• Friday , 17 November 2017

Investigating the link between architecture and the social sciences

Jan Gehl observed that people tended to sit along the edges of spaces, with their back protected and with an unobstructed view of the adjacent space.

Jan Gehl observed that people tended to sit along the edges of spaces, with their back protected and with an unobstructed view of the adjacent space.

There are many potential benefits that may be gained from investigating the link between architecture and the social sciences. Numerous research papers suggest that the design of the built environment has a significant effect on our mental health and wellbeing.1

The discovery of new ways to apply knowledge from the fields of sociology, psychology and evolutionary psychology to the sphere of design and architecture could result in a number of benefits, possibly leading to improvements in social interaction and spaces that respond better to people’s inherent psychological preferences.

There are many potential links between architecture and the social sciences that could be further exploited:

The principles of evolutionary psychology can be used to explain many aspects of how buildings and public spaces are used, such as our psychological reaction to nooks and crannies or why people are more likely to behave a certain way in certain types of spaces. In his 1971 book Life Between Buildings, urbanist Jan Gehl noted 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,’2 while William H. Whyte’s instructional film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces observed that people did not often stop to talk at the centre of a large open square, preferring to try to find an object to stand beside, or to pause at the edges of the space.3 Both of these largely-unconscious behaviours are important to note when designing public spaces, and can be explained due to the influence of evolved cognitive mechanisms and preferences passed down from our distant ancestors, where sitting or standing in a sheltered space with a view of your surroundings meant safety and comfort from fears of predators and rival tribes.4

'Personal space' - image depicts the minimum distances for individual comfort.

‘Personal space’ – image depicts the minimum distances for individual comfort.

Principles from sociology and proxemics – the study of the cultural, behavioural and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals5 – can be applied to elements of architectural design such as seating, in order to create places that aim to encourage social interaction and to increase personal comfort in crowded situations. In order to encourage the occurrence of social interaction between adjacent individuals, physical proximity is important,6 and should allow for adequate spacing between seats to avoid the invasion of peoples’ personal space. For example, physical barriers between seats in the form of wide armrests could create a distinction between sitters’ personal spaces while ensuring that they are comfortable and close enough for unplanned relationships to take place. Creating a visual connection between seats can be another way to prompt social interaction.

Proxemics - spaced seating versus typical airport seating.

Proxemics – spaced seating versus typical airport seating.

There are many more methods by which the social sciences could be applied to the discipline of architecture. Theories and research from developmental psychology could be used to help design play environments that are more attuned to children’s developmental needs, while findings from the disciplines of psychology and medicine might be applied to healthcare environments in order to further encourage the recovery of their occupants.

For now, it appears that a closer investigation of the links between architecture and the social sciences has revealed a number of beneficial lessons, with many more yet to be discovered.

 

[1] T Lavin, C Higgins, O Metcalfe, A Jordan, Health Impacts of the Built Environment: A Review, Institute of Public Health in Ireland, 2006, p22
J Evert, P Drain, T Hall, Developing Global Health Programming, Global Health Collaborations Press, 2014, p. 274
F Bannon, in Landscape, Well-Being and Environment, eds R Cole and Z Millman, Routledge, 2013

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

[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] I Silverman, J Choi, “Locating Places” in The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, (ed. D Buss), New Jersey, John Wiley and Sons, 2005, p. 192 and
J Appleton, The Experience of Landscapes, Great Britain, William Clowes and Sons, 1975

[5] B N Vis, Built Environments, Constructed Societies: Inverting Spatial Analysis, Leiden, Sidestone Press, 2009, p.42

[6] M Kaufman, J oettlieb, J Agard, M B Kukic, “Mainstreaming: Towards an explication of the construct” in Alternatives for teaching exceptional children (ed. E L Meyer), Denver, Love Publishing, 1975 p. 40-47

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