Does the built environment determine our lives?Posted: September 20, 2010 | |
The American modernist architect, Richard Neutra, is supposed to have once claimed that if he were so minded, he could design a house for a happily married couple that would assure their divorce within six months. Or something like that.
While it’s possibly apocryphal, the story illustrates what many architects and urban designers think – design profoundly affects our behaviour and wellbeing.
It’s clear the built environment matters. It keeps out the rain, cold and unwanted visitors. And it’s equally obvious that some buildings, like churches, can move us in the same way a natural landscape can impress itself on us.
We know that some colours can affect our perceptions and possibly, in some circumstances, even our emotional state. And we know that all other things being equal, public spaces where there are “many eyes on the street” tend to have less crime and the “dark end of the street” can be a dangerous place. And you’re less likely to know your neighbours across the street if you live on a busy road.
We also know it’s a simple enough matter for designers to channel where people walk through urban places and where they are most likely to pause in the sunlight and take in the view or a latte.
But designers have a tendency to over-state the behavioural and social effects of the built environment. I don’t know what design strategies Neutra had in mind but it seems to me he would have failed miserably. Humans are remarkably resilient when it comes to adapting to different environments.
Confine someone alone in a small cell and they’ll eventually go bonkers, but let them voluntarily occupy a room of the same size in a university college or a monastery and they’ll be perfectly happy with it. Let them have a friend stay and they might never want to leave.
Some people choose to live happily for extended periods in caravans and in small rooms in mining towns and on oil rigs. Military personnel survive dormitories and tents. There’s been a boom in demand in inner city Melbourne for 35m2 motel size studio apartments and 40m2 one bedroom apartments.
The point is that provided the built environment isn’t totally dire, it’s the social and economic meaning we bring to those environments that really determines if we’re happy with them.
And sought-after places only occasionally owe their success primarily to the designed environment. Melbourne’s Federation Square, for example, is enhanced by northern sunlight in winter and by its iconic image, but as I’ve argued before, it owes its success primarily to factors that were determined well before the designers came on board – for example, the decision to locate the (free) Ian Potter Gallery within the complex and its premium location at the “choke point” between the CBD and the arts precinct.
A common example in my experience of where designers over-sell the importance of the built environment is the claim that providing more opportunities for strangers to interact, for example in a public place, will somehow improve the welfare of those involuntarily brought together. I’ve heard it argued that driving is anti-social because people who don’t walk or take public transport miss out on the opportunity to “interact” with others.
The trouble with this view is it assumes mere proximity equates with “interaction”. It assumes there is an optimal level of “interaction” we should have with perfect strangers and that the designers know what it is, irrespective of the immense diversity of human beings. It assumes we don’t get enough of this proximity – we need more! It assumes that people can’t sort out for themselves how much contact with strangers they want – that they couldn’t, if they were so minded, just walk into a bar, a cafe or up to a tram stop and strike up a conversation with the most promising-looking stranger.
It dismisses the idea that we might have good reasons for not talking to strangers. It assumes that we don’t already have perfectly satisfactory social networks that are constantly being extended and reconfigured, with or without new blood, depending on our individual preferences. It ignores the reality that there are already plenty of places to “interact”.
There’s a presumption that we need to meet more strangers in public circumstances, as if there aren’t already enough ways to meet new people through “filters” like work, clubs, internet, bars, parties, church, school, etc. This view doesn’t comprehend that that these sorts of filters are valuable because they reduce the search costs and lower the risks inherent in expanding our range of “interactions”.
And it assumes that simply putting people in each other’s way will work as a way of creating meaningful interactions! I think there are occasions when some designers argue their work is of profound social importance but in reality are treating people as props.
The built environment can enhance the quality of our lives but let’s not get carried away and conclude that it determines our lives. It’s actually not that long ago that so-called slums in many cities were bulldozed in favour of “the projects” because of a questionable view that a better physical environment would improve the moral lives of residents. Let’s get the influence of the physical environment on our social and psychological wellbeing in perspective.
There are other aspects of this theme I’ll pick up again another time. I haven’t talked here about location and geography, so I’ll hopefully get time to talk about that in the near future too. I’ll just take it one step at a time.