Ken’s View: How Buildings Mess With Our Heads

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us, Winston Churchill famously proclaimed.

I’ll bet he never heard of neuro-architecture. Don’t laugh. There’s even an Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. This is serious stuff. Churchill was on the right track, but he didn’t know half of it. How could he? The Internet, Facebook, and Twitter were nothing but science fiction, if even that.

The BBC Future website, however, professes to know a lot more. Part of our brain, the hippocampus, is attuned to “the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit,” says the BBC.

No kidding. That’s more or less what Churchill said, minus the part about brain physiology, and I think most architects know this despite not being neuroscientists.

Still, it’s a fair point and a lot more complicated. There is increasing evidence that there are psychological and physiological consequences to the environments we inhabit. There’s even talk of devices that monitor skin conductance (to measure physiological response), smartphone apps to ask subjects how they’re feeling (bad idea), and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets to measure brain activity as it relates to mood.

Architects are already using virtual-reality technology as well as auralization techniques to preview unbuilt projects. Why not add an EEG headset to see if a subject is stressed out by the proposed environment?

Oh, wait, it’s already been done. “A novel computer-aided design system named CaveCAD allows users to alter dynamically the virtual environment while subjects stand within the stereoscopic model itself,” according to International Academy for Design and Health’s website. “By logging subject responses over a sequence of trials, multiple design changes can be tested, according to controlled protocols and during synchronous recording of brainwave responses,” it says.

One writer, Charles Montgomery, quoted in the BBC article points to “an emerging disaster in street psychology.” In his book Happy City, he warns of blank, cold spaces replacing small shops that provide visual interest and variety. Indeed, one theory says that the visual complexity of the natural environment is a kind of “mental balm.”

Be warned, however, that some folks want it all. They want order in their visual complexity.

This is starting to sound like biophilic design, which I wrote about in relation to healthcare facilities some time back. Both biophilia and neuro-architecure have much in common with healthy and sustainable design in healthcare facilities, schools, and offices. It adds another dimension to guidelines that focus only on exposure to pollutants and toxins in air and water, or through physical contact.

One biophilic theory that I remember is that of a human preference for places of prospect and refuge—that is, someplace where one can see predators coming as well as be protected from them. It is thought to be an adaptation of survival instincts of early man. In other words, be paranoid. If you think something wants to have you for lunch, you’re probably right.

Closer to contemporary reality is the idea that spaces with visibility and multiple vantage points may promote environmental comprehension and engagement. Put even more simply, people like to feel they have some control over their environment and that it be coherent.

Never fear, there’s an app that addresses “the effects of spatial design on aspects of social, organizational and economic performance of buildings and urban areas.” Space Syntax is a program developed at the University of London.

Think that’s all you have to worry about? Not even close. Some folks think salutogenic design is the next big thing in building design. It’s a “well building” on steroids. That means it takes into account even more things that could impact building occupants’ health and well being. Sorry if you haven’t even begun to figure out EPDs and HPDs. The learning curve just got steeper, but I’m sure there’s an app.

Certainly, there are those who suggest that the complexity of architectural and urban environments is far too intricate to reduce to mere data points.

I tend to agree. I doubt that architecture can or should be reduced to algorithms, but it’s encouraging that someone is thinking in suitably complex ways about how our built environment impacts all of us. — Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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