• Sunday , 21 April 2019

Could evolutionary psychology be applicable to architectural design?

Then and now: children's innate preferences for nooks and crannies that offer refuge remains unchanged.

Then and now: children’s innate preferences for nooks and crannies that offer refuge remains unchanged.

An important tenet of evolutionary psychology is that, while upbringing and genetic differences do make a difference, many behaviours such as aggression, altruism, sociability and various dislikes and fears can also be explained as being influenced by cognitive mechanisms handed down to us from our distant ancestors.

But how is that in any way relevant to architecture?

In fact, these ancient mechanisms can influence how we respond, often unconsciously, to certain aspects of the built environment.[1] They can predispose us towards learning certain types of behaviours or associations over others; and can thus influence how comfortable or uncomfortable we might be standing in the centre of a wide open space, or how we might feel in dark, tight, narrow spaces.[2]

Previously as part of the AI Extra series I discussed how evolutionary psychology could be used to explain phenomena such as people’s tendency to rarely stop and talk at the centre of a large open square, instead preferring to pause at the edges. [3] Similarly, reference was made to Jan Gehl’s observation that ‘the most popular places to sit can be found at the edges of open spaces, where the sitter’s back is protected and the view unobstructed.’[4]

So perhaps an understanding of evolutionary psychology and of our genetic predispositions could help explain many other aspects of how buildings and public spaces are used, and could be applied to architectural design in order to encourage the creation of spaces and places that are more attuned to people’s evolved psychological preferences. Important elements of shelter, protection from behind and the breaking down of large, open spaces can be seen in various projects- a sunken garden in the Tianjin Bridged Gardens provides an enclosed and intimate space within the wider public space of the gardens, while the Open Air Library in Germany by KARO Architekten forms a solid, protective edge to the public space in front of it, creating a sense of shelter and comfort and allowing its users to congregate at its edge, while simultaneously giving a view of what is happening on the street.

Sunken garden space in Tianjin Bridged Gardens, designed by Turenscape Design Institute

Sunken garden space in Tianjin Bridged Gardens, designed by Turenscape Design Institute.

 

Open Air Library, Germany, by KARO Architekten.

Open Air Library, Germany, by KARO Architekten.

Theories from evolutionary psychology could also be applicable to the design of housing. Humans are, above all, social animals.[5] We have evolved to live in groups, yet we also continue to exhibit an innate territoriality.[6] This suggests that in housing design it is important to design a variety of spaces in order to cater for these contrasting innate needs. Social spaces are vital in order to encourage social interaction between neighbours, yet at the same time, there should exist thresholds that can be claimed or adapted by the occupant, as well as the provision of a moderate degree of visual and acoustic privacy between dwellings.

Different ways of claiming a part of the street: -the Amsterdam stoop reaching out onto the street (left), or planters and benches placed outside the front door by the occupants (right).

Different ways of claiming a part of the street: the Amsterdam stoop reaching out onto the street (left), or planters and benches placed outside the front door by the occupants (right).

Children also engage in territorial behaviours, staking out geographical spaces, objects and people as one’s own.[7] And yet over the past decades, children’s playspaces and radius of mobility have shrunk considerably.[8] Less and less consideration is shown for the play needs of children, alongside the growing exclusion of children from public space.[9] Thus both children and teenagers would greatly benefit from having access to various in-between spaces that could be colonised and as their own for their play and socialising needs.

Hertzberger's school projects often created nooks and crannies for children to claim as their own.

Hertzberger’s school projects often created nooks and crannies for children to claim as their own.

To cater for children’s territorial behaviours and their innate preferences for enclosed spaces that offer refuge,[10] the present-day urban environment should provide sheltered and semi-sheltered spaces for children to play outdoors, and public buildings or housing could be designed with intimate niches for children’s play and colonisation.

Thus it seems that there are many various ways in which theories from evolutionary psychology could possibly be applied to architectural design in order to help create buildings, public spaces and places that are in tune with our innate evolved psychological preferences and that cater for the needs of both adults and children.

 

[1]  M Jacobs, “Psychology of the visual landscape” in Exploring the Visual Landscape: Advances in Physiognomic Landscape Research (eds S Nijhuis, R Van Lammeren, F van der Hoeve), Amsterdam, The Netherlands: IOS Press. 2011, p.43

[2]   N Redshaw, B Redshaw, Anxiety Disorder, Addictive Behaviour and Research Methods, Lulu, 2012, p.16

[3]  The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces [motion picture], Director W. H. Whyte, The Municipal Art Society of New York, New York, 1979

[4]  J Gehl, Life between buildings : using public space, Copenhagen: Danish Architectural Press, 2006, p. 156

[5]  L Barrett, R Dunbar, J Lycett, Human Evolutionary Psychology, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002

[6]  R B Taylor, Human Territorial Functioning: An Empirical, Evolutionary Perspective on Individual and Small Group Territorial Cognitions, Behaviors, and Consequences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988

[7]  N K Denzin, Children and their Caretakers, New Brunswick, Transaction Books, 1973, p.107

[8]  A Social Portrait of Children in Ireland, The Economic and Social Research Institute, 2007

[9]  M Carmona, Public Spaces, Urban Spaces: The Dimensions of Urban Design, Oxford, Architectural Press, 2010, p. 161

[10]  M A Kirkby, ‘Nature as Refuge in Children’s Environments’ in Children’s Environments Quarterly, Vol. 6:1, 1989

 

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