and project onto the wall. There is direct feedback that makes visitors aware of their affect on the space, which affects their movement in space and affects the space and over and over in a loop. It clearly illustrates the concept of a paradoxical feedback loop in the construction of mental space. As the ripples generates by visitors affect the quality of the space in a way can be notice and recognise visually, which then becomes a factor that affects and change the perception of that space for the visitors.


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Figure 7: Notion Motion (Eliasson, 2005) 



States of Consciousness

There is not only one state of consciousness for every individuals (‘self’). According to Michael Tye, there are various concept of consciousness: Higher-order consciousness, Discriminatory consciousness, Responsive consciousness and Phenomenon consciousness, a combination of which is present depending on different situations. Tye purpose different cases to illustrate his concept ranging from a distracted driver who drives while being lost in his thoughts to a winemaster who can detects subtle flavours that would seem the same to most people to an intoxicated person or even a dreamer having conscious experience in a dream.

Thomas Metzinger also claims that there are different state of consciousness especially out of body experiences such as during lucid dreaming where you become aware and conscious, though not of your ‘real world’ but of your mental content. For further research, it would be interesting to look at people who suffers from mental condition such as agnosia or schizophrenia who experience a different version of reality, one that does not match with our version of the ‘real world’.

This idea of states of consciousness questions the role of a physical body for consciousness but more importantly, as an architectural designer, it provokes the thought that if a conscious mind can generate spaces without having to reference (being aware of being in) a hard architecture, what then is the significance of hard architecture to soft architecture. What is our role, as an spatial architectural designer, designing both states of architecture, for different states of consciousness.

This understanding of mental construction of space derives and concluded from this literature review helps to provide the understanding of how spaces are constructed in the mind and how the mind play a role in manipulating sensory information referenced from the built architecture. An attempt to identify how certain specific relationship between architecture and the mind can be constructed by a designer will be explored for further research.




Work Cited
Ascending and Descending, by M. C. Escher. Lithograph, 1960. (n.d.). [image] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2016].
Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens. New York: Harcourt.
Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt.
Eliasson, O. (n.d.). Notion Motion. [image] Available at: olafur-eliasson-at-the- museum-boijmans-van-beuningen-in-rotterdam/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2015].
Hofstadter, D. (2007). I am a strange loop. New York: Basic Books.
Hofstadter, D. (2007). Video Voyage II, snapshots 5-8.. [Photography].
Metzinger, T. (2009). The Ego Tunnel. New York: Basic Books.
Turrell, J. (2013). Breathing Light. [image] Available at: [Accessed 4 Dec. 2015].
Tyr, M. (1999). The Burning House. In: T. Metzinger, ed., Conscious Experience. Imprint Academic.


Work Referenced

Clark, A. and Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind.
Damasio, A. (2010). Self Comes to Mind. New York: Pantheon Books.
Dennett, D. and Hofstadter, D. (1982). The Mind’s I. Bantam Books.
Gibson, J. (1950). The Perception of the Visual World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.





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