If you ask the layman what they understood by Environmental behavior odds are they would guess it had something to do with the green architecture movement or something else in the ecological arena. Up until recently even architects described their profession using the three F’s – function, firmness, and form. But, fortunately, we know better now – there is a fourth F of architecture – how buildings make us feel. The fourth pillar essentially integrates the other three. The development of this field is termed as environmental behavior studies. Environmental behavior is understanding how a building works not with respect to our bodies (re: ergonomics and anthropometry), but with respect to our brains.
Research has shown that the perception of architects and designers regarding the environments they build varies greatly from the perception of the final users or stakeholders. With the intense segregation of society into different ethnicities, ages, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds, this disparity has only become more pronounced. In the words of Dutch architect Neils Prak “The common sense of architects is not the common sense of the user”.
Environmental behavior studies help us bridge this gap.
The increasing rates of western urbanization have led to an attitude of ignorance within the architectural community. Human convenience has started to take precedence over living in harmony with nature and the physical environment. Our habitats are no longer humane – however efficient they may be. This has caused a verifiable, detrimental psychological impact on the occupants. Large, unoccupied spaces are now forming urban deserts, and areas of high density and crowding lead to feelings of discomfort and unease among users. Environmental Behaviour Studies helps us identify these shortcomings and overcome them by examining previous executions or failures, and figuring out what went wrong.
The most frequently quoted architectural behavior mishap is the infamous Pruitt Igoe housing complex in St. Louis. The project was constructed when modernism was on the rise and was destined to be an innovative residential complex – one that represented the victory of technological advancement and creativity in architecture, over the blight of urban poverty. In the initial stages, the project was designed in two halves – one to be occupied by white residents – termed the “James Igoe Apartments” whereas the other half would be occupied by black/people of color – termed the “Wendell Oliver Pruitt Homes”. However, with the eventual illegalization of segregation, the two halves were merged to form the Pruitt Igoe Complex.
The project was essentially flawed from its premise – starting with the protested clearing of DeSoto-Carr, one of the least habitable neighborhoods in St. Louis. The modular 11-storey apartment buildings drew inspiration from the Corbusian concepts of The Radiant City – an unrealized project, that itself was criticized for defaulting in several behavioral metrics (proxemics, territoriality, defensibility)
While federal policy dictated that segregation was no longer allowed, this trend had yet to emerge in society. This led to racial agglomeration and discrimination within the housing complex – with the whites living with the whites and the persons of color living with other persons of color. Over time the only residents that remained were those that could not afford to live anywhere else. With dwindling levels of occupancy, the building could no longer meet its cost of functioning and slowly began to deteriorate even further. The circumstances became a vicious cycle of poor building maintenance and increasing numbers of tenants leaving the complex due to its state of dereliction.
With time the site became desolate and allowed criminal activity to flourish. The large congregational spaces were now hosts to violence and vandalism, and eventually, the state decided that the project was beyond rescue. In the following years, the structure was demolished, leaving behind an urban wasteland. Granted we cannot blame architecture alone for social evils like racism and poverty, it is important to examine how structures respond to these pre-existing conditions.
Ironically, the project was appreciated by publications like the Architectural Forum, which named it the Best High Apartment in 1951. However, in 1965, this magazine re-evaluated Pruitt Igoe and consequently reversed its stance, declaring the project a failure.
What is integral to the study of EBS is post-occupancy evaluations. However, most evaluations that are done in the field of architecture are done either are done in the stage of concept or immediately after construction. This often leads to an inconsistent representation of a building’s merit. An important feature in the majority of post-occupancy evaluations is that they involve a systematic investigation of opinions, perceptions, and viewpoints about building environments in use, from the perspective of those who use them. For us to be able to test how well a building works it needs to be experienced, and not just observed.
The human mind is the most complex organ of the human body. Understandably, our perception of the environment around us is deeply intertwined with equally complex mechanisms like positionality, aesthetics, and ecology. There is a lot yet to be discovered in this particular branch of architecture, as there is no end to the intricacies of the human mind. We as architects and planners should use the best of our abilities to incorporate these seemingly minor, but extremely consequential complexities into our designs.