salk institute via san diego union tribune

How Buildings Shape Us

In his recently posted Common Edge essay We Shape Buildings, But Do Buildings Really Shape Us?,” architect and author Richard Buday’s answer was a somewhat reluctant no: “Architecture by itself may influence our decisions, but not lead to long-term behavior change, at least not without first changing beliefs, intentions, and attitudes.”

I don’t agree. And I’m offering a different way of recognizing how buildings do shape us, profoundly, and how they do, in fact, change our behavior, both in the short term and for generations after. 

I write because Richard is so well respected and has made so many contributions to our understanding of architecture. But here I hope his 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.

The body of Richard’s essay seems to make sense, as far as it goes. He points out architects’ convictions about “the power of design” to shape behavior is “baked into designers’ heads in architectural school,” and then develops into an ineffective “environmental determinism” in practice. While architects may want their buildings to help solve society’s problems, he argues, they’re simply not adequately qualified because “[m]ost of the societal problems architects would like their buildings to shape are behavioral, not architectural.” He would incorporate psychologists, or, as in his own case, psychologically trained thinking, on a design team. (Good idea.)

But I would argue that architecture is never experienced as “architecture by itself,” even by architects. It’s inseparable from a natural or urban setting, and from the human activity in and around it. But even more fundamental, we engage with architecture just as we do any other social, intellectual, or natural environment, in the context of the person we are at that time. That includes the “beliefs, intentions, and attitudes,” noted here, but also our learning, skills, memories, expectations, and a unique personality, or “self,” accumulated over a lifetime—all of them latent in conscious or, more often, unconscious levels, until mobilized by events, emotions, or our body chemistry of the moment. 

In other words, we experience architecture through the “lens” of ourselves, the “us” that buildings can go on to “shape.” And the physiological shaping processes that take place are essentially in the patterns of neural networks in a brain and body. The structure of those networks is continually changing over a lifetime because that’s what learning is. Neuroscientists refer to it as the brain’s “plasticity,” as our original biological heritage adapts to the pressures of our actual living environments day by day.

 The classic example of this is the neuroscience experiments done on the brains of London taxi drivers (2011), which showed a significantly enlarged hippocampus due to constant spatial navigation. After rigorous training and extensive experience in turning themselves into reliable “geographic positioning” systems, the way the cabbies experienced buildings and routes changed and expanded to incorporate integrated patterns of both. When they gained what they called “The Knowledge,” a whole city of buildings has shaped them, the networks in their brains, for a lifetime.

We see that happening all around us. Growing up, we become part of a culture and usually one or more geographic, ethnic, wealth, or class-based subcultures. We learn its languages and traditions and are inevitably shaped by distinctive ways of building homes and settlements. The respect shown by architects, and the passion shown by local communities, for preserving or blending new buildings into regional architecture and its traditions suggests a widespread belief that experiencing buildings had in fact shaped neural networks in the people who live there, and that it matters.

Basilica Vierzehnheilgen, Bad Staffelstein, Germany. Photo by Reinhold Moller via Wikimedia Commons.


Further, it can be a built environment, itself, that, in turn, shapes our “beliefs, intentions, and attitudes.” 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. Or we say we become “a different person” when, for example, we’re in our places of worship immersed in their “divine light,” or in a private retreat, like a “place in the country.” And, over a lifetime, we tend to make very large investments of our time and money to be reshaped by the architecture of the place.

And decades of persuasive experiments have shown that built environments can be a factor in shaping us in ways that have significant long-term implications, in educational or workplace performance, or our physical and mental health and wellness. The point is that architecture, an integral part of essentially all cultures, is one of many interacting cultural factorslike entertainment and marketing, politics, belief systems, or charismatic individuals, for examplethat together, in large and small ways, are involved in shaping behavior and who we are over a lifetime.

But can architecture really “lead to long-term behavior change?” Again, the short answer to a complicated question is yes. Many think of their own life span as their long term. But changes can also last over generations. Here, I’ll draw on the words of two of the notable creative people who are linking architecture to today’s fast-moving sciences: a leading neuroscientist, Michael Arbib, who has summarized his years of work in an upcoming book, When Brains Meet Buildings (due out later this year); and distinguished architecture professor Harry Mallgrave, whose book The Architect’s Brain: Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture (2010) describes the substance of his years of research.

This is what they both say: We live in a world massively altered by previous generations. And just as our designs have altered our built environments, so living, day-after-day and year-after-year, in those environments, has reconfigured each of us. What’s being reconfigured is the operation or “expression” of genes, producing in turn changes at the cellular, neurological, emotional, perceptual, and cognitive levels that go on to shape both our beliefs and behavior. In other words, human evolution is cultural as well as biological. As the built environments in our culture take shape and change, we evolve as well. 

The remaining point in Richards’ conclusion is that architecture may change long-term behavior, but only after “first changing beliefs, intentions, and attitudes.” It seems to me, though, that they are inseparable, simultaneous, and continually interacting with each other. Architecture, the physical built environment, is a key part of an “intention” and decision to build, the one where costs and benefits are balanced, and go-ahead decisions are made. It’s the arena for government approval battles. And that’s its role because, along with human connections, architecture provides the tangible evidence, the meaning, in real time, of “beliefs, intentions, and attitudes” and other abstractions.

Finally, inherent in the essay is another important issue that’s worth repeating: Architects, as with members of any other profession, have an outsized vision of their role within a culture. That’s the way professionals are trained and promote themselves, individually and through associations, as businesses, experts, or artists. And this habitual overreach is one of the factors that erodes architects’ credibility. Let’s face it: Men and women who are dedicated to leaving the world better than they found it often choose a career in design. Yet human limits inevitably bring into play the philosophers’ “law of the instrument,” usually expressed as, “When you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” 

The result? Architects are not qualified to solve many of the problems that they want to, or that our society expects them to solve. When measuring architects’ traditional “hammer” against the magnitude of social, economic, environmental, or behavioral issues, we will continue to come up short until we have design teams that know, and know how to apply, much more about the social issues we may want to resolve (as much as we’ve come to know about technical ones). And until we learn more about ourselves and about how we actually experience built environments.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.