Berlin Lab

Corinne Rose: This Is Your Brain on Urbanism

Author’s note: Last fall, shortly after the Berlin Lab Team was announced, I sat down with the four Lab Team members (José Gómez-Márquez, Rachel Smith, Corinne Rose, and Carlo Ratti) to get a general feel for what they would be exploring during their time at the Lab. At that point they had very rough ideas of what their focus might be. But now, just days before the Lab opens, their plans are a lot more concrete—and thus a lot more exciting. Speaking with them privately about what they have in store, I was struck by just how much there is to look forward to in the weeks ahead. And so I thought it would be worth taking a quick glance at what Berliners can expect from the programs each will be presenting at the Lab. Enjoy.

I struggled for a long time to come up with an apt description of what Corinne Rose has planned for her programming during her time at the Lab from July 7 to July 18—to put it into words that would give justice to the powerful connections she is looking to make and the inquisitive nature of the questions she is exploring, without losing sight of the practical application of the outcomes.

Given that she is a unique mix of psychologist and practicing video and photography artist, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is an almost narrative quality to the approach Corinne is taking—that while each of her individual programs is fascinating in and of itself, it is when you begin putting them together that things really get interesting.

In a way, it almost reminds me of a TED-talk version of the philosophy behind the public radio show This American Life . . . but on urban, psychological steroids.

In This American Life, each episode features several real-life stories around a specific theme. The different stories relate to the theme in wildly varying ways, and as the lenses begin to pile up on one another the listener’s understanding of it begins to change and deepen in unexpected ways.

Corinne is taking a similar approach to her investigation of the link between psychology, communication and unconscious processes, and urbanism and architecture.

For example: On her first day of programming, she will begin with a lecture from an anatomist who specializes in the eye to learn the nuts and bolts about how we actually physically see the world—the basics of human perception, essentially. This is followed by an eye specialist who studies the link between the eye and the brain, optical illusion, and how images are translated into our minds, and later by a neurophilosopher (yes, neurophilosopher), who will talk about the experience of the urban environment, and later by a performance group that experiments with virtual reality. And so on and so forth.

Armed with those experiences, one comes to the next day of her programming, which has a focus on the experience of aesthetics: What is nice? Who decides what is nice? And how do we decide? A psychologist will speak about the science of preference, for instance, and will be followed by a philosopher talking about aesthetics in the city, the journalist and urban researcher who wrote “Berlin ist haesslich—und das ist gut so!” (“Berlin is ugly—and that’s a good thing!”), and later by a discussion with politicians about aesthetic changes to Prenzlauer Berg in the recent past.

Combine that with, say, the sociologist who specializes in understanding fear and anger talking about the emotional impacts and reactions that stem from social inequality, or the psychologist who studies how the average person’s gut intuition is often more correct than the calculated decision of someone with “expert knowledge,” and, I think, an incredibly interesting and unique picture of how we react to the urban environment around us will begin to form.

So . . . why does that matter? How does it apply to the real world?

“When it comes to understanding the city, I think it’s really worth taking the time to look to the people who understand the basics of human nature,” Corinne told me, emphasizing her recognition that she is by no means alone in her connection of psychology, architecture, and urbanism, and that she is joined by many in academia and journalism, as well as many architects, planners, and other hands-on professionals.

“A lot of the time when we talk about urban transformation or change in the city, we’re talking about physical changes, sometimes policy changes, etcetera—things that you can do to the city, or that you can do to the policy that will make a change in some way, shape, or form. But when it comes down to how cities and urban environments actually function, they are ultimately a massive collection of people’s choices, and people’s behaviors,” she said.

The way we exist in our urban environments, she said, is a result of the choices that people make, and they make those choices based on psychological processes like perception and emotion.

“If you’re going to try to change anything in a city, it ultimately comes down to the people, and if we don’t understand how we function and how we react to the environments we live in, or how we perceive them and react to them emotionally, then we’re not going to understand why we are doing what we’re doing now, and how we would do something different in the future.”

Corinne’s eight days at the Lab are full of what I’ve described above, along with much more, including many projects out in the city working directly with community groups on projects in their neighborhoods. Check out the soon-to-come calendar to learn about the specific programs she has in store.