Architectural Empathy: Why Our Brains Experience Places Like People

Piazza San Pietro, Rome, the welcoming “enfolding arms” of the immensely powerful “mother” church.
Piazza San Pietro, Rome, the welcoming “enfolding arms” of the immensely powerful “mother” church.

In The Architecture of Happiness, philosopher Alain de Botton tells a persuasive story about how we tend to perceive buildings and people in similar terms – and are led by the same in-born empathy into parallel concepts using the same vocabulary. He explores how we tend to experience – his word is transubstantiate – architecture in terms of ourselves; in his words, we call things “happy” that make us happy. In addition to architecture, the idea applies equally to landscapes and cityscapes and to everyday objects that we give personalized names – like houses or boats.

The point is not, of course, that the physical places or things themselves have human feelings or qualities. What’s happening is that we explore, interpret, and come to understand them with the same sensory systems, brain structures, experience, memories, and reasoning that we use to detect the qualities and inner thoughts of people. Our encounters may be far less intense, but we respond with the same innate structures of mind, body, and language, to what’s out-there.

Essentially what’s happening is that we’re applying what we’ve learned in the primal relationships experienced within ourselves and with each other – from birth. We tend to observe and judge whether a place is muscular, hard or soft, warm or cold, welcoming or threatening in its posture, competent, graceful or awkward, retiring, boisterous, charismatic, honest. We take pleasure, too, in recognizing and relating a place to our personal values, calling into play the full range of abstractions that we use to position ourselves and each other in society – beliefs, styles, ideas, interests, status, or power.

Just as we are quick to read attitudes toward social class, religion, or ideology in human conversation, we find them in the modest good manners of Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square, or, at another extreme, the militant grandiosity of a crusader’s castle. The halo effect comes into play too, when one outstanding fragment or quality casts its glow, for better or worse, over the whole person/place. Finally, we make emotional judgments: Do we resonate with love and desire, detest, or envy the kind of personality that we read into this place? Does it echo or reflect our values and tastes or reject them? Again, in this sense, we, ourselves, are the primary contexts that give a place “meaning.” […]