Psychology of a Building

Psychology of a Building

A recent module of mine (my Multi-Disciplinary Project) introduced me to the idea of the psychology of a building: how a building makes you feel; how it creates a certain atmosphere; how it influences social constructs. It intrigued me since I always have had an interest in psychology, I never thought that my Civil Engineering degree would ever interact with this profession. I guessed that it was more to do with architect’s responsibilities, however I did some research and what I found was very interesting.

In 1943, Winston Churchill reflected:

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us…”

Winston Churchill – 1943

In this era, it is known as “Neuro-architecture”. It is now known that buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being and, that specialised cells in our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit.

Negative Psychological Effects of Poorly Designed Architecture

For an example of the negative arrangements of living spaces is a story I read about that occurred in the 1950’s –  Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri, whose 33 featureless apartment blocks became notorious for their crime, squalor and social dysfunction. It was argued that they discouraged a sense of community from what the community had previously lived before. The tightly knit communities began to shatter.

What happened in Pruitt-Igoe has fuelled a mythology repeated in discussions of many urban high-rise projects. It was thought to have been used as a “dumping ground” for the poorest city residents and a tool for racial segregation at the time. Here is a quick link to a trailer to the documentary made to break the Pruitt-Igoe myth.

The demolishing of the Pruitt Igoe Housing Housing Complex

Positive Psychological Effects of Thoughtful Architectural Design

Nowadays, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating. People are strongly affected by building façades. A complex and interesting façade affects people in a positive way; negatively if it is simple and monotonous.

A VR study published that people feel better in rooms with curved edges and rounded contours than sharp edged rectangular rooms. However, it goes beyond good aesthetics of a building to improve health. A number of studies have shown that growing up in city doubles the chances of someone developing schizophrenia and increases the risk of other mental disorders – depression and chronic anxiety.

Human Interaction with/and the Environment

Vancouver is consistently rated as one of the most popular cities to live in, and it isn’t hard to understand why. It has adopted polices that downtown buildings/residents have a decent view of the mountains, forest and ocean to the north and west. It also accommodates nearby natural greenery which improves psychological health and improves air quality.


Although cities contain a larger number of people it does not necessarily make social interaction more likely. Loneliness and social isolation is now recognised by urban authorities as a major risk factor. Can we design against this to encourage connection?

“Triangulation” is a process which was first tried by William Whyte, who arranged objects and artefacts in public spaces in ways to encourage people to physically move closer together and increase the chance of social interaction. This isn’t much but it helps.

We spend an average of 80-90% of our lives indoors! That is why it is highly important to incorporate natural light, colours, plants and materials to improve our health and positive senses and emotions. For each function of a building, the construction and design is important. For instance, a hospital should radiate peace; whereas a school should encourage curiosity, joy and excitement.

The Eden Project in Cornwall, England, consists of several transparent domes that house a wide variety of plants. Inside the two biomes are plants that are collected from many diverse climates and environments. The architect Nicholas Grimshaw found his inspiration from bubbles, making it easy for the translucent domes to effortlessly coexist with the surrounding nature.

Surroundings of the Eden Project
Inside the Eden Project

Most viewers are unaware of the neuropsychological and physiological basis behind their perception of this sense of beauty. This is because this pattern recognition happens at a subconscious level. One key reason why we view some buildings as beautiful is that our brains process the sensory information it is receives from them and correlates it with patterns that had previously proven to be evolutionarily beneficial in nature. This same physiological reaction can happen even when the resemblance of the building to the natural environment is not as obvious as the example above.

To Conclude…

It is amazing how our surroundings impact our general well-being, mental health and our lives. Great buildings are thought-provoking; they can captivate you; you can look up at them in awe. Some stimulate your mind without you knowing, and some, affect your mind negatively. In recognising this, we can relate the psychology to divisions of certain cities and areas where less money is spent on extravagant building and housing communities and, put forward ideas to stimulate such deprivation with positive city and sustainable community planning.

  • Show Comments and Reply Form

    Leave a Reply

    XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>