Among the many aspects an architect should consider when designing, there is – apart from the functionality and the structural aspect- also the influence that a certain type of architectural concept has on the perception of users and inhabitants. This has a reflection on the aesthetic, psychological and social fields.
Architecture and Aesthetic Perception
Vitruvius -an author that each architect and architecture student knows very well since the very first approach to the subject- in his work “De Architectura”, includes as a basic feature of architectural work, together with firmitas (stability) and utilitas (utility), also the so-called venustas, the beauty. This term was employed with a specific connotation of graceful, referred to qualities considered more as a female prerogative, indicating something pleasant to watch. The concept of beauty contextualized at Vitruvius time indicates, thus, symmetry and regularity of the architectural composition; nevertheless, it can be generalized as the characteristic influencing the impression of the viewer, who categorizes the world according to an aesthetic perception, which can evolve according to the time and the geographical position.
An interesting experiment on how the perception of beauty can influence humans’ perception of space, has been conducted by Abraham Maslow and Norbert Mintz (Chiesi, 2010). The two psychologists equipped two rooms creating different environments: one with positive connotations in terms of lighting, decorations, and comfort, the other one with the aspect of a chaotic storage room; two groups of participants had to perform a projective test with the purpose to link emotions to pictures of faces printed in negative. The results showed that those who conducted the test inside the “beautiful” room tended to associate positive feelings to the same facial expression showed in the “ugly” room, who, instead, gave
This is one exemplar case that demonstrates how human emotions and behaviours are partially determined by the surrounding environment, a fact that consequently determines the responsibility of the architects and designers work on people emotional well-being.
Colour, Material and Shape
The perception raised by architectural features strongly depends on the cultural and historical context. Materials, colours, and dimensions of a certain building could be connected to a specific function and thus induce certain sensations: for example, an imponent and wide structure, of marble and stucco, associated with cold colours and rich ornament, would trigger in a European public the solemnity related to the rituality of a church; wooden elements are linked to mountain or old architecture and give a “warm” impression; white and essentially furnished spaces are related to modernity.
The Austrian artist Friedrich Stowasser, alias Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who began to operate as an architect in his fifties, was in strong opposition with the absence of decorations and the essentiality of modern architecture. His style, easily recognizable, was characterized by colourful decorations, massive implementation of curved lines, and the presence of nature as an integral part of the design. This concept of architecture is applied to the work of the architect despite their function: residential buildings, kindergarten, a waste incinerator in Vienna centre.
This architecture aims to associate positive feelings to the environment created, even when the building designed is an incinerator, usually associated with greyish, boring and industrial features; in the case of residential units, conceived as social housing, the anonymity of repetitiveness of a certain construction approach typical of the poor and suburban areas is erased.
Urban Structure and Life Quality
The broad and diverse spectrum of architecture also comprehends the larger scale of urban design. The quality of the space where we live, strongly influence our well-being and social lives. A lot of strategies and experimental projects move from this starting point and attempt at improving people’s lives through architectural and urban innovations.
“8 80 City”, founded by Gil Penalosa, is an initiative based on the belief that if every city was suitable for 8 years old and 80 years old people, then it would be a more liveable city for everyone (cities880, 2019). In this case, the focus is children and the elderly, identified as the weakest category of the society that may need particular regard when mobility systems and public space are designed.
Another project that faces the issue of improving urban life quality, is “The Happy City”, founded by Charles Montgomery. The association builds its action on the assumption that to improve social life, people must have the possibility to interact with a community, both inside the dwellings and in public spaces. A very effective example of the human perception of the environment based on the urban structure of the street is given by Charles Montgomery himself during his talk in TEDx, Vancouver (TEDxTalks, 2014), where he compares two street structures, one with services, bar and lively and diverse activities at the ground floor and another one that presents a close, glass façade, with a private and inaccessible ground floor. During an experiment, it has been proved that during the passage in the first street, people showed a brain activity enhancing major emotional well-being, as well as a more polite and accommodating behaviour towards other people.
Architects and urbanists’ work is not simply the design of functional build space, but also includes discussion and consultation with psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and all those professional figures that deal with different aspects of community life, to exploit the influencing power of architecture positively.
- Chiesi, L. (2010). ;Doppio Spazio dell’architettura: Ricerca Sociologica e progettazione. Liguori.
- cities880. (2019, January 7). About 8 80 cities. 8 80 Cities. https://www.880cities.org/about-8-80-cities/.
- Happy city will change the way you think about urban life. Happy City. (n.d.). https://thehappycity.com/.
- TEDxTalks. (2014, December 24). The happy City Experiment | Charles Montgomery | tedxvancouver. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WiQUzOnA5w&t=3s.