Could it be that in the near future urban designers will be collaborating with neuroscientist and psychologists to design buildings that make people feel comfortable rather than disoriented and encourage socialization vs isolation that is too often the case.
It could happen! It has happened?
Indeed, the Conscious Cities Conference in London in 2017 brought together architects, designers, engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists, all of whom cross paths at an academic level, but rarely do so in practice, to discuss how they might collaborate.
What did they learn?
Intuitively we all know the shape, colour and size of buildings affect the mood and well-being of humans. Now scientists have discovered specialized cells in the hippocampal region of the human our brains that processes each individual’s unique sense of geometry and space.
Rounded vs Rectangular
Using modern technology scientists have attempted to measure humans’ physiological responses to architecture and streetscapes, using wearable devices such as bracelets that monitor skin conductance (a marker of physiological arousal), smartphone apps that ask subjects about their emotional state, and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that measure brain activity relating to mental states and mood.
A recently published study using visual reality technology concluded most people like curved edges and rounded contours rather than sharp-edged rectangular shaped buildings and rooms. However, the design students among the participants preferred the opposite. This could be a red flag!
A study in Iceland found participants viewed various residential street scenes and found the ones with the most architectural variation the most mentally engaging. Not exactly rocket science, Jane Jacobs (author book “Death and Life of American Cities” in 1961) and others have been saying this for decades.
Another study looked at street patterns and found being lost and disoriented creates negative feelings. Cities with grid-pattern numbered streets like New York are easy to navigate London’s hotchpotch of neighbourhoods all orientated differently is notoriously confusing. Another study documented districts with high-rises are more confusing and unpleasant to walk around than those with low-rise buildings.
The fact that design students in the virtual reality study preferred hard-edges and rectangular shapes the opposite to the general public participants is a definite red flag.
Could it be the brains of those attracted to the urban design professions are wired diametrically opposed to the general publics? That would be an interesting study!
I know when I was a public art gallery curator it was obvious to me there is a huge gap between what artists and curators finds interesting and what the public like to see in the way of art exhibitions. Hence the term “art for art’s sake” i.e. that the chief aim of a work of art is the self-expression of the artist.
Could the same be said for architects, landscape architects or interior designers? Could that be why they design minimalist buildings, lobbies and public spaces that are often alienating to the public? Are they designing for themselves and their colleagues not for the public?
The question is: “Would architects, landscape architects and interior designers be willing to collaborate with neuro scientists and psychologist to have they designs tested to make sure they are “people friendly” before they get built.
A quick email to a few architects resulted in some interesting comments. Charles Olfert a principle at aobdt architecture + interior design in Saskatoon perhaps said it best, “I do think the education of architects plays a big role in the way we design and perceive beauty in buildings.
We are taught to appreciate clean, modern spaces and the magazines we read reinforce this. The winners of architectural competitions and awards tend to encourage this perspective as well. The result is indeed a disconnect with people who have not had that ‘education’, so I am not surprised the general public would not be excited by what most architects are.”
However, Olfert thinks “to try somehow do a scientific and social analysis of aesthetics doesn’t seem useful. I have come to appreciate much later in my career the experience of a building is really complicated and aesthetics might be a relatively minor factor. Why are you at the building? Does it work for what you wanted? Do you already have some preconceptions because of who owns it, works in it or what it represents? What’s the neighborhood context?
A few years ago I read “The Architecture of Happiness” by AlainDeBotton. It was pivotal, and changed my approach to the design of projects. Instead of focussing on what the program or client ask for, I now tend to first try make sure the building has at least a few spaces and/or details that make you happy. It’s actually not that hard. It usually involves strategic windows and an opportunity for some “wow” factor, even at a small scale.”
Are architects doing better job?
Do we like The Princeton better than Eau Claire 500 condo next door? Do we like the condo towers in East Village better than those built in West Downtown in the ‘90s? Do we like the University City’s bold yellow, orange, green and red towers at the Brentwood LRT Station better than SASS0 and NUERA at Stampede Station? Do we like the new condos being built today at SETON compared to those around Market Mall in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
Do Calgarians like The Bow with its curved shape and diagonal lines, plaza and public art, better than the minimalist Brookfield Place with its rounded edges and public lobby.
Do we like edgy Eighth Avenue Place with its articulated roof top, vertical thrust and cathedral-like lobby versus it neighbour Husky Towers with rounded gold coloured glass edges.
Do we like new Telus Sky with its twisted articulated façade and strange bottle-like shape versus the oval-shaped reflective deep blue glassed 707 Fifth street office building? How do they compare to ‘70s TD Square or Scotia Tower and the ‘80s Bankers Hall?
Do we like the oval shaped, patterned façade of the new Calgary Central Library better than the strange shaped, dark snake-like skinned of National Music Centre or translucent glass, crystal shaped TELUS Spark building better? How do they compare with the Glenbow? Do we like the South Health Campus building better than the Rockyview Hospital?
Could it be that those big square box office and residential buildings that dominated Calgary’s City Centre in the mid to late 20thcentury actually negatively affect our mood and well-being.
Could it be Calgary’s cookie cutter suburban homes and boring streets also negatively affect our well-being? What about those big box power centres - are they places where we want to linger and socialize with family and friends?
I received several emails in response to this blog. I thought this one from Art Froese, who was the project manager for the Alberta Children's Hospital was particularly enlightening.
As usual, you’re on to something but needs more time. Finding the truth & the essence of things takes time. Remember always there are two questions: “ What’s new? / What’s old?”
Round is the world of our historic ancestors. Every aboriginal shelter is round: teepee [really egg-shaped]; igloo; gurt in Mongolia; African homes, crawls etc; Australia - follow the list. Round is harder to build.
The Children’s Hospital gathering space in the middle of the building is round. This is not an accident. The philosophy of the building is three concentric circles: the children; the caregivers; the landscape. It took forever to get the architects to understand the concept. It took seconds for my native advisory panel of Elders from Treaty Seven to understand.
The biggest price we’ve paid in developed countries is that we’ve dulled our senses. I have many examples of this from my wilderness adventures. Or just read “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger.
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