It’s becoming increasingly common to describe architectural works in terms of empathy. A building empathises with its users, especially if they have special needs. And if it includes protection for natural or built elements, it also empathises with its physical and cultural context. Understanding and being attentive to others’ needs, actively listening to their opinions and being able to see things from their point of view in order to define a project which overcomes the multiple challenges posed by a work of architecture will invariably make that work empathetic. But empathy doesn’t only work at the operational and programmatic levels: it also encompasses a wide range of feelings and memories. What’s more, architecture looks ahead and tries to find solutions for future situations, so we ought to consider empathy as a much more complex, longer lasting issue.
According to neuroscience, empathy is all about the world of the senses and neurological reactions to different stimuli and coincidences, be they physical or visual. The neurological explanation of what an empathetic relationship is and how it works has its roots in the discovery of cells called mirror neurons, which allow us to experience another’s acts or feelings as if they were our own. Human evolution therefore goes beyond the purely material evolution of controlling and conquering the natural environment. It also has an affective dimension, and involves growing in sensitivity towards other components of our surroundings. For Jeremy Rifkin, our civilization is already an empathetic civilization in which interhuman relationships tend to be guided by acts and feelings induced by affinity and empathy. And it will be this civilization’s level of evolution that decides whether or not empathy with the biosphere prevails over material, utilitarian economic development.
This train of thought is shared by Juhani Pallasmaa, with his vision of architecture as a combination of formal and sensorial imagination, and thus as something empathetic. 20th century modernity established rationality and functionality as the predominant values in the creation of our environment, leaving little room for an emotional response and making it impossible to justify building in terms of individual perceptions, experience, memory or affinity. An architect’s design for a space invokes spatial intelligence as a means of making that design comprehensible and connecting with the imaginary and the emotional world of the building’s users.
In architecture, empathy works at three different cognitive levels: the individual or personal level, where empathy refers to each person’s needs and sensitivities; the physical and environmental level, encompassing the actual location, its features, weaknesses and memories; and the socio-cultural level, where empathy comes into dialogue with specific memories, meanings and customs. Talking about empathy in architecture means understanding how a building relates to each one of those levels, the feelings it arouses and, by extension, the activities it inspires us to perform there.