To What Extent Do Architects Dictate Our Emotional, Cognitive and Behavioural Responses?

As a former teacher, I am very aware of the impact of environment on human behaviour. Whilst working in schools I was encouraged to carefully consider factors such as:

•The arrangement of tables and chairs – should we have clusters of four to aid group discussions or forward-facing rows to instil a sense of decorum? Perhaps a horseshoe configuration to open up a central performance space? Where to put the trouble-makers? Dispersed and isolated in corners or all together on the front row?

•The content and style of wall displays – use bright colours and images to stimulate creativity and engage interest. Show criteria in child-friendly language. Exhibit good examples of pupils’ work to acknowledge their efforts and inspire others. Model excellent presentation. Posters and keyword cards can make handy teaching aids!

•And lighting – do I draw back all curtains and reel up the blinds to create a ‘bright, positive atmosphere’ or must daylight be sacrificed for smart-board visibility?

Even airflow, temperature and classroom aromas (always have the Glade to hand for masking bodily odours and gaseous expulsions) can have a major impact on a lesson, I was told.

Classroom ‘vibes’ are undeniable. You can sense the mood from ten paces with teenagers, but to what extent are all humans really affected by the spaces we occupy? How much of what we do and what we think can be attributed to instinctive, innate responses to our surroundings and how much to hormonal fluctuations, personality, previous experiences etc.?

As an NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) I became obsessive-compulsive: territorial about MY classroom and superstitious about the objects in it. If all the chairs are not tucked neatly under the desks before my next class arrives, I thought, they’ll sense disorder and wreak havoc! I was preoccupied with what I could control (furniture), and neglected to reflect on what I could not (pupils). In short, I turned into a classroom control-freak and it became apparent that the colourful displays, neatly arranged folders, floral deodorizers and 90° angles were all designed just to make me feel better! Teaching assistants enjoyed the room and a number of lesson observation forms came back with comments such as ‘lovely, interactive displays’ and ‘Nice posters – good attempt to create a friendly atmosphere’, but the children continued to wreak havoc – regardless of the table arrangements, the straightness of the curtains or the spotlessness of the carpet.

Consider the ancient Chinese system of aesthetics – Feng Shui – which aims to improve human lives by orienting structures, such as buildings, in the most auspicious manner according to certain ‘laws’. I’ve not read much about Feng Shui and, admittedly, most of my knowledge of it comes from overheard conversations in staff rooms and pubs, also, I tend to slip into cynic-mode as soon as anyone mentions ‘energies’ or ‘auras’ etc., but I do notice a change in my mood depending on my environment. For (extreme and obvious) example, if I’m in a small, dark space I tend to feel anxious. If my exit is blocked – I feel trapped and instantly want to escape. Obvious, right?

Perhaps I am overly sensitive to environment (in comparison to some people I know, who do not notice their surroundings at all until a particularly fetid bin-bag presents an immediate bio-hazard, I am positively finicky), but I believe we can be strongly affected and influenced by the positioning of spaces and objects around us, as well as other environmental factors such as temperature, colours and aromas. What I find unnerving is the idea that interior designers, teachers, curators, architects, urban planners, government officials, celebrity ‘magicians’ etc. can potentially influence our emotions, thoughts and behaviours by manipulating our surroundings. Shudder. But isn’t this the idea behind all those classroom management strategies involving seating plans and sensory stimuli, as well as designs for public spaces such as city centres and museums?

Last week I visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park with my partner’s family and, without thinking, I ended up gleefully clambering over a Sol LeWitt… until I noticed the plaque, which read ‘DO NOT CLIMB ON THE SCULPTURES!’ I wonder if the artist had premeditated my reaction to his sculpture when designing it. After all, it looks suspiciously like steps, and I was not alone in my kinaesthetic approach to the sculptures (a multitude of small children swarmed over the Barbara Hepworths and the sheep seemed particularly fond of Henry Moore). Had the artists already decided how we (the children, the sheep and myself) would behave upon being confronted by their art?

What about Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North (see slideshow)? I feel the angular, metallic skin of this building intentionally mimics certain elements that may be associated with war (a concentration camp. A bayonet. A battleship.), and, when I visited the museum last (in December), I felt mildly intimidated upon entering the building (it is not a building that invites one to climb!). Inside, slanting walls and floors, and labyrinthine spaces provoke disorientation and anxiety which, I’m sure, are the emotions the architect intended visitors to experience. What do you think of it? I’m curious as to whether my prior knowledge of the purpose of the building (to house artefacts and ephemera related to war) tainted my perception of its architecture. Can you imagine it as a museum of childhood or natural history?

I want to know whether, out there somewhere, possibly smugly sipping coffee in top floor office (maybe at the centre of a panopticon, in an orbiting satellite or perching atop a white, fluffy cloud), is an omniscient architect who has already predicted our actions and reactions to the built environment. The proletariat are not going to revolt because the nice straight lines of the city grid, the tree-lined avenues and the official buildings with their austere facades dissuade them from doing so. However, this approach did not work in my classroom, so maybe there’s still some space for subversion… the trouble is, how do you tell when you’re being subversive and when you’re doing exactly what The Architect intended you to do?

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3 responses to “To What Extent Do Architects Dictate Our Emotional, Cognitive and Behavioural Responses?

  1. As an architect, all I can say is we try to orchestrate experiences and sequences generally not as a deity trip, but merely as conductors who know where to sit to “hear” the music best. Perhaps it is like a parent who tells their child to trust them merely because they are the parent and they know the outcome better than the child does from age, wisdom and experience. However at the end of the day, it is well known that human behavior is almost impossible to choregraph simply from the infinite numbers of variables available. However, when it does happen, it can be magical. Experiences come from our ideas which in turn create memories. One may not remember the building in detail, but they’ll remember who they were with and what happened when they visited our buildings. It’s humbling to contribute to someone’s life this way.

  2. In working with groups I think I have noticed that the more subversive I intend to be (“negative views are welcome” etc) the more control I actually end up having.
    Whilst valuing subversion I elicit compliance.

    • Subversive? I don’t believe architects ought to have that as a goal. The architect should want the user to get the most out of or have the best experience in the space he/she designed. If it is a school, they should have the best opportunity to learn. If it is a history type museum, then the user should be able to reflect and understand even if it elicits sad or negative emotions. Guards, railings or other directional elements to force a path are often about safety. Nevertheless, the intentions should not be about control merely to impose compliance.

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