In the 1950s prizewinning biologist and doctor Jonas Salk was working on a cure for polio in a dark basement laboratory in Pittsburgh. Progress was slow, so to clear his head, Salk traveled to Assisi, Italy, where he spent time in a 13th-century monastery, ambling amid its columns and cloistered courtyards. Suddenly, Salk found himself awash in new insights, including the one that would lead to his successful polio vaccine. Salk was convinced he had drawn his inspiration from the contemplative setting. He came to believe so strongly in architecture’s ability to influence the mind that he teamed up with renowned architect Louis Kahn to build the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., as a scientific facility that would stimulate breakthroughs and encourage creativity.
Architects have long intuited that the places we inhabit can affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. But now, half a century after Salk’s inspiring excursion, behavioral scien-tists are giving these hunches an empirical basis. They are unearthing tantalizing clues about how to design spaces that promote creativity, keep students focused and alert, and lead to relaxation and social intimacy. Institutions such as the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture in San Diego are encouraging interdisciplinary research into how a planned environment influences the mind, and some architecture schools are now offering classes in introductory neuroscience.