Why some places gather crowds of people that are happy to be there, and others remain unoccupied because they trigger unpleasant parts of themselves? What elements of design generate in people such different attitudes, from serenity, peace, tranquility, to fear, anxiety or violence? For a better understanding of the impact that architecture has on our brains, it is good to acknowledge the existence of fears, caused by the environments, and which have even the names related to architecture (not by chance). Indubitably we are all different people, coming from different cultures or backgrounds, and the same design can affect two people in two distinct ways, but nonetheless, there are studies that indicate some general tendencies that we tend to have. This could help us learn from our predecessors and from past experiences, and improve the mental and physical conditions of our future generations, by carefully designing our places, incorporating the accumulated knowledge or wisdom.

Fear is a response to an external stimulus, whether it is caused by the forces of nature, by a living creature, or by the built environment. Sometimes it can be an unrealistic fear, it is happening only in our mind, as the psychologists call it, projection. You see something that reminds you of a certain situation when something went wrong, and your pulse starts going up because you expect the same thing to happen. It could just be a smell, or a pattern of wallpaper, or a chair. This also could be something unconscious, or perfectly conscious. When fear makes you inadaptable, then it starts to become a phobia.

I will analyze the two terms, which describe two of these phobias. Agoraphobia and claustrophobia. Why have I intentionally chosen them? Because they are terms used in psychology, to describe, and yet they come, etymologically, from words related to architecture. Therefore, psychologists have stated long ago that architecture had a profound impact on our psyche?

Claustrophobia is formed etymologically from two words: claustrum (from Latin) and phobia. Claustrum would translate into our contemporary world as an enclosure, and it is mostly associated with the monastic cloister, a covered walkway, surrounding a garden, and at the same time, the Medievalcloister is derived from the Greco-Roman Domus. Symbolically, this enclosure represents the world, the Eden, with the tree of life in the middle. The peristyle could symbolize us, the people, who enclose in ourselves the essence of God, the essence of life. Therefore, this phobia of tight places could be associated with a fear of remaining trapped with ourselves, which can be very eerie and problematic to most of us, and with the higher knowledge, higher power, as it is no escape, no alternative when you are in a closed space. The background, an architectural context, can become a background for overcoming our fears.

If claustrophobia can be explained only in relation to space, and most commonly is anthropic, we have a palpable connection between architecture and neuroscience. It all starts from a concrete “something”, which I dare to call architecture, but has an effect on our brain and on our subconscious. The best example is the cave, which is used in both fields (architecture and neuroscience). “Thus, this type of space has strong connections with our subconscious, with the collective subconscious. It is a space to which there are always, more or less conscious, references, this time being about a metaphorical, reinterpreted space.”[1] The man was and is awed by the thought of remaining trapped in the cave, and as a consequence, of losing his life by suffocating. It is the instinct of conservation. Nowadays, the cave could be replaced by elevators, tunnels, since we no longer live in caves (even if we know there are still exceptions to this statement). But metaphorically speaking, according to the renowned Platonic theory, a man trapped in a cave is a man dammed to stay in the shadow, which means to sink in his own ignorance and lack of willingness to overcome his condition. And this is how, a real situation, like being trapped in a narrow space, can develop in us all sorts of feelings, from contemplativeness, and introspection, to real phobias, like claustrophobia.

Agoraphobia is formed etymologically from two words: Agora (from Ancient Greek) and phobia. Agora was perhaps the first meaningful public space in the history of architecture, in the country which invented the democracy, therefore it gained a central role in the lives of people. This phobia is a paradoxical and complex one since it combines two antagonist major fears, the one for closed spaces, but also the one for public spaces (piazzas, markets, malls, stadiums). This fear is different from Claustrophobia due to its more complicated nature, as it is often associated with anxiety or depression. It is not an innate fear, it is earned during our life, due to our deformed perception. Thus, we are emphasizing the importance of choosing the most beneficial environments for our mental and physical health.

The Romanian architect and theoretician, Dana Pop, explains in her book “Architecture, Perception, and Fear”, that there are six factors that can enhance the level of stress or even cause phobias. The first factor can be easily controlled or quantified, and that is temperature. Extreme temperatures, like excessive heat or cold, can provoke the nervous system, and for sure, some parts of the world, are more prone to cause this, than others. The second factor is the supersaturation of an environment with too many stimuli (too many colorful and animated commercial adds for example), as it might exhaust our senses. The third factor is the overcrowding, seen as an incompatibility between a space and the nature of the activities that take place there (too many people in an underground or in a bus, for example). The fourth factor is the reputation of a place, which can make one imagine things that might not never happen (a neighborhood that has bad notoriety). The fifth factor is the energy involved or the resources that can provoke frustration to some extent (too many abrupt stairs for example, or a very expensive museum to visit). The last factor is the deprivation of stimuli, or their lack, because it triggers uncertainty, you don’t know what to expect from that space.

These two phobias can be detected more often to women, in comparison to men, and can be treated by going to therapy, which is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However instead of creating something, wouldn’t it be better that we, the architects, could prevent these things from happening, by paying more attention, by taking into consideration more categories of people, when designing spaces?

Architecture and Fear

A vast modernist public area, in contrast with a more human scale environment (below)

Architecture and Fear

[1][2] DANA POP, Arhitectura, percepțieșifrică, Romania, 2016, p. 92

Ana Mirea is a Riba Part II Architectural Assistant and Ph.D. student, based in London. She has graduated from the “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urbanism, and now she undertakes a research based Ph.D. in the field of neuroarchitecture, with a thesis titled The Influence of the Built Environment from Childhood on the Brain.  

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