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Building a better world: can architecture shape behaviour?

Posted on January 7, 2014

In 1966, a British planner called Maurice Broady came up with a new term for the architectural lexicon: architectural determinism.

This was to describe the practice of groundlessly asserting that design solutions would change behaviour in a predictable and positive way.

It was a new phrase but the belief system behind it – that buildings shape behaviour – had allowed the heroes of architecture to make all kinds of outlandish claims.

A hopeful history

Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian Renaissance-era architect, claimed in the 1400s that balanced classical forms would compel aggressive invaders to put down their arms and become civilians.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the US architect who designed one of the most famous buildings in America, Fallingwater, similarly believed appropriate architecture would save the US from corruption and turn people back to wholesome endeavours.

British author and thinker Ebenezer Howard believed companies would be more efficient if their employees lived in village-like garden communities.

Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier made claims about how his Villa Savoyebuilding in France would heal the sick – and when it did just the opposite, he only avoided court because of the commencement of the second world war.

It took a long list of failures over the millennia before postmodern theorists took to critiquing architectural fantasy with malevolent vengeance. The high-point of this trend was the delight shared over the demolition of the famously dangerous and dysfunctional Pruitt-Igoe urban housing complex in St Louis in the US.

It was designed by architects George Hellmuth, Minoru Yamasaki and Joseph Leinweber to provide “community gathering spaces and safe, enclosed play yards.” By the 1960s, however, it was seen as a hotspot for crime and poverty and demolished in the 1970s.


The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 fuelled resistance to deterministic thinking. Credit: Wikimedia

The loss of faith in architecture’s power has been regrettable. Architects’ well-meant fantasies once routinely provided clients with hope and sometimes even with results.

Without this promise, the profession was left inept before the better structural knowledge of engineers, the cumulative restrictions imposed by generations of planners, the calculations of project-managers and the expediency of a draughtsman’s CAD (computer-aided design) skills in turning a client’s every whim into reality.

Without fiction, architecture has become a soulless thing. But was determinism dismissed too soon? Is there a role for imagined futures without rationalist restrictions?

Restoring the faith

Just think of some of the ways architecture can manipulate your own experience. In his book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, US author Charles Montgomery points out that some environments predictably affect our moods.

The fact is that environments do affect us, regardless of whether by design or by accident. In 2008, researchers in the UK found that a ten-minute walk down a South London main street increased psychotic symptoms significantly.

In my own research, I find that the healthier a person is, the more a good environment will affect them positively and the less a bad one will affect them negatively. Mentally ill patients show about 65 times more negative reactivity to bad environments than controls and all these reactions translate directly into symptoms.

The same patients have about half the positive responsiveness. That’s fewer smiles, less laughter and a reported drop in feeling the “fun of life”.

But that’s not all. The potential for architecture is richer still. The ease with which architecture can embrace sublime aesthetics makes it great for generating awe.

Psychiatrists have found that awe reduces the prevalence and severity of mood disorders. Could sublime architecture even potentially save lives?

The psychological effects of architecture are difficult to prove, but difficulty doesn’t dilute the value of a building that hits the right notes and creates a sense of awe. Each building type has different functions, and for each there’s an imperative to use the building to help create an optimal mood, desire or sense of coherence, security or meaning.


Awe reduces mood disorders: Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia church in Spain. Credit: Wikimedia

Fortunately, there’s a resurgence of belief that buildings can change behaviour, led by a few architectural journals: World Health DesignEnvironment Behavior and HERD.

Most of these focus on health care design, because that’s where behavioural changes have life and death consequences.

But nobody dares make any promises. As such, research rarely opens the black box of environmental psychology, leaving findings unexplained and prone to failure.

To give architecture back its mojo, a new interest in how architecture changes us must be fostered. Clients have to learn to trust architects again and research funding bodies have to re-gear to encourage research into how buildings affect our mood, health and behaviours.

Finally, architecture schools have to teach students how they might predict psychological, emotional, healing and functional effects.

All innovation, ultimately, is led by the imagination – even if that means taking risks and sometimes getting it wrong.

Source: The Conversation, story by Jan Golembiewski

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