Architectural Psychology: How Spaces can affect our Psyche
This article was originally written for ArchIndia, a platform dedicated to celebrating India's diverse art and culture, architecture, cities, and people. The article is reproduced here with permission from Sakshi Singh, ArchIndia's founder, an old batchmate, and long-time friend.
Architecture can have both positive and negative effects on the inner workings of our minds. This depends on how thoughtful the design is and how it responds to the structures around it. The inner region of the temporal lobe in our brains is known as the hippocampus. It is associated with the formation of memories.
Neuron-scientists have found conclusive evidence in this regard. The center of our brains forms positive notions when it is exposed to geometrical patterns, symmetry, or alignment in its surroundings.
Impact of Patterns on our Minds: Meaning and Significance
Patterns represent consistency, an absence of chaos. For our forefathers, patterns meant a safe living space – a place where they could navigate with ease. Over time, these responses have been built into our system. Today, we all share some common needs with respect to a positive architectural space. These are good natural lighting, provision of vegetation, communal spaces for interaction, and an easily navigational space.
Nature is one of the biggest influences on any man-made design. It is built upon the foundations of mathematical patterns starting from the Fibonacci sequence to fractal patterns.
The effect of architecture on our psyche can be seen at various levels. It can be formed from the impression of the entire building itself. It could also stem from the impression of living space within a building. For example, a study room or recreational center, or from looking up the length of an entire market street.
Iconic Buildings and their Impact on the Psyche
Historically speaking, some very famous and successful architectural buildings have been the ones that replicate organic curves or mimic nature. An example below is La Sagrada Familia designed by Antoni Gaudi.
The cathedral uses a structural system of 24-meter high columns. They intertwine above to create the impression of a forest. The outer shell of the building seems inspired by a grove of trees, as stated by Gaudi himself.
By utilizing elements of bio-mimicry, Gaudi has created a warm zone where humans feel most at home. This is accentuated by the use of warm tones of yellow, orange, and beige. The sheer height of the interior chambers inspires a feeling of respect, admiration, and wonder. The extravagant and intricate details all aim to present a cohesive, symmetrical space. It is non-chaotic to the eyes of the viewer and hence positive architectural psychology.
Another similar example of the Eden Project in Cornwall which consists of bubble-inspired domes, supported by hexagonal trusses.
The supertrees of Singapore and the Bird’s Nest stadium are all similar examples of bio-mimicry. Buildings like Hayder Aliyev Center or the Guggenheim Museum also use organic forms that are easy on the eyes. However, it is not just organic forms that can have positive influences on the user.
What Role does Symmetry Play?
Symmetry not only helps users feel familiar but also makes it easier to navigate, identify and remember. Some of the oldest planned town like Miletus by Hippodamus was in an orthogonal grid. Such grids are prevalent even today in the planning of cities like New York and Chandigarh.
The pattern enforces familiarity. Several famous monuments like old Greek temples, the Taj Mahal, and Roman courts also exhibited similar grid-like planning. Square grids also inspire a feeling of structural stability.
Color and volume of spaces also play an important role. The color of the architectural space can influence the mood of the user. The amount of space for activities can do the same. Positive reinforcement colors like yellow, orange, and red in schools can motivate students. Similarly, calming colors like blue and green in hospitals have a positive impact.
Cramped community spaces foster feelings of resentment, whereas too large spaces can prevent people from bonding and forming connections. Rounded edges give a feeling of softness and understanding, whereas jagged buildings inspire anxiety and formality.
Mass Housing in the Post-War Scenario: Architectural Psychology
Since the post-war scenario, housing has moved on from being a creative commodity to one that needs to meet certain demands and criteria. This resulted in the propagation of box-like homes that placed utility above everything else. The suburbs are lined up with repetitive homes of the same design.
Today, architects have realized the positive connotations of thoughtful designs. Several establishments like old tenements and slum housings are seeing demolition. There is a rise in the demand for homes with natural lighting, large living spaces, and unique designs.
Monochromatic facades, fewer window openings, or outdoor interaction in residential spaces can deprive the senses. This can create a feeling of foreboding and depression.
The Pruitt Igoe Housing: Failed Architectural Psychology
One of the most widely televised building demolitions was the bringing down of the Pruitt Igoe Housing. Minoru Yamasaki was the architect behind the notorious project. The reasons for the failure of this group housing project are many. Yet, similar housing projects located less than a mile away did not suffer the same fate. So, what went wrong with the Pruitt Igoe Housing?
Many say architectural psychology.
The shared spaces admitted no natural light. The terraces and community spaces were small compared to the number of people living there. The building facade presented no lively notion. Each building block was located so far apart that the spaces in between fostered no sense of community. Several modernist housing projects suffered from similar problems in understanding user psychology.
Books on street psychology by Charles Montgomery state that people living in urban versus rural areas usually have different brain biology. Exposure to a particular architectural state over long periods can affect mental conditions. But the most important is the people living within a space and their usage of it. They have the power to transform their identity.
Today, architectural psychology had progressed in leaps and bounds. This is due to the efforts of academicians and researchers like Carl-Friedrich Graumann, Antje Flade, Maria Klatte, and more. Beyond the modernist movement of flat facades, monochrome colors, and rigid outlines, several new movements have evolved.
These include blobitecture, bio-mimicry, and Deconstructivism to name a few. As long as the role of architectural language on the psychology of people sees addressed, we can hope to move ahead. It will help us understand better its capacity to bring change.