salk institute via richard buday

Do Buildings Really Shape Human Behavior?

Robert Hart recently wrote a compelling response to my 2017 Common Edge article “We Shape Buildings, But Do Buildings Really Shape Us?” I attended Robert’s session at the AIA’16 convention in Philadelphia, “Neuroscience, Evolution, Ecology: A New Look at Humanism in Architecture.” I came away so interested in Robert’s views that I bought his book, upon which the session was based. It was a great read—thought-provoking, and also a little disconcerting. The optimism it demonstrated had me worried.

A year later, I wrote the pessimistic article Robert responded to, a kind of counterargument to his premise that linking biology to design could make a better world. Although it seems intuitively credible, I imagined overwhelming odds against success in the face of climate change and other manmade ills. I saw architecture remaining a bit player in a cascading tragedy of epic proportions. A robust architectural response to our decaying world was in order, more than a reprise of architectural determinism, a psychosocial theory long discredited. Ergo, my essay.

If you’re keeping score, Robert’s recent essay is a counter-counter argument to my 2017 article. Thank you, Robert, for keeping the conversation going. I now offer a counter-counter-counter response. In some circles, this is point-counterpoint. To others, verbal ping-pong. Whatever. It’s a healthy debate, one I wish other architects would join.

In my mind, Robert and I represent two philosophies. One considers building users’ responses to architecture from a neuroscience perspective, à la Robert’s AIA session. Belief in architectural or environmental determinism, the idea that human actions result from the external stimuli of built environments or climate, is a necessary component. The other notion takes a behavioral science point of view, where human agency makes the greatest contribution. 

Evolution figures in both stances, but I am personally less interested in what drives people than what to do about it. As Robert notes, I’ve written that human nature, not architecture, is the cause of what ails life on Earth. If I’m right, changing human behavior is the cure, not changing architecture. My position is that a building’s ability to shape what people think and do is limited. On its own, architecture’s power to heal the self-inflicted wounds of systemic poverty and hunger, preventable disease and death (including pandemics), xenophobia, intolerance, prejudice, persecution, terrorism, war, crime, urban decay, pollution, and global warming is underwhelming. One only need look around to be convinced. If today’s good buildings—and there are many—were creating positive behaviors, why is there a world full of pain? 

Robert’s thesis is stronger when lobbying for more humanism in architecture than advocating for neuroscience. Premodern buildings were the effective change agents architects now seek, and stories are the reason why. Historically, buildings have been tightly woven into origin and cultural metanarratives. Earlier works had meaning that today’s work lacks.

Robert writes of learning in his article. Again, he’s onto something. We gain knowledge in two fundamentally different ways: didactic instruction and direct experience. The first conveys information indirectly, the sorts of facts-and-figures lessons youth are asked to memorize and regurgitate. This knowledge is short-term. Unless it is used on a regular basis, we retain it in working memory just long enough to pass a course. 

Learning by experience, however, is directly acquired: touching a hot stove, for example, as opposed to being told not to put your hand on a stove because it’s dangerous. The lesson is forever because it gets stored in the part of the brain where emotional memories reside. By including learning in the context of architectural experiences, Robert identifies a truism known to psychologists: Knowledge by itself doesn’t change behavior, but experience could. On the demise of Pruitt-Igoe and other misguided attempts at social housing, Robert writes, “It was after we had enthusiastically built and then actually lived with the reality of failed housing projects and miles of waterfront freeways and ramps that we changed our minds and happily dynamited them.” Indeed, experience is the best teacher. The power of self-discovery exceeds that of classroom lectures.

Certainly, environmental factors play a role in shaping us, the kind of inputs that can be designed, tested, and built. Architects can manipulate size and scale, form, color, and texture. We can control views, lighting, and HVAC for effect. But the impact of physical and sensory events should not be overstated. A building user’s environment also includes social factors, such as the influence of family, friends, and colleagues. Here, architects have little to no control.

Biological components shaping behavior are also outside an architect’s scope: sex, ethnicity, temperament, genetic predisposition. These are personal factors, as are the cognitive and affectively emotional moments that comprise an architectural experience. They vary by individual. What seems open and inviting to one may appear overpowering and frightening to another. The vagaries in these domains are often missed when taking a strict neuroscience approach to shaping lives.

Sidenote: If this sounds familiar, you may be a psychologist. I’m essentially describing Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory as applied to architecture.

I concur that, as Robert writes, architecture is never without context, that a building doesn’t stand “by itself.” (Bandura would also agree.) As in all experiences, we view new ones through the lens of our core beliefs, themselves a product of lessons previously learned. And that can be a problem, a barrier to buildings shaping what people think and do. Confirmation bias occurs when we interpret something new in the context of what we already believe. Humans have an unfortunate tendency to find support for existing beliefs, even when confronted by contradictory evidence. When it comes to making us better, our nature isn’t necessarily our friend.

Robert and I do find common ground. We both point to research for solutions, Robert referencing advances in our understanding of neuroarchitecture (the impact of buildings on the central nervous system), and me noting published results of behavioral studies, including my own research. We also agree on activism. Robert writes, “I hope [Richard’s] influence does not discourage young architects from thinking they can help to make changes in people’s lives, a belief that has inspired and motivated designers for thousands of years.” Amen to that. Mute architecture may be powerless, but not vocal architects. I’ve written that design professionals should learn to tell good lies (i.e., stories), get naked and be a hero, take an oath, declare a manifesto, go radical, and foment revolution, all in the name of change.

Architecture has always been able to facilitate some behaviors while preventing others. That’s not so much shaping lives as accommodating and acknowledging human needs and foibles. In the quest to reshape user behaviors, physiological, psychological, and humanistic variables will need our design attention. The appropriate mix is anyone’s guess, but here’s my take: We might be able to architect ourselves out of this mess. But if we are to survive, if we do reshape society in time to prevent the apocalypses confronting us, it won’t have been by primarily stimulating small neurological receptors. It will be because we changed minds on a societal scale.

Featured image: Salk Institute, taken by the author while awaiting the autumnal equinox at the 2018 Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture meeting. At 6:54 p.m. Pacific Time, the sun hit the horizon precisely aligned with Louis Kahn’s linear plaza fountain. Nice, but not transformational.

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