From the moment we wake up and till the moment we go back to sleep, we are most likely surrounded by man-made spaces. Our entire lives, all our moments and experiences, take place while we are in these spaces. Hence, it is only obvious that how the spaces are designed would have some sort of an effect on us. The purpose of architecture is more than just providing a ‘shelter’ or a space for a particular function, but also to make the beings who inhabit that space healthy and happy. 

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This is where the idea of human-centred architecture comes into the picture. It has been found that putting us, human beings, at the centre of the design process helps create spaces that promote long-term wellbeing.   

Background of human-centred Architecture

Unlike what one can say about terms like modernism and deconstructivism, human-centred architecture is not a trend of design. It is more of an approach to positively strengthening the relationship between the built space and the people in it. Even though the idea of this approach is very intuitive to understand, the term was only coined in 1987 by an Irish engineer named Mike Cooley. 

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The core ideals of a human-centred approach to design and architecture are empathy and innovation. However, robust research is required to understand the people to implement a human-centred architectural approach to identify and then solve the real problems being faced by communities to make their lives better. The success of the design outcome is measured not by the scale or aesthetics of the project, but by the value the solution added to the lives of the user.

Impact on People

A study conducted by ETH Zürich’s Department of Information Architecture investigated the human perception of their urban environment. Through an Anthropocentric Urban Sensing model, the researchers concluded that the environmental features were responsible for influencing a participants’ physiological response to the built environment. Human-centred architecture is increasingly demonstrating this fact. Architecture does not just directly impact human behaviour but also human wellbeing, both physical as well as mental. 

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Three streets having varying degrees of restorative power (least (left), medium (middle), and maximum(right)). ©Paul Jakob Lindal

An example of incorporating the possible impact on human wellbeing is The Lantern, a community in Ohio, USA, for assisted living, serving senior citizens suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. They built the centres to seem like a normal neighbourhood belonging to the 1930s and 1940s, to remind the residents of their times, instilling nostalgic emotions and thus becoming an example of human-centred architecture. Porches, rocking rockers, grass-like carpet, and a fibre optic ceiling that changes from day to night sky complete the “neighbourhood.”

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Interior View of Lantern Assisted Living, Ohio, USA. ©Alana Clark

Human-centred architecture differs from other approaches to design concerning imposition. We find a lot of examples of designs that are imposed rather than developing organically out of a need for an intervention or improvement. A very simple example of this in urban design is the concept of desired paths, as discussed by the designer, Tom Hulme. A desire path is a trail that is created owing to erosion over time by people finding the best suitable path to commute by themselves. 

A desire path in contrast to a planned path shows that quite often, our planning is imposed rather than organically developed. These desire paths also provide opportunities to learn more about human behaviour and make more adaptive as well as resilient designs to a constantly evolving urbanscape. In the case of the city of Brasilia, these desire paths cut through almost 15 lanes of traffic, thus resulting in higher accident rates. 

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Desire Paths in the city of Brasilia, Brazil. ©Kyra Wu

There can be many ways to implement an approach for human-centred architecture. One such way is participatory design. Participatory design simply means involving all the stakeholders of a project in the design process to come up with the best suitable outcome for all the groups who will be impacted by the outcome. 

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An example of how beneficial this approach can be is in the works of Pritzker-laureate Alejandro Aravena’s firm ELEMENTAL. Their incremental housing model for middle-class families of Chile enabled these families to own their own homes at a lower cost. The idea was that since most of these families cannot afford a finished small house, instead of designing half of a ‘good’ house with all the basic amenities, and leaving the remaining half for them to build for themselves later on, based on their requirements and affordability. This also gives an added sense of unique identity to every family’s home in an otherwise uniform row housing neighbourhood. 

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Villa Verde Incremental Housing in Chile. ©ELEMENTAL

In the current era where the focus of architecture is increasingly towards sustainability, it is all the more important to balance the aspect of human impact within the sphere of the design process. Buildings shape us just like we shape buildings. Architecture has come a long way from being more focused on the visual to purely functional to a mix of both. But, now, architecture is slowly becoming flexible, more diverse and more accessible as a process to the common man. 

Eventually, if all goes well, we may not need a separate terminology for human-centred architecture. As Dr Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute, rightly says, “We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”

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References

  1. Hulme, T. (2016). What can we learn from shortcuts? [online] Ted.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/tom_hulme_what_can_we_learn_from_shortcuts?language=en. [Accessed 1 Aug. 2021].
  2. Margarete (2018). We Need Human-Centered Architecture Back! [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/archilyse/we-need-human-centered-architecture-back-551bcabeb130 [Accessed 1 Aug. 2021].
  3. Voegeli, A. (2020). Human-Centered Architecture: What is It and How It Makes a Difference. [online] EN – dormakaba Blog. Available at: https://blog.dormakaba.com/human-centered-architecture-what-is-it-and-how-it-makes-a-difference/. [Accessed 1 Aug. 2021].
  4. Zilliacus, A. (2016). Half A House Builds A Whole Community: Elemental’s Controversial Social Housing. [online] ArchDaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/797779/half-a-house-builds-a-whole-community-elementals-controversial-social-housing. [Accessed 1 Aug. 2021].
Author

Divyang, a young architect, is curiously exploring the field of Architecture and Design. He is keen on pursuing research on the relationship between the built environment and general well-being. One can find him playing music, clicking pictures, and writing poetry, whenever he is not geeking out over cinema and other forms of art.

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