We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” mused Winston Churchill in 1943 while considering the repair of the bomb-ravaged House of Commons.
More than 70 years on, he would doubtless be pleased to learn that neuroscientists and psychologists have found plenty of evidence to back him up.
We now know, for example, that buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being, and that specialised cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit.
Yet urban architects have often paid scant attention to the potential cognitive effects of their creations on a city’s inhabitants. The imperative to design something unique and individual tends to override considerations of how it might shape the behaviours of those who will live with it. That could be about to change.
“There are some really good [evidence-based] guidelines out there” on how to design user-friendly buildings, says Ruth Dalton, who studies both architecture and cognitive science at Northumbria University in Newcastle. “A lot of architects choose to ignore them. Why is that?”
Last month, the Conscious Cities Conference in London considered how cognitive scientists might make their discoveries more accessible to architects. The conference brought together architects, designers, engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists, all of whom increasingly cross paths at an academic level, but still rarely in practice.
One of the conference speakers, Alison Brooks, an architect who specialises in housing and social design, told BBC Future that psychology-based insights could change how cities are built. “If science could help the design profession justify the value of good design and craftsmanship, it would be a very powerful tool and quite possibly transform the quality of the built environment,” she says.
Greater interaction across the disciplines would, for example, reduce the chances of repeating such architectural horror stories as the 1950s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri, whose 33 featureless apartment blocks – designed by Minoru Yamasaki, also responsible for the World Trade Center – quickly became notorious for their crime, squalour and social dysfunction. Critics argued that the wide open spaces between the blocks of modernist high-rises discouraged a sense of community, particularly as crime rates started to rise. They were eventually demolished in 1972.
Pruitt-Igoe was not an outlier. The lack of behavioural insight behind the modernist housing projects of that era, with their sense of isolation from the wider community and ill-conceived public spaces, made many of them feel, in the words of British grime artist Tinie Tempah, who grew up in one, as if they’d been “designed for you not to succeed”.
Today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating. Some of these studies have attempted to measure subjects’ physiological responses in situ, 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.
Read more at BBC.