“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” Sir Winston Churchill said in his speech in 1943. Whether we like it or not, we are affected by our external environment. Perhaps, the role of architecture is often overlooked because it does not enforce rules but only offers subtle suggestions. But today, research is already showing the effects of architecture on our behaviour, mood, social interactions and daily routines. It shows that the relation between architecture and health extends beyond healthcare architecture- our interaction with the built environment affects our physical health- our psychological, nervous and immune systems, blood pressure and body temperature.
As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps the world, the importance of well-designed spaces has become glaringly obvious, especially as most of us are forced to work from home. Factors like ventilation, lighting and movement influence our physical, mental and social well-being. Architecture doesn’t magically fix these problems, but it does make a difference. For instance, boring, monotonous landscapes have been found to cause higher levels of stress, whereas variety and stimulation increase creativity. Factors like walkable streets, proximity to healthy food, affordable housing, safe community spaces and opportunities for exercise contribute to the happiness of cities.
Open Spaces Foster Healthy Communities
Healthy communities promote safe and easy ways for social interactions. Public places like streets, squares, gardens and parks have widely recognised health benefits- they encourage physical activity, foster social interactions and provide connections to nature and greenery. During the lockdown, limited access to these spaces negatively impacted mental health, particularly of vulnerable sections of the population. In buildings that contained terraces, children and adults adapted the space to function as communal areas for play and fresh air. The availability of accessible public spaces in cities encourages activities like cycling, walking and contemplation while at the same time reducing the dependence on cars and transport that cause pollution. A variety of public, semi-public and semi-private spaces also provide for a range of interactions between different groups of people. Cities must not only have these areas but ensure they are widely accessible. At the same time, poorly planned communal spaces like densely populated squares, polluted, noisy streets and dismal alleyways increase anxiety and stress.
Indoor Environment Quality Affects Health
Thanks to Covid, we now know just how crazy being cooped up in one room all day can drive you. Poor ventilation, inadequate lighting and lack of circulation spaces affect our mental as well as physical health. They can disrupt sleep, limit exercise and cause discomfort while working. On the other hand, rooms oriented to have good daylight, stimulate indoor physical activity and facilitate social interactions from a distance support well-being. Spaces, particularly work environments designed to give users control over conditions like how much sunlight enters the room, are more likely to have productive, focused workers.
Architecture Connects Us to Nature
Being close to nature is soothing and relaxing. That is why well-planned cities have room for green belts, biodiversity, vegetation and gardens of flora and fauna. These restore life on nearby roads and public places by controlling temperature and improving air quality. During the time of Covid, they also reduce the density of users by creating barriers between people.
Can Beautiful Architecture Make You Happier?
Have you ever felt a sense of awe and wonder while looking at a building? Architecture that evokes an emotional response has the potential to create happier, calmer environments. But beauty is subjective, and most of the time we are too busy to notice if buildings around us are beautiful. Even when we do, it doesn’t always make us happy.
Yet, the absence of well-designed spaces has an impact on us. When surrounded by environments we think are ugly, with poor infrastructure, we are likely to feel more frustrated, annoyed and unproductive. Architecture affects the way we view places. It is hard to imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower or New York without its dynamic skylines. Architecture, in that sense, grounds us and connects us to a place.
Why Is It Important?
As architects, we spend a lot of time debating seemingly trivial details- the length of a windowsill, the kind of wood for the ceiling. But our role is not just to design buildings that serve a functional purpose. It is also to improve the quality of life of people who inhabit them. It is to make buildings, cities and spaces more liveable. We have to pose these questions to understand the magnitude of their contribution to cultivating healthier, happier societies. Amidst a global pandemic, these effects are more significant than ever, and as architects, we must embrace these challenges and understand that our built environment ultimately shapes us.
- Anchuri, K., 2021. Reimagining urban public space during COVID-19 – implications for public mental health -Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health Edition 6. [online] Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health. Available at: <https://www.urbandesignmentalhealth.com/journal-6-covid-social-interaction.html> [Accessed 22 August 2021].
- De Botton, A., 2014. The Architecture of Happiness. United Kingdom: Penguin.
- Williams, L., 2013. Getting To Know The Built Environment As A Complex System. Seeking Higher Ground: PART ONE.[online] Toronto: Wellesley institute. Available at: <http://www.wellesleyinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Getting-To-Know-The-Built-Environment-As-A-Complex-System.pdf> [Accessed 22 August 2021].