Architect Steven Holl states that the impact of architecture on our lives is an intertwined relationship between the ‘idea’ and our ‘experience’. (Holl, Pallasmaa and Pérez Gómez, 2006) Human life is indeed a summation of countless such experiences, and architecture serves to create the backdrop or the so-called ‘stage of life’s play’. The human experience is incomplete without this backdrop. If one is to notice, all our memories, the stories we tell, the work we do, the life we lead is in some way associated with space viz. an architectural creation.
Impact of Architecture in Our Lives
Architecture as a field has undoubtedly come a far way and it is perpetually evolving. Since the late-20th century, there has been a gradual shift towards keeping the human experience at the center of the approach towards designing a space. This idea began with many architects and designers opposing the apparent apathy that the Modernist movement brought with itself. (Patria and Lukito, 2018) Owing to this evolution of understanding over time along with innumerable studies conducted worldwide, we are in a position today to safely conclude that architecture directly impacts ourselves physically, socially, and emotionally. Let us understand this impact as we start from the place where we spend most of our time – our homes.
Spatial qualities like ‘tight’ spaces and views impact our psychological experience.
We all feel a certain way about the space we inhabit for longer durations. But what makes this ‘space’ a ‘place’ called ‘home’ is how one perceives it. After all, one’s home might as well be just another space for the other. If we recall the physical characteristics of our home from childhood as a building, we might suddenly feel nostalgic and get flooded with fond childhood memories we made there. This showcases how deeply the home impacts our human experience. Naturally, it’s not just limited to the past. The house transcended the simple purpose of providing shelter to become the home, reaching a point where we, unlike our hunting-gathering ancestors, spend most of our time inside our homes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Irrespective of how our houses may be physically, eventually the resident’s mind adds a layer of emotional connection onto the physical canvas to make it one’s own ‘safe space’, one’s own home. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard described this beautifully, as he stated the home to be ‘a topography of our intimate being’. (Bachelard, 2014) Hence, the design of a home is more than just crafting a residence with natural ventilation and daylighting, but moreover to create a space that would be ready to nurture a long-lasting and intimate connection with the residents.
The design integrates living, dining, and kitchen to reflect and imbibe the strong family bond of the clients, and then blends it with the landscaping to strengthen their experience of connecting to nature.
Community Areas: Space between the Homes
The human experience ventures out the verandah onto the neighborhood street, the first encounter with the area of the community. Since spaces like the neighborhood streets, parks, community centers, etc. all belong to more than one household, they are responsible for a wider impact. These spaces offer a means of catering to the social wellbeing of the community as they invite interaction and communal activities. Hence, these spaces are essential and hold immense power for creating a widespread positive impact within communities by encouraging people to come together in one space. However, if proper care is not taken in designing these spaces, they can end up doing more harm than good.
This shows a contrast between the well-designed stoops on the left creating a good experiential space while the opposite side of the street is lined with entries to parking garages on the right, rendering that space useless for pedestrians.
As we travel further in this journey from homes to community areas and now finally, we reach the public spaces. Here we have public buildings like museums, libraries, healthcare institutions, and offices on one hand and open/semi-open public spaces like squares, plazas, and public parks on the other. These are the areas where the congruency between the architect/designer’s ‘idea’ and the ‘experience’ gets tested the most as these spaces are characterized by their significant footfall. Hence, here the challenge becomes ensuring a seamless human experience for a large number of people. If done right, we get places that leave a positive impact, where one wants to keep going back. However, we also see many examples worldwide of spaces that are left unused and desolate, despite being amidst populated areas. While on one hand, we see offices where it’s a joy for the employees to work every day, we also see offices wherein the employees feel like they are losing their identities. We have hospitals and healthcare institutions wonderfully crafted to keep the patients’ wellbeing in mind, but we also have jam-packed wards of countless hospitals wherein the patients complain of terrible experiences.
The interior design of this child healthcare center has incorporated the experience of an ill child. This hardly resembles the preconceived notion of a public healthcare center that most of us have in our minds.
To better understand the human experience in public spaces (and in turn, design better public spaces), we need to be sensitive as to how people connect to their built environment. Fundamentally, we humans connect to our environment through five sense systems – visual, auditory, taste-smell, basic-orienting, and haptic systems. (Gibson, 1983) We then respond emotionally to the multisensory environmental stimuli as we occupy and use various spaces daily. (Daly et al., 2016) A simple example of this is walking down a dark and empty street at night as compared to a well-lit and crowded one – the former, via our senses, triggers our response of fear and this prompts us to avoid similar spaces from next time. Therefore, designers and architects can better cater to the stimuli (which indirectly caters to our emotional response) by building an understanding methodologically using field-based research techniques like sensory mapping and walking interviews of similar spaces.
Work of a Landscape Design student from Edinburgh University wherein there is an attempt to map the emotional experience of a person driving through this region and draw relevant inferences to inform the design process.
Towards the end of this journey of the human experience through various kinds of spaces, if we look back, we can appreciate the role architecture plays in our lives. We began with the built environment providing a backdrop to our day-to-day experiences. As we went through the spaces of where we stay, where we socialize with our friends and family, and where we work, we realize how architecture is not merely the physical realm. What seems to be the backdrop of our stories is giving rise to the emotional element of the stories. Architecture gives our senses an avenue to be in harmony with the world. But, with that, we also need to look forward. We are facing innumerable challenges today like the pandemic and the climate crisis. We need to envision the future of human experience with the challenges in mind so that architecture can continue to impact the coming generations positively and safeguard their collective wellbeing.
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