Material and Immaterial: Designing an Architecture of Cognitive Systems

Open Access
Graham, Matthew Robert
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Architecture
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Darla V Lindberg, Thesis Supervisor
  • Christine Lee Gorby, Honors Advisor
  • Architecture
  • Penn Station
  • New York
  • Cognitive
  • Psychology
  • systems
  • system theory
  • network theory
  • cognitive architecture
  • ma
Architecture, though initially created from the dual forces of human behavior and physical necessity, has become abstracted and separated from a psychological understanding of space, rendering the ways in which architects design buildings disconnected from the ways in which we inherently experience and use space. In the building of our environments, architecture has always been rooted in the material and immaterial, a concept that translates into space simultaneously existing in both the realm of the Res Extensa, or physical environment, and the Res Cogitans, or inhabitable mental space. Over time, however, as our definition of space has drifted toward the Res Extensa, architecture has tended toward crafting the material, treating the physical volume that we bodily ihabit superior to space shaped in our minds. This way of thinking is at odds with the ways in which we experience space and form an understanding of it as we move through it, use it, and live. Through experience, buildings are not objects, but a continuum, a series of moments distorted and rearranged in the mind in a constant play between our immediate surroundings and a greater understanding of their connections. In order for buildings to be responsive to their users, then, architecture must be viewed as a negotiator and connector between these immaterial and material elements of human experience. New York’s Pennsylvania Station is a network that extends far beyond its physical location, although it has been treated as an object throughout its history. The initial McKim, Mead, and White building of 1910 was an object-signifier of the system, a symbol and head house of the vast reach of the rail network. When this building was demolished in 1963, the system remained, but the symbol was removed and replaced with unrelated objects, leaving the network disconnected from the urban fabric. By understanding Penn Station as a cognitive network of systems, a new building can be designed where these systems themselves form the building and are the building, rather than an object that merely represents the greater network. This building, composed through elements of support, user, social, and information systems are added over time as portions of the existing Penn Station and Penn Plaza complex are removed and taken into the network. This material is expanded outward to become useful in other parts of the system and signifies these distant points as a part of the continuous whole of the building. In this way, the design process of the building does not end with the creation of material, but is only complete when compressed in the mind of the system’s users.