There was an almost-good programme on Channel 4 this week, called The Secret Life of Buildings, which looked at how architecture affects our emotions. The presenter, Tom Dyckhoff, arrived at the revelation that buildings should not just look good, they should also enhance our well-being. Revolutionary stuff.
He tells The Telegraph: ““The Gherkin [a famous building in London] may look fabulous from the outside, but inside it’s completely banal – and it’s not functioning very well in terms of workplace culture. Slowly but surely we got some people to speak out with their complaints – for instance, the complete lack of social mixing between the bosses and the workers, or between the different tenants of the building.”
What ruined the programme somewhat were the foolish experiments Dyckhoff put himself through to ‘prove’ some scientific studies related to architecture. To prove how important sunlight is to our well-being, he covered up his windows and shut himself in his flat for a week, bravely documenting his emotional degeneration. What does this prove apart from the silliness of modern television? He also tested how long he could stay in a freezing bath in beautiful versus ugly surroundings. Again, very silly stuff.
Despite this, the programme had some redeeming features, namely the buildings, some of which were beautiful; and some of the ideas as well, such as the Platonic or Pythagorean idea of the importance of the Golden Mean to our inner sense of harmony and beauty. I hadn’t come across the idea of the Golden Mean in architecture, or realized so many famously beautiful buildings follow its specifications.
I think Dyckhoff is on to something in his contention that architecture and housing planning will be increasingly driven by the rhetoric of well-being, which could well mean major structures – or even whole cities! – designed on the basis of their emotional impact – on how they feel to live in. The architect of the future will perhaps be as much therapist as designer.
Alain De Botton has probably played a key role in this trend, with his book The Architecture of Happiness, which I haven’t read, but which argues, I believe, that buildings should not merely look grand, they should make us happy. This idea was hotly debated at the Battle of Ideas, if you fancy listening to the debate.
Academics are now leaping to research the link between design and well-being. For example, Warwick University set up a new research group, Well-Being In Sustainable Environments, in 2004. Professor Elizabeth Burton, who runs it, said: “When I trained as an architect, I was astonished to be told I had to stop thinking about people. My idea is ambitious, but I want to provide an alternative to traditional architecture, which is design for people, design for wellbeing—informed design.”
Another example of architects getting in touch with their and our feelings, from a few years back, was the famous ‘old suit’ which hospital architects wore to discover what it would feel like for an old person to move around in one of their buildings. Another trend worth following is the design of ‘intelligent buildings‘, which will use technologies to monitor inhabitants’ mood and biostates in order to bring the home into harmony with our needs (that particular line of research could, of course, go very wrong – imagine a malfunctioning Hal in charge of your home!)
All of this is interesting and groovy. I’m not totally sure how new it is. Architects have always considered the emotional impact of their work, surely. They just didn’t always aim at fostering personal happiness, which is a rather 21st century aim. They might aim to provoke a sense of religious awe, or civic pride, or Platonic harmony. Plato’s ideal city, for example, was designed from top to bottom to affect and steer the emotions of its inhabitants, as were some of the ideal cities designed during the Renaissance. So the connection between architecture and feelings is not new.
Explicitly making well-being the goal of architecture is fine, as it goes. But, as always with the politics of well-being, you’d need to think what you mean by well-being – the well-being of the individual, or the collective; of the middle class, or the whole of society; emotional well-being, or the good and virtuous life.
Personally, I would like an architecture that raises our aspirations and our sense of the beautiful. I remember the first time I saw the skyline of Florence, when I was 12. Suddenly, almost violently, my sense of beauty expanded. My sense of what it was possible for humans to achieve expanded. It was not merely the Duomo or any other individual building. It was the harmony and beauty of the whole. I got the same sense when I visited Venice and Dubrovnik – the beauty of the whole rather than of individual parts. But modern architecture seems to assert the individual, the particular, rather than striving to harmonise with the whole…
…Am I beginning to sound like Prince Charles?