Architecture and design have the power to influence people – our thinking, our moods and our general wellbeing. The beauty of design is that it can influence us on all different scales – the way we use a specific product, how a single room can affect us, the impact of a building as we enter it and spend time in it, the way we love or hate a city… This study of the inter-relationship between humans and their surroundings, of how the body and brain respond to the built environment has been termed Neuro-Architecture.

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Numerous studies by neuroscientists and psychologists provide plenty of evidence to validate this – how buildings and cities can affect our moods and wellbeing, largely due to the specialized cells in the hippocampal region of our brains that are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit. Yet designers tend to pay scant attention to the potential cognitive effects of their creations of their users. The quest to design something unique tends to override considerations of how it might shape the behaviours of those who live with it.  

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The relationship between design and psychology is not only consequential, it is bidirectional. One on hand, successful design has clear psychological and physiological impacts; on the other, psychology, human experience, and our biological wiring, play a significant role in what we perceive to be a successful design, and in turn what we design. Architecture can, thus, be considered as a form of human expression, portraying the psyche of an individual designer or the collective. 

The architectural style has evolved over time as the preferences of the general public have changed, technology has advanced, and as new materials and engineering-processes have been discovered. This change can also be factored by the wavering priorities of societies between the three traditionally established principle elements of architecture, form, use and beauty. After World War II there has even been a complete disregard of these to the adoption of apparently more valid principles of form, utility, and craft. This birthed the trend of simple, architecturally unoriginal, smaller, lesser detailed buildings. It eventually turned to the creation of environments that had a unique form of sensory deprivation. They led to a lack of intellectual stimulation, removing every aspect of human touch, creating spaces that lacked the ability to produce a positive physiological response or a sense of well-being. 

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us – Winston Churchill [1]

Imagine the power of design over people if we, as designers and architects, knew exactly what we could do!! Architecture is one of the very few fields where the end product cannot be ignored – everyone is forced to notice it and at least on a subconscious level have an opinion on it. We have the power to create something that no one can avoid! Every single person within the society will have to listen! 

‘You can put down a bad book; You can avoid listening to bad music; but you cannot miss the ugly tower block opposite your house’ – Renzo Piano [2]

Imagine, then, if we could harness this understanding of psychology-based insights; it would change how products are made, buildings and cities are built, how societies are formed, and in turn, shape humanity!

“If science could help the design profession justify the value of good design and craftsmanship, it would be a very powerful tool and quite possibly transform the quality of the built environment,” – Alison Brooks [3]

Greater interaction across the disciplines could, for example, reduce the chances of repeating architectural disasters such as the Pruitt – Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri, built during the 1950s. These 33 featureless apartment blocks, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, were initially seen as a breakthrough in urban renewal, praised for wasting no space. But they very quickly became notorious for their crime, squalor and social dysfunction. It was argued that the wide-open spaces between blocks discouraged a sense of community, particularly as crime rates and vandalism started to rise. They were eventually demolished in 1972. 

Pruitt-Igoe was not an outliner. The lack of behavioural insight behind the modernist housing projects of that era, with their sense of detachment or isolation from the larger community and ill-conceived public spaces, had a nagging negative impact on the users, which in turn led to its decay and eventual demolition. 

Today, thanks to the numerous psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of environments that people enjoy and find stimulating. By understanding more about how people experience the built form, we can now take a more occupant-centred approach towards designing which will lead to more positively charged spaces for various uses. 

An architect can control human behaviour with his design by understanding the way that a building or certain design decisions can influence a person’s behaviour, thus modifying the individual’s mood and perception. Understanding how the environment affects people could enable the manifestation of design that has the ability to influence people. Taking this to ground zero – there are a lot of elements within architecture and design that impact psychology of people inhabiting the place, from basic performance of employers in an office to attracting customers and boosting sales at a retail outlet, or from tipping people into a world of frustration and crime to urging people to do better in an environment fostering positivity and goodwill. 

As designers, we have such power to make design change the world. We really need to make better use of our platform and do stuff that is useful – Yinka Ilori [4]

Utilizing this knowledge and the technological tools that are now available, we have the opportunity to create architecture that is not simply aesthetically beautiful, but also, psychologically beneficial. With various health problems, stress levels off the charts, and a crippling socially dysfunctional society, employing architecture design that takes advantage of elements known to produce restorative benefits must be considered as our duty! It is also important that we reconsider the societally ingrained constructs that have wrongly labelled the field of architectural design as merely an art form which strips of its meaningful legitimacy it deserves – as a field that has the potential to mould humanity with significant societal benefits. 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCE

[1] https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/architecture/palacestructure/churchill/

[2] https://www.pritzkerprize.com/sites/default/files/inline-files/1998_Acceptance_Speech.pdf

[3] https://www.zetteler.co.uk/news/2018/07/20/the-power-of-a-well-designed-space

[4] https://www.dezeen.com/2019/08/16/yinka-ilori-interview-design-colour-london/

Naomi Mathew
Author

An architect from Kerala, who best expresses her feelings through doodles and words, Naomi is still in a self-discovering journey, be it through music, traveling, or volunteering. Her positive attitude towards life motivates her to make the world a better place to live in, one step at a time.

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