The architectural experience is a daily part of everybody’s lives. We all are surrounded by four walls and a roof, to put it plainly. When you think about it, most of our time is spent in the built form. Unknowingly, humans have a sense of their surroundings and have fragments of expectations and interests stored in their brains for the kind of home they want. City or building design attributes might not seem that apparent or noticeable, amongst the multitude of hassles that go into work-home travel. Yet, how a home is designed or looks selectively impacts the mood and health of people.
A Utopian City
Cities like Brasilia and Barcelona reflect divergent qualities and ideas, from which the current situation can be understood and compared, based on the vision created several years ago. Brasilia was planned to represent modernity, with wide roads, cars, clean, pristine structures, and as a Utopia, borrowing its inspiration for the future from Chandigarh.
While it can be perceived as a dream city for day-trippers, and some of its residents, one can argue that there is a lack of street presence. The commuting residents remark that the city is used for work, not for play and gathering. In 1987, Brasilia acquitted the status of a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’, due to preservationists’ worries of redevelopment and change. Jorge Francisconi, a retired urban planner, architect, and the city’s resident advocates for the city and its builders, but also voices out that economics and functionality were not taken into consideration while planning the city.
The top view of Barcelona’s superblocks is eye-catching and provides a refreshing take on today’s evolved plans, but there is a story behind where it all started.
During the mid-1850s, Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, went haywire. There was just no space for expansion within the city’s four walls and the population was surging rapidly. Then came in Cerdà, an unheard-of engineer with his theory of ‘Urbanisation’, one of the most commonly used words by all of us now. Cerda not only developed a plan for the city, but also foresaw it, by calculating air volume per person, future professions, and the services that would eventually be required, and relating tapered street widths with increased mortality. Thus, the superblocks, as we see them today exist and are captured through photographs in a beguiling manner.
The Whirlpool Effect
“What attracts people most, it would appear, are other people” – William Whyte, an urbanist, journalist, and people-watcher. Whyte’s research on public places from The Social Life of Small Living Spaces,1980 is fascinating and summarizes an unbelievable observation. In a plaza filled with fast-food vendors and people, most of the conversations would happen right in the center of pedestrian traffic. This is astonishing because as architects and designers, we prioritize less congestion, keeping space optimization in mind.
In open spaces, it seems obvious that people prefer less opted for areas to traverse to their destinations. Why obvious? Because naturally, it seems as though people like minding their own business and staying unbothered.
But surprisingly the opposite is observed. Throngs of people drift towards the middle of the plaza and talk about their day. This pattern is noticed by another group a few meters away and inadvertently, they get pulled in too. This sounds like the “Whirlpool Effect”.
When you think about it, it makes sense as to why people would do this. Imagine a large oval-shaded group in the middle of a plaza consisting of smaller groups. Leave an offset on all sides for people to walk through. Now, envision two to three people scattered here and there towards the edges of the public space. Picture yourself in both situations – one where you are in a small group within a larger group in the center and the other where you are just another passerby at the edges of the plaza. In the first scenario, it would be noticed that people feel more secure as they are not ‘exposed’, but amid people. Whereas in the latter, it would rather feel less secure due to unoccupied space and seclusion.
From Then to Now
Based on World Economic Forum, 56.2% of the world’s population resides in the urban spheres with the remaining 43.8% scattered in the countryside. Most urban cities observe independent concentrations of people in public spaces, with North American cities having the highest number of people in urban regions. As the transition happens from the suburbs to the city, the population increases along with travel movement, ‘grouping’, and congestion.
Just like Brasilia and Barcelona’s urban plan has been influencing the way people are shaping their cities, a similar way of molding cities has been happening in the rest of the world. The primary complaint heard about in cities is ‘congestion and way too much traffic’. This persisting problem has been shaping the way people move about and behave in cities.
It may seem as though there is no link between cities and human psychology, but studies show that there is. City experiences influence the work pattern and emotional state of human beings. With an upsurge in the urban population, lack of space, and too many automobiles, there is an increase in mental health problems as people do not have a haven to turn to when they feel stressed out. Straight street grids make people feel secure and connect them to places but induce a sense of monotony. Whereas confusing grids showcase the opposite episode in a city, with people creating several mind maps for familiarity.
The transition from kutcha houses to high-rise buildings has not just seen a shift in materials and scale, but emotions and mindsets as well. The olden days had people procuring wood, straw, stones, and blocks for setting up their homes with forethought and differences based on religion and community. With technological advances, the burgeoning of cities and civilizations, there is a dearth of space due to which ‘retrofit and adopt an already designed layout’ is the new norm for most.
Thus, the Architectural experience changes with time. There is magnificent architecture in the form of high-rise buildings, which comes with a price to pay. On the other hand, there are quaint towns with beautiful historical monuments and green spaces. Both sides have their perspectives, but we can choose to shape the outcomes.
- The Guardian (2016). Story of cities #13: Barcelona’s unloved planner invents science of ‘urbanisation’. [online]. (Last updated 01 April 2016). Available at: – Story of cities #13: Barcelona’s unloved planner invents science of ‘urbanisation’ | Cities | The Guardian [Accessed 05 June 2021].
- We Forum (2020). How has the world’s urban population changed from 1950 to today?. [online]. (Last updated 04 November 2020). Available at: – How has the world’s urban population changed? | World Economic Forum (weforum.org) [Accessed 04 June 2021].
- Michael Bond (2017). The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel. [online]. (Last updated 06 June 2017). Available at: – The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel – BBC Future [Accessed 03 June 2021].
- Whyte, W and Goldberger, P. (2000). The Essential. New York: Fordham University Press