Architecture, for the longest time, has been one of the factors affecting the human psyche. However, has the human population always been aware of this fact?
Before we delve deeper into the evolution of the field, it’s imperative to understand what environmental psychology means. Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on the interplay between individuals and their surroundings. It examines how the natural environment and our built environments shape us as individuals.
Although the term ‘Environmental Psychology’ formally came into existence somewhere in the 1970s, the emergence of the field was not abrupt.
The origin of the field dates back to the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. A psychologist called Hellpach is said to be the first to use and define the term ‘Environmental Psychology.’ In his first book, Geopsyche – he studies the effect of the Sun and the Moon on people’s activities. This book went on to flourish, having many editions and translations into numerous languages.
Furthermore, Hellpach divided the environment into three circles – natural, communal, and the built environment. He condemned studying ‘environmental psychology’ by artificially individualizing people’s life, and believed in observing the human psyche in a factual (actual) environment. He also studied the urban phenomenon against its rural counterpart. He concluded that urban environments might be more freeing but is ultimately prone to make its inhabitants feel more isolated.
Besides Hellpach, Hans and Martha Muchow were also interested in environmental psychology and urban psychology – specifically psychology concerning children and young adults’. Their book ‘The living space of the big city child’ became wildly successful, and the concept of ‘personal space’ mentioned in the book went on to become an important concept.
Gestalt psychology was a school of psychology founded in Germany and Austria at the beginning of the 20th century by three psychologists. The school is most famous for its ideology – “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Consequently, they emphasized understanding the importance of the environment from a holistic point of view to account for human behavior.
Walter Gropius and his school – Bauhaus has made several references to Gestalt psychology, theoretically and in the application. One of the problems identified in modern architecture during those times was that of mass housing. Building housing quarters for strangers and their schedules and lifestyles led to a gap in the connection that the users should feel with their houses.
This concern for the environment was not out of context; but a response to the fast-changing surroundings – migration, rising urbanism, technological advancements, and much more. Not only psychologists, but sociologists were also on the same page. The most important contributor to this field from the then newborn field of sociology was Georg Simmel.
His thoughts matched with those of Hellpach. He, too believed, that living in urban environments makes a person detached, cold, and distant as a result of coping with the uninterrupted rate of change in city environments.
One of Simmel’s students from Berlin, Robert E. Park, went on to take his teachings to the Chicago School of Sociology. The Chicago School also studied migrations and the settlement of inhabitants in urban scenarios.
Although not quite there yet, the study of psychology in the urban environment can be considered a precursor to ‘architectural psychology.’ In retrospect, all the above contributions – while on the one hand serve as context, but on another do not provide enough for the birth of environmental psychology as a whole new discipline.
The next phase after this happens to be the ‘American Transition,’ during which the foundations of the basic concepts and character developments were laid, under the influence of Gestalt psychology. However, this phase still does not consolidate the position of ‘environmental psychology’ as a discipline, although terms such as “psychological ecology” or “environmental perception” did pop up.
Marie Jahoda from Austria was one of several psychologists to link environmental psychology to labor psychology. Her analytical work in Austria and activism in North America seamlessly bridged the first two phases.
The most influential psychologist during this phase is Kurt Lewin. Just like the Muchows from Germany, Lewin too studied child psychology. His works, such as the construct of the term “life spaces,” have triggered many developments.
The other two worth-mentioning authors from this period are –Egon Brunswik and James Gibson. Brunswik was keen on unearthing the link between the actual environment and the perceived environment. Gibson believed that people directly perceive the meaning already present in their environment, which they have learned through socialization.
Soon after, Edward C. Tolman conducted experiments to prove that learning was not a mere chain of stimulus-response associations. It would also require the mental mapping of a particular structure.
The psychologists were obsessed with the emergence of a fresh, new discipline. It was architect Kevin Lynch along with other architects, urbanists, and geographers who took up Tolman’s concept and developed it into “cognitive mapping,” applying it in real-life situations.
Brunswik, Gibson, and Tolman considered themselves to be “Ecological Psychologists,” but still have a non-negotiable influence on environmental psychology. Some modern psychologists think of them as predecessors or Ecological Psychology to be parallel development to Environmental Psychology; others consider them to be the first environmental psychologists. To further add to the difference in opinions, some psychologists take Lewin’s student, Barker, to be the first environmental psychologist.
Roger Barker studied the behavior of communities, especially of children in their natural (day-to-day) environments. This study brings him very close to Hellpach’s theory of observing the human psyche in their natural habitat.
Festinger, Back, and Schachter studied the influence of the architectural setting on the individual behaviors’ in a space, such as the role of the physical proximity of neighbors.
These developments bring us to the next stage called ‘Architectural Psychology.’ Two factors driving this stage were: the first was the preoccupation with constructing more practical and comfortable surroundings, and the second was the grave confusion between the terms – ecological and environmental.
While built surroundings are all around us, it is yet different from the common perception of the term “environment.” Though authors of this period, such as Prohansky, Ittleson, and Rivlin, did try incorporating the traditional ‘green’ environment in their work, the bulk of the matter still was dedicated to the ‘built’ environment.
All the above-stated reasons caused “Architectural Psychology” and “Environmental Psychology” to be used as synonyms for a long-time.
Initially, in North America, the consolidation of Architectural Psychology was brought about by working on spatial behaviors in psychiatric centers and hospitals. Then several educational – programs and courses – were established under the broad term of Environmental Psychology. The discipline was being propagated further through elaborate meetings. Several publications, such as The Silent Language by anthropologist Edward Hall that mentioned concepts such as “personal space.”
While North America’s transition was smooth and unified, Europe’s development seemed to be all over the place and haywire. The following map and timeline might provide a better understanding.
Eventually, it began spreading to other parts of the world as well.
In the 1960s, there was a corresponding course at the University of Sydney.
In Latin America, the first contributors appeared in the late 1970s.
In 1982 MERA (Man-Environment Research Association) was established in Japan.
In 1987 a comprehensive course, called Introduction to Environmental Psychology, was published in South Africa.
In 2000, China’s EBRA (Environment-Behavior Research Association held its first international conference.
As mentioned previously, “Environmental Psychology” had become more “Architectural Psychology.” Psychologists published works on topics such as quality of life and residential satisfaction. Even though they referred to Hellpach and Lewin in their studies, it still had an individualistic approach rather than a holistic one. The meaning and symbolic value of space were present in some studies, which were mostly by architects and urban planners.
This contradiction led to a crisis, which in-turn led to a two-fold shift of Environmental Psychology – A Social shift and an Environmental shift.
Right from the start, the topic of Environmental Psychology had attracted sociologists and psychologists alike. Steadily, the social approach started to seep in more than the psychological – more so in Europe. This influence was coming through the shift from a structural methodology (functionality, cognition, etc.) to a more symbolic one (satisfaction, attachment, etc.)
The environmental shift, which can also be called a “green” shift or “sustainable” shift, rose from environmental concerns that were the beginning inspiration for the emergence of the discipline. However, what sparked this shift was the increased number of publications on Environmental Global Change, and attitudes and behavior related to the same. These papers showed how environmental management was mostly the management of human social behavior.
The previous aspirations of environmental psychology were to improve quality of life; however, the fact that our resources are depleting at an alarmingly fast rate trumps the initial aspirations. Under the umbrella term of “Sustainable Development,” the interests of the world’s leading institutions seem to be growing. Although the common man is still more concerned about their everyday life, awareness seems to grow day-by-day.
Although psychologists know a lot about human nature – what they don’t know is how to manage it. For example, raising awareness has helped us concentrate on goals, such as energy efficiency in residential environments, the reduction, and collaboration of household waste, etc. This approach is more individualistic than institutional.
Another crisis that Environmental Psychology seems to be going through is the debate on labels. Some psychologists suggest renaming “green” Environmental psychology to Ecological psychology. The others suggest to let it remain a broader term with sub-categories such as – architectural psychology and green psychology in it.
The origin of Environmental Psychology is relatively new, and it is characteristic of such a novice field to experience such hurdles. However, what is not okay to give up on a potential discipline that will make the work of architects and users much more efficient and holistic.
All the above information is from Enric Pol’s two-part research paper named ‘Blueprints for a History of Environmental Psychology.’ If this field intrigues you and you wish to read it in detail, the mentioned paper is available online easily.