How does architecture make us feel?

How does architecture make us feel?

21st August 2020

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The fact that inanimate objects may affect one’s stress levels must come as a surprise to many people, however grey concrete, uncreative and sterile buildings harm their occupants’ and users’ mental health.

Architecture is way more than just a building to live, work or spend time in, it affects us on a personal, emotional level; layout, airflow, light and finishes are just some of the feature that can contribute to the space user’s health, productivity and mood.

In the past the architectural part of a building, together with its interior design, has been associated to its aesthetics only, making it almost a discretionary part of the environment, beautifying as its only purpose. After starting as a mean to provide protection and shelter, architecture started losing its deserved credit, as creativity and beauty started being introduced into buildings; today, after way too long, this art form is finally being associated to all of the above, while at the same time being used as a subject of important psychological studies, at long last being validated as a mean to support and benefit a user’s emotional well-being.

In 1943, Winston Churchill was considering whether and how to repair the House of Commons after it was destroyed with bombs when he famously said “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” and this is what, after a long time, these psychological studies have managed to prove.

Things have massively changed from the fifties, when the housing projects of the time were being built without any behavioural insight, often placing large open spaces between blocks of high-rises, for some discouraging any sense of community and perhaps encouraging crime, given the lack of a sense of belonging.

Psychological studies these days have a very strong idea of what humans find stimulating and architecture and design are encouraged to use this knowledge to create environments that fully use good design and craftsmanship, stimulating the creation of a feeling of community and togetherness.

Each building is composed of three parts: form, use and beauty; while beauty is subjective, the feeling of it is universal. Buildings necessitate to promote a feeling, as that is what impacts us psychologically; each environment needs to promote a subconscious reaction to be more than just a shell with a purpose, so to be able to have a positive impact.

To determine what our brain associates with pleasure in buildings, we have to go back to the evolution and understand what is it that we, as humans, automatically recognise, as it is linked to a location that most possibly helped our ancestors survive. These survival attributes are generally associated with characteristics and patterns, which then our brain recognises as consistency, organisation and lack of chaos and when our ancestors were able to recognise a pattern that gave them an increased chance to guess what would come or happen next, therefore increasing their chances of survival.

But how does this translate in today’s buildings?

When our brain recognises a natural pattern within a building and associates it to something that has been advantageous to our ancestors, it automatically evokes a positive psychological reaction; this, therefore, implies the lack of pattern or the presence of chaos, can negatively impact us.

Buildings that incorporate specific aesthetically pleasing patterns are perceived by our brain as more beautiful, as they bring back that feeling of security, safety and well-being that our ancestors felt. Understanding this part of our brain is very important, as it emphasises how specific historical buildings have been more successful than others with its pleasing looks; most of these architectural successes were built with patterns in mind that try to copy a natural environment in which our ancestors not only survived but thrived.

When having these positive feelings because of a building, our conscious mind does not realise that these feelings are caused by the subconscious part of it and that is why more time and resources must be dedicated to ensuring a fit for purpose environment is provided when designing each new building.

Each new building does not only represent a new beginning for lodging, business or other purposes, it also represents culture and roots; architecture shows the world how a specific place sees itself and how the residents see the world around them. Through the centuries the world connected different civilisations with one another, mixing and evolving its traditions, yet ensuring each place maintained its particular traits and allowing for beauty and the universal feeling it gives to remain intact, moving our subconscious through its underlying, hidden patterns.

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