Is it possible to boost architects’ creativity using artificial means? Yes it is, says PhD student Alireza Mahdizadeh Hakak. His laboratory experiments have shown that a designer wearing 3D glasses is open to new solutions. He even took a look at what goes on in the brain. 

When children are asked to design a dream house, their creativity and imagination seem to know no bounds; skilled architects and engineers, on the other hand, mainly see a whole host of practical problems. “To come up with innovative designs and solutions, we need to think outside the box, but habitual mindsets keep getting in the way”, says the Iranian PhD student. “My research is trying to tackle and break the trend of thinking in terms of limitations.” 

For his PhD research, entitled ‘Enhancing [spatial] creativity: Practical methods to boost creativity for architects’, he first looked at design methods. Does the use of modern 3D design software or 3D glasses stimulate creativity? The outcome came as no surprise: yes, such software and glasses stimulate the imagination more than 2D software or trusty pen and paper. 

He then shifted the focus of his research and looked at the brain itself. Is it possible to train the brain to be open to more ambiguity? To find the answer to this question, he used visual techniques, constantly adding new parameters. He presented such things as merged 3D images and constantly shifting focus points to hundreds of architecture and engineering students. They were given 20 minutes to interpret the images. Remarkably, most engineers found it annoying, whereas prospective architects thought it was helpful. For Mahdizadeh, this was a clear indication that brain training helped at least some of the subjects.

A lot of the information we receive disappears into our subconscious. The constant mixing of elements there creates innovative ideas. But how does that work? To find out, he spent some time in the laboratory and, in collaboration with neuropsychologists, attached sensors to the heads of the subjects.  

During the lab research, abstract and designed environments were compared with each other and the subjects were asked to complete questionnaires. While they were doing this, their brain activity was monitored. The result was striking: completely new regions of the brain lit up when the subjects were presented with ‘unconventional virtual environments’. These regions were primarily the areas which are associated with creativity.

The PhD student concluded that looking at things from a different perspective leads to ingenuity and originality. If during a design task the law of gravity does not apply or if a construction can grow from just one seed, this will open up a whole world of new opportunities. “Then you can break through the pattern of Euclidean geometry and come up with innovative designs and solutions, such as blob architecture.”

A final experiment was carried out in Italy with twenty subjects. For this, a multidisciplinary interface was developed using funding from the EU’s 7th Framework Programme. Participants wearing 3D glasses and using a 6-axis mouse to navigate their way through the virtual environment also went on to develop surprising design ideas.   So, should all architects wear VR headsets when they are designing? “No, but this approach should be incorporated into the curriculum”, says Mahdizadeh. “Let students build an environment without being restricted by rules; give them space to design in complete freedom. Because without creativity, there’s no innovation.” 

Thesis defence Alireza Mahdizadeh Hakak: Enhancing [spatial] creativity
4 July 2017, 10.00 uur, Aula TU Delft

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