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Messing with our heads

Will Wiles

Can ‘architectural psychology’ help us supply classless, perfect buildings? Probably not

Dr Paul Keedwell is a psychologist, student of the history of architecture and small-scale property developer. Headspace could only have been written by someone with this promising combination of pursuits. You need a lot of head space for three hats. Keedwell outlines a new niche discipline, architectural psychology, to bring new insight to how we build buildings and arrange our cities. 

Scientists have generated many studies about how buildings affect our ‘feeling and behaviours’, he writes, ‘but it is surprisingly absent from the syllabus of an average school of architecture, and there has been no attempt to synthesise it in a way that we can all understand.’ Headspace attempts to do just that: it presents the results of scores of scientific studies into the physical environment, and does so in a pleasant, discursive way. 

It is full of interesting nuggets dug out of scientific literature. We learn, for instance, that researchers at Mu’tah University in Jordan have explored the ‘optimal void to solid ratio for the home’ – that is, the size and proportions of windows. In this study, 174 individuals looked at 60 images and said they prefer tall vertical windows to horizontal bands. 

Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House..
Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House.. Credit: Damien Blower RIBA Collections

Can research along these lines be combined and aggregated to inform a more perfect architecture? No – it’s more puzzling than clarifying, more head-scratch than Headspace. People want a sense of refuge in their homes, but not too much, lest they feel enclosed and trapped. People want to feel attached to places – but becoming too attached can be a problem. People like complexity in facades – but not too much! People like greenery in the street – but not too much!

Too often, Keedwell falls back on evolutionary explanations for particular preferences. ‘Dark blue is associated with passivity, perhaps because primitive man prepared for rest at dusk,’ he writes. Well, perhaps. ‘The promise of nature to provide for us is an ancestral memory etched in our DNA,’ he says elsewhere. And: ‘Our liking of water reflects our primeval need for hydration.’ Gosh, possibly, but how does that help? 

View from the courtyard at Moshe Safdie's Habitat67 Montreal.
View from the courtyard at Moshe Safdie's Habitat67 Montreal. Credit: Timothy Hursley

On page 13 there is the now-famous image of the implosion of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt Igoe housing complex in St Louis, and at that point it’s fairly easy to guess where Keedwell is headed, and the people we’ll meet along the way. Sure enough, here come Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman and Chris Alexander. And Le Corbusier and Rem Koolhaas, cackling and rubbing their hands together with evil glee. Though they would seem to be its natural audience, Keedwell is persistently disobliging about architects, portraying them as out-of-touch, vain creatures, inflicting their misguided creative visions on an unconsulted populace. Modernists are the villains of the piece, but their motives are little discussed, beyond ‘impos[ing] buildings on people’, ‘dictat[ing] how we should live’ and ‘sacrificing individual identity’ to their ‘ego’. 

Architectural psychology, Keedwell says, provides a solution, a way of putting ‘ordinary people’ back at the heart of things. Keedwell’s ideal community is bosky and gentrified, more suburban than urban. The buildings he likes are mostly idiosyncratic one-offs: Gaudí, Safdie, Walter Segal, Dutch floating houses. More generally, what primeval man really wanted was a Victorian terraced house, with a nice extension onto the garden. Or to self-build. Pleasant options, if you have the resources – most people do not, through no fault of architects.

If the modernists had an essential failing – and God knows, they had plenty – it was their belief that science could provide an empirical, total solution to architecture, devoid of problematic class and style. Which is precisely the trap Keedwell falls into. They were also trying to deal with a sanitary emergency on a continental scale. It’s a measure of their success that many have forgotten all about it. ‘Tenements in old European cities surround a planted and tranquil courtyard,’ Keedwell says. Today they do, yes.

Headspace: The Psychology of City Living by Dr Paul Keedwell, Aurum, £18.99