Zakaria Djebbara
Cand.polyt., PhD
Postdoc at Aalborg University
Currently resides in Aarhus, Denmark

My research concerns how architecture impacts human cognition and experience. I do so using ecological setups and neuroimaging analyses of manipulated affordances in architectural transitions.

How does the embodied brain respond to affordances? How do affordances of a transition alter expected outcomes? How can transitions impact attention and conscious experience? How do affordances affect aesthetic judgment and contemplative states?

Part of: BBAR (Brain, Body, Architecture Research group) & BeMoBIL (Berlin Mobile Brain/Body Imaging Lab)

Who’s Zak?

I’m a Danish guy with Algerian roots, which means different languages have been thrown at me since my childhood. I speak Danish, English, French and different kinds of Arabic. So, those who know me personally know that I enjoy going to the gym, painting, playing football and publicly speculate about philosophical issues usually accompanied by coffee. Philosophers that I’m particularly inspired by are Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle and Andy Clark–in that order. Besides that, I’ve been programming stuff since I was a kid, and have applied it to anything, e.g. design-related parametric solutions, Arduino’s and Virtual Reality. I’m also an architect and engineer with a keen interest in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy–mostly when they come together. It may seem as a funny combination of interests, but you’ll understand in a second.

Architecture has always played a huge role in my life, so when I got the opportunity to ask architectural questions through my Master Thesis (2015/16), I embraced it. Quickly, I found out that my questions were insoluble by the field of architectural research, but then what do you do? You move along, and try to understand the questions from other perspectives that provide you with answers. You look for fields that have developed a methodology and foundation relevant to your quest, which in my case were philosophy and cognitive neuroscience. I basically addressed a hard question in architecture; how does architecture influence experience? It’s a hard question because experience is, for one, a difficult term to wrap your head around and has been discussed since forever in philosophy. Another reason is that only recently did ‘perception as an experience’ enter the field of cognitive science, i.e. neurophenomenology. Daring to ask how it relates to architecture makes the question (super) hard. My studies are deeply interdisciplinary, interweaving phenomenology with enactivism and active inference, and it may seem like the long way around to answer how architecture influences experience, but I’m looking for a deeper answer, one that goes beyond mere description. I’m dreaming of developing a foundation for architects to understand the neurophysiological impact their designs have during everyday tasks.

Zak’s purpose

My understanding of architecture is human-centred, which means I dislike architecture-for-the-sake-of-architecture. To me, architects are some of the most important figures in society because by serving the people in designing their environment, they construct the frames in which people interact with their world and–quite literally–design the narratives of peoples lives. Hold up. What? Yes, I’m quite convinced about this point. In fact, any autobiographical reflection of an event unfolded in space, is usually a designed space. Even the scenes of movies are characterised by their spatial design.

There are various examples of how architectural design “sets the stage”/”pave the way” for who we believe we are. Say you’re sitting at the office and there’s a bunch of articles you need to read. As you read through the articles, you might organise them so those that you’ve read are on the left and those unread on the right. Now, organising them in left and right is a way you structure your experience of the world to reduce the “mental load” of remembering each and every article by the title. In fact, we reorganise our world constantly to fit our intentions, and it is reflected in who we are. For instance, have you ever reorganised your bedroom or apartment and thought to yourself ‘Wow! Now that the reading chair is better positioned I will read more!’ or ‘This is a whole new place. Take a pic for the gram #NewRoomNewMe’. Who we are is reflected in how we organise our space. And this is precisely why I believe that architects are the true designers of our lives–they literally design the foundation in which we externalise ourselves. And this brings me to my main goal of the blog.

Zak’s goals

I consider myself a social sustainability-ist, i.e. I care about the health and well-being of human life. I deeply believe that architectural design, by manipulating affordances, can have a serious and measurable impact on mental health. Paraphrasing Louis Kahn, I believe that architecture starts from an immeasurable idea, then becomes measurable as a physical structure, and finally resides as an immeasurable quality. This is not to say that the etiology of experience is immeasurable, but rather to say that the subjective experience remains private to the 1st-person view. However, the impact on perceptual organs is indeed measurable and this allows questioning how experience in the first place got to be.

An important endeavor is to move architectural research beyond mere self-reports as the basis for design-tools, and towards a more systematic understanding of the effects caused by architectural design. In order to do so, it’s necessary to create systematic experiments and correlate brain activity with behavioural measures. For this reason, I usually find myself balancing theoretical and empirical neuroscience–of course–with an architectural touch. So, to put it in short, my goal is be able to refine architects’ design-tools to enable qualified predictions on how the spaces they design will be experienced.

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