Architecture The art of Experience

A review in the relationship between the individual and their designed environment in terms of psychology, sociology, behavior and stimulation.


The vast majority of architectural features do not fit cleanly within one category, but often have aspects from several categories. The goal of this paper is to summarize and categorize how architecture serves as a regulatory force in our lives through many different mediums. This paper is seeking to develop a meta-theory of architecture or a synthesis of all thought on architecture as an affect on humans’ behavior, psychology and other relating factors. My efforts will focus on synthesizing the existing research to provide an insightful perspective on the various ways architecture affects us.

This leads me to use the terms architecture, buildings, and the built environment in discussing the material world. In sum, the goal of this analysis is to allow scholars and practicing professionals to better analyze and elucidate how architecture regulates and has an effect upon humans in more ways than ever known.

I. Perceiving buildings

Perceiving buildings is a complex process, it involves sensations such as seeing but also perception. Experiences with other prior buildings is also of importance. How do we store and recall our sensory experiences when it comes to architecture and buildings? Evaluation, decision making, emotions and affect, as well as interaction, movement all play a part in the neuroscience of architecture. Research on neuroscience and brain location are scarce. In 1999, Nancy Kanwisher and her associates published an article in Neuron that established grounds for linking the brain to experiences with architecture. She called the place in the brain where this link is made the parahippocampal place area (PPA). The PPA is a subregion of the parahippocampal cortex that plays an important role in the encoding and recognition of scenes (rather than faces or objects). “The PPA is defined as the set of all contiguous voxels within the parahippocampal region that respond significantly more during viewing of scenes than during viewing of faces or objects.

They found that PPA activity (1) is not affected by the subjects’ familiarity with the place depicted, (2) does not increase when subjects experience a sense of motion through the scene, and (3) is greater when viewing novel versus repeated scenes.” (Eberhard, 2009) She also reported that the PPA was significantly more active when subjects viewed “complex scenes such as rooms with furniture, landscapes, and city streets than when they viewed photographs of objects, faces, house (elevations), or other kinds of visual stimuli.” (Epstein et al., 1999) By place recognition Kanwisher meant that the matching of current perceptual information to the memories of places that had been encountered in the past are stored in one’s cognitive map. This research is one of the few projects that clearly relates neuroscience to architectural knowledge.

II. Can Architectural Features Help Your Brain and the recovery process?

Ideas: 1.How humans experience space. 2. Your memory and your sense of place are closely linked? 3. When traveling through space you use certain cues to help you navigate. Your senses help determine things like orientation, distance and direction 4. Buildings guide you through them while providing you with enough information to make meaningful decisions along the way can make for quite profound experiences. 5. Understanding the perception of interior spaces 6. Optical illusions in architecture 7. Playing with our concept of ‘reality’ 8. Simple and specific things designers can do to alter the perception of interior spaces.

Founding President and Board Member for the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) John P. Eberhard wrote that architecture and neuroscience can have a relationship and that parts of the brain show how architecture can also influence brain development. Recent results of neuroscience research has consequences for design. “Chronotherapeutics are controlled exposures to environmental stimuli that act on biological rhythms in order to achieve therapeutic effects in psychiatric conditions.” (Benedetti, 2007) Within this study, special interest arose when reading about depressed patients and exposure to sunlight. The use of sunlight can become an underestimated treatment for depression: “in Canada depressed patients in sunny rooms had a mean shorter hospitalization of 2.6 days, than patients in a dimly lit room. In Italy bipolar depressed patients in rooms with windows at the east side of the building had a mean 3.7 days shorter hospital stay than patients in rooms with western windows, with maximal difference in summer and autumn and no difference in winter when morning sunlight is dimmer and later.” (Benedetti F, 2007)

Another example was in Damasios’ book The Feeling of What Happens. In his book he indicates that memory records that lie just below the surface of consciousness include our “perception of the object (e.g., a cathedral), the sensory aspects of that object (such as color, shape, texture), as well as records of the motor adjustments that accompanied the gathering of the sensory signals and emotional reactions we had when perceiving the cathedral and hearing the music. When we return to a previous locale once recorded in a disposition (i.e., our next visit to a cathedral), we allow the disposition to make explicit the stored implicit information.” (Damasio, 1999). We recall not just our sensory experience during the previous visit, but our past emotional reactions. According to Damasio, this is why we can be conscious of what we recall inside of our head as much as what we actually see, hear, or touch in real time.

How can physical environments enhance lives? EDRA, or the Environmental Design Research Association, addresses this question and more at their yearly meetings and conferences where they discuss up and coming advances in the world of all things environmental design and architecture. Some new and present ideas that have been and are becoming addressed are “when are open plan work environments appropriate? What is the psychological experience of working in a green building? How do the aesthetic elements in a hospital room influence immune system performance? What classroom design features enhance elementary school age children’s academic performance? How about high schoolers? Adults?” (Augustin, 2010)

These issues are very important to attend to and present the beginnings of a new architectural revolution, way of thinking and design. Implementing these findings into an evidence-based design that is founded on and around humans is what this research is illuminating. They are advancing architecture, humans, our perceptions and fundamental understandings of design and the built environment. These concepts include and affect psychologists, architects, sociologists, interior designers, landscape architects, urban planners, anthropologists, and other place-focused professional. (Augustin, 2010)

III. Bringing Nature into Architecture

Why would it be important for a worker, for instance, to feel nature while in their office? Wouldn’t it hamper productivity? Office environments are so predictable. They rarely change. They are not interactive. They don’t have seasons in the same way nature does. Perhaps an office environment should have elements that change color at different points in the year, to complement and expose whatever actual season it happens to be (winter, spring, summer or fall) — — thus, changing the workers moods. In the winter, colors could be calming and happy; while, in the summer, colors could be cooling and refreshing. This would serve to unify the office team atmosphere in addition to livening up dreary winter months and “de-stressing” busy summer months.

When humans look upwards they usually experience a sense of awe. Another awe producer that still manages to effect humans with amazement is the natural environment. Architecture must support and aid to the exploration of mankind’s desire to reconnect to the earth, through the built environment. Often referred to as ‘natural architecture’, it aims to create a new, more harmonious, relationship between man and nature by exploring what it means to design with nature in mind.

This new form of biomimicry design aims to capture the harmonious connection we seek with nature by merging humanity and nature through architecture. The core concept of the movement is that mankind can live harmoniously with nature, using it for our needs while respecting its importance by applying design models nature has already laid out for us; we can live closely intertwined with the natural environment.

IV. Architectural Building for All the Senses

Can architecture expand the human senses? When planning one must make sure that design around and for the senses is not ignored, but incorporated. All too often, architectural designs rely more heavily on just one primary sense — the visual one. The other senses are unfortunately frequently neglected. This is ill-fated since it is through the senses that architecture can have profound effect. As the human body moves, sees, smells, touches, hears and even tastes within a space it causes the architecture to come to life. (Lehman, 2010)

Architectural building for all the senses can serve to move occupants and elevate their experience. “Architectural space is about layering for all of the senses. Like a musical composition, spatial features come together into a symphony for occupants to experience. By engaging all of the senses, form and function may be more fully expressed so occupants can have deeper, more meaningful moments, interactions and experiences in the designed space.” (Eberhard 2004)

All too often, architectural designs rely more heavily on just one primary sense — the visual one. The other senses are unfortunately frequently neglected. This is unfortunate since it is through the senses that architecture can have profound effect.

V. The Social Ordering of Space

Architecture can influence how people interact with each other through the social ordering of space. This influence can be minimal by encouraging mingling or informal interaction through placement of objects in the interior of buildings, such as water coolers. At the other extreme, architecture, such as that of a prison, can serve to restrict movements of individuals and their ability to interact with others, and effectively dominate individuals.

“Considering how architecture can affect informal social interaction leads us to consider the stronger role that architecture plays on our conceptions of personal space and territoriality.” (Eberhard 2004)

Our built environment can be structured to encourage or discourage social interactions.

A simple example of this is that hallways tend to discourage social interaction, while circular rooms tend to encourage social interaction. It is recognized that elements such as common stairwells, the placement of water coolers, and front porches can all facilitate social interaction.

The same principles of influencing social interaction, but on a larger scale, can be seen in the “New Urbanist” movement. This movement counters the current trend of American suburbs, which feature sprawl as well as the separation of functions through zoning. The New Urbanist movement seeks to create cities and neighborhoods that encourage social interaction and civic engagement with the goal of developing stronger communities. Some ways they achieve this is through the creation of interaction by designing compact neighborhoods with a mixture of activities and buildings often referred to as ‘mixed use’ properties and spaces.

Our built environment can affect social ordering by interacting with our perceptions of personal space and territory. “The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it was within the police power of the legislature to determine that a built community has design and aesthetic limitations. The said community model is described as having beautiful, healthy, spacious, clean, well balanced and carefully patrolled spaces.” (De Young 2010)

There are many ways in which specific and unique design of spaces can, using the workforce as an example, amplify workers’ conduct, behavior and productivity by redesigning the concept of the individual office and instead promote the use of open-plan cubicles. Environmental psychologist, Irwin Altman, argues that this design will not truly meet our privacy needs. Instead, he argues that privacy is a process whereby a person sometimes wants to be separated and at other times wants to be in contact with other people. Consequently, designing spaces that permit little interaction will not provide privacy. So instead of having a room set aside for solitude, Altman argues for building environments that are responsive and able to meet our changing privacy needs. This allows an easy alteration for either getting together with people or for creating separation. Design and spatial flexibility is a reoccurring theme that architects must confront and apply to their designs and design processes. This concept can help with the minority and favoritism platform by equalizing the people.

The gendered nature of the built environment can also reinforce and reproduce social classifications through the same designs and principles commonly observed. This is especially evident in the spatial segregation of women in the workplace, with areas for males and females. For example, nearly one-third of all women work in teaching, nursing, or secretarial work. These jobs are characterized as “open-floor” occupations where the women have little control over their space and privacy. In contrast, higher status managerial “man-work” occurs behind closed doors that provide privacy and control over their work.

These spatial conditions allow men have greater control of knowledge and resources. Thus, the “gendered nature of these spaces affects the ability of women to access knowledge and engage in activities that would allow them to gain power and privilege.” (Katyal, 1993) If women and men don’t share the same workplace and if the workplace isn’t designed for a communal interaction of different genders and minority types, these workers do not receive information that can be translated into higher status or wages, for example. The result is that spatial segregation reinforces and reproduces lower status work for minorities.

A second example considers that until recently the urban environment discriminated against those with physical disability and limited their mobility. This limited their access to other people, employment, and fundamentally, to knowledge. “Over the last fifty years, society has recognized this built-in bias and has reshape the built environment through laws, regulations and building codes to that ensure disabled people can better participate in society.” (Spain 1992)

These changes, seen in the passage of the 1990 American with Disabilities Act, which required employers, businesses open to the public, government services to ensure accessibility largely through architectural modification. Some of these changes include ramps and curb-cuts, railings and other support systems, the use of lever handles, instead of doorknobs, and adding raised markings on elevator controls for the visually impaired.

VI. Conclusion

This article provides ideas and ways for thinking about all the varied ways in which architecture can regulate and effect. It includes how architecture functions in a communicative role; how architecture affects social interaction or ordering; how it effects behaviors, perceptions and interactions in human beings and how architecture can be biased to favor certain groups or interests. This insight is practical for scholars and professionals within architecture and behavioral sciences. Additionally, these insights may be applicable in fields outside of architectural planning. In sum, this work was meant to shift the readers view and understanding of both physical and virtual architecture in its many forms.

The purpose of my research was to break down cultural, physical and mental barriers and perceptions. We must unite all humans together, under this one roof.

Originally published at

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Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.

Program Manager @ Google. I write stories around: Design, Community, Product, Sustainability, Philosophy, Work, Career.