“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.” – Winston Churchill, addressing the English Architectural Association, 1924.
The psychological impact of the built environment has long been a topic of discussion and debate. While it is widely accepted that our surroundings inevitably influence us, the question lies in how they affect human wellbeing, lifestyle and mannerisms. Across the vastly varying scales of urban design, architecture and interiors, the smallest of details can determine thought, choice, and action.
Urban designers are charged with the momentous task of creating environments that promote positive social behaviours, suppress elements of crime and anarchy while ensuring good health, mental wellbeing and tight-knit communities. Universal design is yet another crucial aspect of good design, facilitating people of all ages, levels of education and income, genders, ethnicities and those with disabilities to interact with spaces easily and meaningfully.
These principles apply to some extent across all scales and domains of design – here, we investigate the effects of skyscrapers on the human psyche.
The role of Skyscrapers in History
Ever since the first skyscraper was built in Chicago in 1885, the world has been fascinated with the concept of piercing the skies, daring to go higher and higher and conceiving wondrous structures, forms and technologies to achieve this. Skyscrapers have always been a symbol of power. Perhaps that was the first obvious psychological effect of these gigantic structures – they have always been associated with money, power and larger-than-life worldviews.
After its conception, the idea of a skyscraper spread like wildfire – it was not only a technological marvel displaying an architect’s understanding of the laws of physics– it was also great for space optimization. High density urban environments are now the norm, with skyscrapers playing a prominent role in this development.
Skyscraper and City
A good city is designed not only to be functional and accessible – it also needs to make people happy. How is this intangible aspect achieved?
In his book ‘Places of the Heart’, Colin Ellard talks about the effect of a megastructure replacing a neighbourhood of small commercial enterprises and family businesses that exhibit great cultural variety. Through measurement of pedestrian responses, he found that these small neighbourhoods are more likely to engage passers-by, elicit positive reaction and encourage happy thought processes. On the other hand, blank glass facades of skyscrapers caused decreased levels of attention and interest, with the walkers describing the experience as bland and monotonous.
By simply rethinking a building’s ground floor, dramatic impact can be made on how the city interacts with people. Commuters are more likely to walk to places in such a city. In addition, their nervous systems are activated, making them absorb and positively interact with their surroundings. As per renowned urban designer Jan Gehl, “a good city street should be designed so that the average walker, moving at a rate of about 5km per hour, sees an interesting new site about once every five seconds.” In dense urban environments, skyscrapers can significantly contribute to this.
Iconic skyscrapers are an intrinsic part of any city’s identity – this marker inevitably bleeds into the average resident’s relationship with the city as well. In the instance of New York City, the World Trade Centre was a symbol of the city’s technological, financial and political prowess. With its violent destruction, there was a rift in the skyline – this was keenly felt by New Yorkers who were so used to seeing it through the windows of their homes and offices. For years after the disaster, a life-size laser arrangement of the WTC was projected into the sky on the anniversary of the event. This too, became a bittersweet part of the identity of the city and the people. The One World Trade Centre coming up in its place will bring a change in people’s views, expectations and inevitably, their daily experience of the city.
In ihe Belly of the Beast – What Lies behind the Façade?
Most people who live or work in high-rise buildings are exposed to expansive city views that no other daily experience can offer. Studies prove that such wide vistas stimulate creativity, which relies on big-picture abstract thinking and visualisation. These literal mind-altering views have also been proven to encourage a certain level of risk-taking. Making a leap of faith or taking calculated risks is a large part of what keeps businesses successful. Employees who work on higher floors have shown characteristics of lateral thought, adventure and exploration.
What is the science behind this? The human brain experiences a shift in cognition based on the kind of input it receives through the senses, in an effect known as brain priming. Objects viewed from a distant vantage point transform into abstractions, since the eye cannot distinguish details. Primes or triggers that imply distance lead to a ‘big picture mode’ of thinking which is more abstract, due to the association between physical distance and its optical effects. In a phenomenon called social distancing (quite different from the one we are experiencing during the pandemic!), people are generally more capable at finding creative solutions when they are higher up from the ground.
On the flip side, a number of ill effects have been associated with chronic exposure to high-rise environments. The constant unnoticeable sway of taller buildings due to wind can cause the Sopite Syndrome, which leads to fatigue, negative moods, lack of focus and motivation.
In his paper The Consequences of Living in High Rise Buildings, Robert Giffords examines some negative effects skyscrapers may have on occupants. In the past, residents of tall apartments have harboured fears such as being trapped in the event of a fire, falling to their deaths from higher storeys and easily catching dangerous contagious diseases from other apartment dwellers. The fact that they live in close quarters with complete strangers also increases the fear of crime, absence of social support and a strong community.
Many of these apprehensions have been addressed by modern laws regarding security and fire-safety in high-rises. Conscientious efforts by architects and designers have also changed the definition of skyscrapers, making them more sustainable, open and highly integrated with natural elements. The design of community spaces and other public areas of these buildings is backed by research into social behaviours, human psychology and socio-economic elements.
The rise of evidence-based design as a force in the design world itself is a strong demonstrator of the depth of influence our built environment has on us. Since the inception of high-rises, they were being built for increased space optimisation, functionality and focused on getting more out of less. Now, the tide is shifting towards an attitude, and perhaps the right attitude, of designing skyscrapers for the people who occupy it – and rightly expecting everything else to come after basic human satisfaction and wellbeing.