Architecture’s brief love affair with psychology is overdue a revival

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Architecture’s brief love affair with psychology is overdue a revival
London’s sprouting: how plans for 230 new skyscrapers could affect the skyline. // © HayesDavidson
Architecture’s brief love affair with psychology is overdue a revival
London’s sprouting: how plans for 230 new skyscrapers could affect the skyline. // © HayesDavidson

There was a time when architects and construction companies were keen to engage psychologists. This was the 1970s, an era defined by the landmark book Psychology for Architects. It spawned the whole field of environmental psychology, dedicated to understanding how people interact with the buildings and spaces around them.

After a few years, however, designers lost interest – not just in the UK but across the world. We’ve now reached the point where it’s quite strange to find psychologists working alongside architects. They might still be engaged on aspects of a project, such as ergonomics, mobility or health and safety, but building designs are rarely fully psychology-proofed.

By the time people finally qualify as architects, they have studied so much about understanding end users that psychologists might seem more like a threat than a benefit. This means that the needs of end users are not properly taken into account – or in the case of public buildings, only in a post-occupancy evaluation, where the team responsible explains how the building fulfilled the brief. By this stage, major changes are impossible.

To see the results in practice, look no further than the announcement earlier this year that London is planning another 230 towers in its skyline with little consultation. It is strange to read about this ambition in spite of all the clear evidence from psychological studies about the behavioural consequences of cramming people together. It looks like a complete failure of common sense, a modern successor to past psychological building blunders like the Red Road flats in Glasgow; Butterburn and Bucklemucker in Dundee; and London’s Milton Court. All have either been demolished or are on the way down. []

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