A design for life: the psychology of architecture

With 21st century design and liveability challenges growing, should architects be paying more attention to psychologists to get a better idea of users’ needs? A return to interdisciplinary methods and collaboration could do a world of good for the built environment, argues Dr Dörte Martens of the University for Sustainable Development.


In High-Rise, JG Ballard's bizarre and bleak 1975 novel, the author presents the worst-case scenario for an architect. The titular luxury residential tower block, for all its imposing grandeur and modern conveniences, leaves its well-heeled denizens isolated from the outside world and each other, and in short order the building descends into violence and chaos.

Ballard's vision is extreme, but not as outlandish as one might assume. Among other things, at the novel's core is a truth about the relationship between humans and the buildings we live in, work in and even walk through. Our minds can't help but take influence from our immediate surroundings, and the spaces we frequent - whether natural or built - have the potential to lift our spirits or provoke anxiety and aggression.

Ballard's novel was published at an appropriate time, just as the interdisciplinary field of environmental psychology was reaching the peak of its influence in the 1970s. The field, which includes collaboration between planners, architects and psychologists to understand the needs of end users and adapt building designs to meet them, has been pushed somewhat to sidelines of the industry since its 70s heyday.

Given the challenges presented by 21st century urban design and the need to create denser living and working spaces as the process of urbanisation continues apace, there are those who advocate that environmental psychology should be playing a much larger role in the modern building design and construction sector.

One such advocate is Dr Dörte Martens, a trained psychologist and lecturer in environmental sociology at the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde, Germany, who in September 2015 co-authored an editorial for The Conversation calling for a revival of "architecture's brief love affair with psychology". Here Martens shares her insight into the psychology of architecture and the importance of always keeping the end user in mind.

CL: There is a wide range of opinions on what makes a pleasant space or structure - does that make it difficult to draw conclusions on how to incorporate psychological elements into design projects?

DM: Yes, it's a difficult process, and there are variable factors influencing it. For example, if I'm raised in a built environment or if I'm raised in a very rural area, I'm most likely to prefer different environments. Nowadays, there's a big move towards participation, so you can actually meet the needs of people coming from different cultures and backgrounds. If you integrate [people] into planning, if they are asked their opinion, it's easier to have them actually use that environment.

CL: You've written that psychology had a stronger connection with architecture in the 1970s - could you describe how psychology influenced building design during this time?

DM: I know that environmental psychology was very much developed in the 70s; before that it wasn't very popular and after that it declined a little bit as well. In the 70s, they had a real look at buildings and how buildings could influence people. There were a lot of research studies being conducted by architects and planners, as well as psychologists. You've probably heard of the famous Milgram experiment - [Stanley Milgram] did a lot of experiments in living environments as well. He looked at how likely people would be to shake hands by having a researcher walking through a neighbourhood and trying to shake hands with random strangers. What he could show was that it was influenced by the density of the buildings - so the denser the city was, the less likely the people were to shake hands. They would just ignore the researcher.

CL: By comparison, how would you characterise the relationship between psychology and architecture today?

DM: There are movements trying to integrate it. For example, there's the International Association of People-Environment Studies, consisting of psychologists and planners and geographers and architects, trying to make a link.

"People can ignore it; they can just not use it, which is a pity but the architect wouldn't mind."

But I'll give you an example that I thought was very outstanding in a negative way. In Zurich in Switzerland they built a zero-energy house for a university. It's a very beautiful house and there's a big, open middle - architecturally it's very beautiful, very avant-garde. In the hallway they put down nice sofas for the workers to sit down - apparently what happened was the researchers wanted to sit down there and wanted to put them at different angles and point sofas towards each other. They were forbidden from doing that, because the architect did the whole design, and they were not supposed to move anything at all. So the sofas were sitting there, but you couldn't really interact with the room, with the environment. So in that way, it wasn't useable.

I thought that was a striking example of the negative, because the people actually using the building weren't asked what needs they have, what kinds of meetings they have. That's probably different if you construct the same building for a research department or for an insurance company - the insurance company's customers would just sit on the sofa, not having the need to change anything, but researchers might want to sit down and think, then needing a change of scenery and sitting down in another way.

CL: In your experience, in what ways can poorly-designed buildings affect the people who live in them or pass through them? What are the risks of a design that loses sight of the end users?

DM: People can ignore it; they can just not use it, which is a pity but the architect wouldn't mind. But when it comes to housing, I've pointed out the Pruitt-Igoe [public housing project in St Louis, Missouri, which stood from 1954 until its demolition starting in 1972]. What happened there was vandalism, because the people didn't have any chance to interact with their environment, and that actually produced very high costs, vandalism and aggression between the people living there.

CL: In what ways could today's developers, design studios and planning authorities think more about the psychological/sociological impact of their projects?

DM: Architecture and planning are very interdisciplinary fields, so they should go back to that interdisciplinary framework, because there is a lot of research [on the psychological impacts of architecture]. Just to point out an everyday example, we have a school here in Berlin - it was built in 1908 and it was designed very closely with teachers and pedagogical staff. The windows are always on the left-hand side, because the students back then were supposed to write with their right hands, so the light conditions would be perfect for a right-handed student. That's changed now - left-handed people are not trained to be right-handed anymore. But still, the architects looked at the needs of the school, talked to the teachers, and had a very interdisciplinary competence. I think that needs to be integrated more often, and psychologists could play a key role here.

Talking about these housing projects, there needs to be semi-private areas, because otherwise the people are not able to have contact with their neighbours. All those sometimes tiny results, they need to be integrated. I think what could be possible would be a consultation - [architects] could talk to a professional psychologist, who could put down the results to be adapted to the specific situation of that design project.

CL: Could environmental psychology help to address the 21st century issue of developing high-density communities as cities continue to grow rapidly in population?

DM: Yeah, I strongly believe that, because there's a lot of theoretical and empirical knowledge in that area. The other point is participation in those areas - these areas are sometimes very particular in terms of what kinds of people live there, and psychologists could serve as mediators or function in the participation processes, because they are experts in that.

Another aspect I'd like to point out is environmental justice. It is coming up as a topic in Germany as well, but in the UK it's a much stronger topic because there's a larger difference between rich and poor people. In terms of design, there's a saying in the United States - "black, brown, poor and poisoned", meaning those people with a low socioeconomic status, who are often [people of colour], have inferior living conditions. For example, they have more exposure to noise and pollution than people who have better jobs, better education and so on. That's a very tense point that you have to focus on.

CL: As good as modern visualisation tools are, is there any truth to the argument that it's only possible to understand the atmosphere and 'feel' of a development after it has been built and occupied?

DM: I thought about this, and what I thought was interesting is in Switzerland there's a law that before you build a house, you have to put stakes into the ground that stick into the air and mark the corners of the building. I think that's interesting - it's very simple, and when you walk along, you can imagine how much sky, for example, or how much of the house behind that you would miss in your sight. And that's not possible with computer animation. I'm not saying the system in Switzerland allows you to imagine how the building would be, but I think it's interesting to combine both the electronic possibilities and the real possibilities. I mean, in terms of building height, seeing eight metres in comparison to the buildings next to it makes a big difference. That's a perspective of mine - I'm sure that you have to combine different methods.