On The Psychology Of Architecture

During my time as an undergraduate in civil (structural) engineering I had the opportunity to take some classes that were not strictly in civil engineering. Included in that was a tremendously interesting course on the history of architecture. As it happens, one of my fellow teachers majored in fashion and interior design, and so she had to study architecture from a different angle herself. Architecture is a good place to examine the limits of human control over the behavior of other people.

For example, when I studied urban geography I researched two towns built by Disney that attempted to combine ersatz fine architecture with social control. One of these towns, Celebration, combined 1950’s style front porches and fairly dingy back alleys for parking and trash pickup with strange property and voting arrangements that allowed Disney to control the town’s operation and make it a real company town. The second town was Old Town, a very large and Disney-designed community for oldsters that resembled nothing so much as a European turn of the 20th century retirement community.

In both cases, especially in Celebration, there were limits to the control that designing a city could bring. Despite the intentional bias toward front porch greetings, Disney found that people did not feel comfortable socializing casually in the big front porch areas and instead would feel more comfortable socializing in the dingy back alleys near the garages. Disney didn’t plan on that, but human beings behave far differently than we might think, even if we are trying to design a particular sort of behavior through the way we arrange elements within a community or building.

The same is true in buildings. We may try to bias flow in specific directions, but that does not stop the way people are going to move. Nor can we force people to slow down in certain areas where we want them to pause. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of buildings were built with “community bowls” that were carved out of areas with the intention that people would like to sit there. Unfortunately for them, it was found that people in the United States (understandably) did not like sitting below others. We will sit happily on the stairs above the crowd, but we do not like sitting below them. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Oftentimes we are intoxicated with our own cleverness and skills at design and do not recognize just how stubborn the channels of our natures as human beings are (natures that to some extent vary based on personality or culture or family history, of course). Sometimes we think that if we design and construct a better world that we can induce people to behave better. Unfortunately, there are limits to what we can control. If we force people to live in giant buildings instead of having personal property, we cannot force people to become a genuine community, we just teach them to disrespect personal space and disregard personal property rights. We may raise a generation of socialists, but that does not make a community or a village, no matter what we think.

Building a community is a difficult task. It is easy to design common areas and common spaces in a building or neighborhood or city, but it is not easy to make sure that those places perform their designed function. We are adept, after all, at using features in unexpected ways. For example, the city parks of the small town where I grew up had a reputation of being hangouts for drug users and all kinds of perverts, not exactly a place that would encourage children to play securely and peacefully. What had been designed for children to play happily ended up serving as a trap for unwary and unwise young people. The designed community space had become corrupted by sin and turned into a ‘private’ place where the majority of people felt uncomfortable. It’s just another of the many tragedies of the commons, tragedies because people do not always or often behave properly in the commons.

Again, we as designers often feel intoxicated by our godlike powers of control, but all too often our designs fail because we do not recognize the (often perverse) freewill of the people we are attempting to control through our designs of social structures, buildings, or urban design. Part of the reason we fail is because we often fail to respect just how ingrained our habits and natures are within us, and how gradually they must be changed. Too abrupt of changes will be met with extreme hostility–whether the habits or natures are bad or good. We must therefore be very cautious about what we expect when we seek to change the behaviors of other people through our designs of systems to influence and channel behavior. If we fail to understand the people we are looking to control, the results will often be unpredictable and unpleasant. We ought to recognize that at the start.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to On The Psychology Of Architecture

  1. Ted Keener says:


    * I have some interest in historical architecture generally (mainly residential)& I’ve spent some time online trying to learn about the different distinct styles that exist.

    * It could be interesting to meditate on what the cities of tomorrow’s world may look like (in light of the scripture that states cities will be rebuilt). Certainly something better than today’s arrangements can be achieved.

    * If the minds of mankind can be infused with new spirit the whole of society will be changed. This Biblical pictures of community life in a better world do seem grand! God speed that day.


    • Indeed, Godspeed that day. The Bible does very clearly say that cities will be rebuilt. It says that there will be a road between Egypt and Israel and Assryia, and also says that there will be an expectation for all nations to attend the Feasts in Jerusalem, which implies a fairly advanced transportation infrastructure. What the Bible says about those cities is limited but suggestive. The fact that there will be streets again implies some sort of transportation, but the fact that the streets will be safe to play in for children as well as safe for old people suggests that this transportation will be different than we know it today. The fact that everyone will own their vine and fig tree suggests that the cities will not be monumental and heavily divided between areas for haves and more numerous have nots but that there will be a much more egalitarian ownership of land, which suggests more simple cities more evenly distributed wealth but with very strong private property rights all the way up and down society. What that exactly will look like is hard to say though.

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