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The hidden ways that architecture affects the way you feel (bbc.com)
62 points by pmcpinto on June 9, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

> Another VR study, published this year, concluded that most people feel better in rooms with curved edges and rounded contours than in sharp-edged rectangular rooms – though (tellingly perhaps) the design students among the participants preferred the opposite.

I always wondered why rooms tend to be rectangular pretty much all over the world. Googling for that suggests that it's a price thing, but I'm not convinced, since expensive homes still seem to prefer rectangular rooms.

Even contemporary buildings, with extremely weird and non-uniform facades, still tend to be grid-based on the inside.

I would be really interested if this preference study was also done in the real world, not just in VR.

Another related universal thing, why do we sleep with the head towards the wall (as opposed to the center of the room). Googling suggests a deep security measure, since the wall prevents attacks from behind you, which are the hardest to defend against.

Feng-shui deals with these kind of issues, if you move beyond the superstitious layer (have a turtle for money, ...)

By reading feng-shui books I learned to get a bit more intune with my inner feelings (the chi/qi), so now, if I sit in a room with no apparent exit, or with a cluttered path to the exit, I can pin point the insecurity feelings emanating from my subconscious.

When you're trying to put furniture in the room, trying to fit something with a rectangular base in a room with a rectangular plan is much easier than any other similar problem while minimizing the likelihood of having any wasted space.

Plus, it's also much easier to change the configuration of the room, or to transfer one piece of furniture from one room to another. So even if people weren't just lazy about how to fit perfectly pentagonal furniture in their houses, so long as they were trying and testing new shapes, furniture would probably evolutionarily converge to something squareish.

No, I don't agree. Where did you get this idea? Did you see Antoni Gaudí's organic arcitecture in Barcelona? I find them so soothing. I think our rectangular inclinations stems mostly from what we can afford.

If I were to speculate, I would guess that it's a usage-of-volume thing. It's easy to make effective use of volume with grids, but not always as easy with other shapes.

Architecture is, at some level, a packing problem. Packing problems tend to favor lines and corners over organic curves.

It's the building structure too, they're easier to design and construct using a repeating structural module. Each column supports the same area, each area has the same design loads, and you get a bunch of identical columns in a line.

And then you need to arrange rooms and corridors around those columns, and it's much more convenient to not have random columns dropping through the middle of most rooms. So you align your walls on the column grid, and now you have a bunch of straight walls and 90 degree angles.

To some degree it goes the other way (I need my rooms to be X by Y, design column grid to match), and you still do rectangular rooms because you know that way you can push your column gridlines into the walls. And it's not perfectly consistent, your central corridor might fall in an off-module grid width. But one way or another most modern buildings are on a grid like that.

One aspect of living in very old buildings in Europe (buildings more than 150 years old) is that no corner is 90°, no ceiling is completely flat, no door is standard size.

This makes for very cosy flats which are very much liked and in demand. It also makes for very good acoustics, unlike modern flat and hard walls/ceilings.

And yet people in charge here still build "modern" buildings, even when we have known for the past 50 years that this kind of building never make people feel part of a community, which is so important for society.

I guess it's a lot cheaper to build square angles, then 'organic' shapes.

Just a guess, though.

You don't need "organic shapes" to build a house with non 90-degree angles. Just make sure to steal your carpenter's square and his level before he starts.

Other commenters replied to you pointing out the difficulty of packing things in non-grid based space, but they are only a manifestations of the fundamental reason, which is cost: it is much cheaper to build straight walls, and the furniture for straight walls can be mass made, which also makes it much cheaper. Furniture for non-straight spaces usually needs to be custom made.

I work for an apartment development company. To build round walls would be prohibitively expensive and impractical. Every part of your pipeline from building materials to tools to furniture is designed for linear-walled rooms.

Furniture is definitely an issue.

When I was in Singapore in the early 90s, I remember my family looking at a rental unit in the Draycott towers. It was super cool looking, but lack of places for furniture to go is what nixed it.

For the curious... exterior and interior:



Variations on octagonal rooms could be a good approximation. For example, bay windows are practically a way to achieve a similar effect, without departing from a rectangle structure too much.

Rooms are rectangular because human brains find it simpler to map, I think. The order and structure involved means you can treat things much more interchangeably - for instance, the available directions for travel don't change as you move around in a rectangular grid, and rooms are all the same shape.

The only reasonable alternative is a regular hexagonal tiling, and that means having more neighboring rooms, which gives its own problems.

Best article I know about the rectangularity issue is this, by Philip Steadman: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/13217/1/13217.pdf

Think of all the things that are flat and straight... boards, wires, pipes, furniture, etc. It's easy to fit flat to flat. If things are curved, you need to match angles and curves everywhere using flat shapes.

I agree in regards to intricate façades, which I tend to find beautiful and inspiring, particularly Beaux Arts style. I'm actually a bit bummed that small, intricate details seem to have gone out of fashion in today's architecture. Some newer buildings may be interesting at the macro-level, but still feel lacking when it comes to small details.

I also feel that way about residential architecture, where intricate façades seem to have faded away in newer homes. Even grotesque McMansions feel comparatively tame in comparison to say, an Edwardian or Brownstone style home.

Pointing cost as a reason made sense back then, but now feels counterintuitive, as we have so many more materials and ways to mass produce intricate details today that we did back then - 3D printing, CNC, etc. - I don't see why a Victorian style neighborhood couldn't be built today without the intensive labor costs it used to take to make those details that make those homes so beautiful.

I'm with you. I've thought a lot about how technology could be used to increase the amount of detail in architecture (rather than decrease it), but I'm not a designer, and my daydreams never go anywhere (I think you just can't beat old brownstones and 17th century Dutch houses. They're not even that ornate, but the quality of materials were high). New construction in my city looks like cardboard boxes taped together, and that's for a $1,000,000 house.

Maybe it's the intensive labor that made them valuable in the first place, as signifiers of wealth. Now that intricate details can be mass produced inexpensively, minimalism is in vogue.

If the façade is complex and interesting, it affects people in a positive way; negatively if it is simple and monotonous

Humans prefer humanistic architecture, with fractal visual complexity and natural materials. Modernism tossed it all out, then the post modernists recognized that that was a horrible mistake, but decided it was too uncool to just go back to what people actually liked.

If you are interested in a short US-centric read on how the whole thing went down, read this:


Post WW2 architects have a lot of human unhappiness to answer for.

Not an architecture expert, so maybe somebody can help me out, but the early modern architecture was often still complex and humane (I'm thinking 1930s - Amsterdam School and WPA post offices). Only later did modernism become an excuse for big, cheap, and ugly.

Modernism -- i.e., the Bauhaus, the International Style, and Le Corbusier -- was always about big, cheap, and ugly. The Amsterdam School was Expressionist, not Modernist; and nothing's more anti-Modernist than a pretty painting on a wall, even if it's in a visually arresting 1930s style.

But that said, the Amsterdam School and the WPA work were beautiful, and I'd never heard of them before. Thank you for mentioning them! I'll be sure to look into both in a lot more detail.


The treatment of Christopher Alexander by the architecture faculty at Berkeley is very high on my "Why I don't donate to Cal as an alumni" list.

My first few thoughts on reading this:

1. Cool, I've always wondered the same thing whenever I visit DC. I wonder what it would be like to walk to/from work with big, grand architecture all around and if it would change my mindset if I saw it every day, it certainly does when I visit.

2. While its interesting to consider, this feels like an optimization for a system we don't even have working yet. There are so many ills to deal with in our societies that I feel like its not something that is worth spending much public time or effort on (research it all you want by all means). I hate to feel that way because when people deride NASA/space research/pure research it frustrates me because they aren't mutually exclusive with solving earth problems (fix our planet before we try to go to mars!), but I can't help but feel like this could mostly improve life for people who are already living pretty good too. I'm conflicted about actually putting this into practice.

On your second point, the poor suffer from Modernist architecture. The projects actively bred crime, by encouraging isolation and demoralization -- Pruitt-Igoe was actually dynamited, and its inhabitants were much more peaceful and civilized after they were moved to normal housing. (And they'd been much more peaceful and civilized before being moved into Pruitt-Igoe, too.)

The rich, and the prosperous upper-middle class, can live where they like and enjoy traditional architecture (look up New Traditional construction), but ordinary people are stuck with ordinary buildings, which are awful under a Modernist regime -- or under our current Postmodernist regime of cheap pull-up sheds adorned with ticky-tacky.

Interesting, do you think modernist architecture itself breeds problems or do you think the economic conditions bred the crime? I get the feeling that the architecture was used in some cases specifically to group together people that they wanted to get away from the upper and/or middle classes and consolidate together, but I wonder how much of that can be attributed to the actual architecture itself. I don't feel like we can know that until we have a more equal society or at least one where straight poverty isn't as much of an issue.

I really do blame the architecture, not the economic conditions, which were more or less constant before, during, and after Pruitt-Igoe. (And I certainly don't blame race, which was also constant before, during, and after Pruitt-Igoe...)

From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruitt%E2%80%93Igoe), Pruitt-Igoe was a slum-clearance project, intended to provide more hygienic, healthier, cleaner, less crowded, and generally better living conditions for people who were already living in the area. The hope was that it would integrate its inhabitants better into the economy, and help everyone living there -- both black and white -- to get ahead in life. The project was actually really well racially integrated for 1950s Missouri: blacks lived in buildings named for Pruitt (a black ace pilot in WWII), whites in buildings named for Igoe (a white Congresscritter), but they were all in the same vicinity. Presumably this reflected the composition of the slums Pruitt-Igoe was replacing, since the inhabitants of the old neighborhood (called DeSoto-Carr) were moved into Pruitt-Igoe as the old buildings were torn down. (No need to pity them for being expropriated: the inhabitants didn't own the buildings, and slumlords don't deserve much sympathy.)

And, strikingly enough, the initial design for the neighborhood would have been a success. High rises aren't the Devil when they're integrated into the urban fabric (otherwise present-day Manhattan would be a nightmare); Pruitt-Igoe was meant to be a mix of high-rises, mid-rises, and two- to four-storey walk-ups, until cost cutting came into play and they ended up with towers in a park.

Since the same people had the same economic conditions before, during, and after Pruitt-Igoe, and since they committed more crimes during Pruitt-Igoe than before or after, I think it's fair to say that the architecture, not the economic conditions, was at fault.

I have a similar theory that bad posture causes depression.

Ithaca, NY, may not have the most remarkable architecture, but I am always amazed at how beautiful the city looks from the hilltops.

Crucially, there are few buildings above two stories in the many blocks between the downtown area and the south shores of Cayuga Lake. There are so many trees in between that one could be forgiven for thinking that a major section of the city is little more than a forest or a densely wooded park, when viewed from above.

The UC Davis "Death Star" [0] is one of those buildings, it was meant to encourage human interaction but ends up just building dread. Terrible building.


I'm actually a fan of the Death Star. For me, it was one of those places where you could turn a corner and get a completely different perspective. And it was decently fun to LARP in. I was in the sciences so I never spent much time there, but I like the uniqueness of the building. I just wish it was a little more unique, using other colors and textures than plain gray concrete.

That's a shame. I actually really like skyways and stuff like that, but to deliberately make it confusing is inexcusable.

Anyone interested in this subject matter would be smart to consult Gaston Bachelard's seminal work 'Poetics of Space'

For anyone creating in VR, this book should be required reading. But, I haven't heard anyone working in VR acknowledge it. My background is in art, and I have held this book as just short of sacred throughout my practice.

Mentioned at the end of the article is desire path and of course there is an active subreddit with tons of awesome pictures: https://www.reddit.com/r/DesirePath/top/?sort=top&t=all

One should read The Nature of Order by Chris Alexander and / or The Timeless Way of Building

Am I the only one who read the article in the voice of Roman Mars?

I read your comment in his voice

I’ve been reading a book called The Edifice Complex by Deyan Sudjic that is related to this idea. I’m only part way through, but it’s already provided some fascinating examples of how very powerful individuals have used architecture, often to an extreme degree, to intimidate and to project authority when others have come to visit them.

"Happy City" (mentioned in the article) is a terrific book, and surprisingly down-to-earth.

I'm tempted to send this to my boss in support of redesigning our 90s-esque cubicle farm.

This is why earth buildings can be so healing psychologically.

So, what I'm reading is: "Architects to phase in eye-candy as they find out bare walls to be unedifying".

Is this an overly cynical reading of the article?

Bare walls plus eye candy just gives you Postmodernism, which isn't much of an improvement over Modernism. The goal is to build genuinely smaller buildings, or buildings with a wider range of uses. (Think of how the Empire State Building has shops on the first few floors and offices above, and its stepped-back construction lets it blend in with more standard six-storey facades.)

Diverse urban landscapes is something that I can get behind, but the issue (as I see it) is that there's something else at play here. Mixed-use, for instance, is already well justified as an urban policy by contemporary urban economics. Designing streets in such a way that they're easier to navigate is something that is already well motivated by contemporary behavioral agent-based modelling of urban landscapes (besides being an idea which is probably as old as urban planning itself).

It's the idea of some immediate psychological response to the environment like that of the stress level of a passerby to a facade that bothers me, because it reminds me too much of stuff which IMO hasn't been particularly useful in urban planning, such as the broken windows theory. There's no immediate inference that can be made from the immediate psychological response of a passerby to the behavioral response of a urban population to the same environment over long periods of time. There plenty of neighborhoods in this world that might look like shit but which aren't actually shit, and most often neither do the plainer houses in a given neighborhood house people any worse than their neighbors. But in so far as lots of money might be wasted trying to "solve" these issues, the whole idea to me sounds to me like a massive red herring.

Massive blank facades, of the sort that this study condemns, can't occur in a diverse, mixed-use urban landscape; so I think this study has gotten to the right answer.

Still, I see your point: are they getting to the right answer in the right way? I like the idea of breaking up blank facades, but I agree with your point that an area can look ugly or frightening to an outsider but fairly pleasant to a local -- and that if this way of doing things grows beyond the blank-facades question, it could become a serious problem.

American buildings always feel a little odd to me. My guess is that this is related to them using feet and inches and not the metric system.

I'm not sure I understand your assertion here. How would unit of measure make a difference to the feel?

And, I'm assuming this same oddness of feel extends to older buildings pretty much everywhere?

I think they're suggesting a subconscious perception of the subtle differences in sizes that result from building with round numbers in metric vs imperial (e.g. 1 meter is different than 3 feet). This is interesting, but seems less likely than the more dramatic differences in architectural styles, materials, regulations, and zoning.

Paper sizes might be a better example of this since the only difference is the dimensions. Something about the relative dimensions of A4 paper just looks nicer to me.

(I know the ISO sizes are based on the golden ratio, but I think this probably has more to do with me being a lawyer practicing in the United States. PerhapsUS-Letter and Legal sizes subconsciously read as "work" to me and A4 reads as exotic.)

  > the ISO sizes are based on the golden ratio
No, 1:√2. (A golden rectangle divides into a golden rectangle plus a square; an ISO rectangle divides into two ISO rectangles.)

I meant to scope in my question more. Does it feel like houses are too tall/short, narrow/wide? I can understand that there would be differences, but I would be surprised to know that they were noticeable.

And again, it would not be limited to just US houses, would it? Specifically, are most buildings in older EU cities built to metric specifications?

The proportions and standard lengths are all slightly different. For example, standard US fences are 3 feet high, but standard EU fences are 1 meter high. This is a noticeable, but not striking difference.

It's like using letter paper format instead of A4, it also feels a little odd to me.

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