Misunderstanding architecture and London’s great expansion

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Isokon building in Hampstead, designed by Wells Coates
Isokon building in Hampstead, designed by Wells Coates

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Isokon building in Hampstead, designed by Wells Coates
Isokon building in Hampstead, designed by Wells Coates

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill’s famous phrase was uttered after the House of Commons was destroyed in the Blitz. But is it true? How does architecture affect our moods or behaviour? Certainly, inhabiting a windowless black box is a very different experience from lying on a verandah overlooking a beach, but would, for instance, a horseshoe debating chamber really be less adversarial than Westminster’s facing benches?

A few years ago the popular philosopher Alain de Botton released a book in which he tried to persuade us that better aesthetics make us better people. Tell that to Donald Trump, making decisions amid the perfect proportions of the Oval Office.

Headspace is the latest attempt to link what we build with what we do. It’s an important question — an architectural holy grail, in a way. If you know that designing X will make Y happen that’s really useful. Unfortunately, it is largely illusory beyond some obvious basics.

Paul Keedwell is a celebrity psychologist with a side interest in architecture. His book is full of references to obscure experiments of the following type: 19 students at a university in Jordan were shown photos of interiors and more women than men preferred the smaller windows, which “proves”, apparently, that women want homes that are more secure. Another test on 67 men found that they were calmer in the presence of paintings of trees and bushes. These are a mash-up of the actual experiments quoted, but you get the drift. […]

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