Pruitt-Igoe-collapses via wiki

We Shape Buildings, But Do Buildings Really Shape Us?

I came across two articles this week expressing the idea that architecture and human behavior were inextricably linked. “I shape the lives of others through my work,” wrote Bob Borson, of Malone Maxwell Borson Architects, on Architizer, explaining why he became an architect. “Most architects think that the work they create can make a difference in people’s lives. I know I believe it.”

In an Architectural Record excerpt from her new book, Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, the estimable architecture critic and historian Sarah Williams Goldhagen states, “a design can be deliberately composed to nudge people to choose one action over another.” She was referring to developments in neuroscience and neuropsychology, and the emerging field of embodied cognition.

Echoing a similar ideal nearly 75 years ago, Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; afterwards our buildings shape us.” Indeed, the belief that physical environments determine behavior has a long history, going back thousands of years.

As an architect, I commend Borson, Goldhagen, and Churchill on their thinking, and can only wish it were true. Evidence supporting their conclusion is scant. A 2015 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill research report noted, “Although valued by the design community, Post Occupancy Evaluation is currently rare,” meaning the profession doesn’t actually have enough data to know if and to what extent buildings shape behavior.

After spending 20 years working with psychologists researching behavior change, through tens of millions of dollars of National Institutes of Health grant-funded studies, I have come to a different conclusion: Architects have limited power to shape human behavior, such as workplaces that make employees more productive, schools that engage students, hospitals that heal, and urbanism that makes neighborhoods safer or environments sustainable. The reason isn’t surprising. Most of the societal problems architects would like their buildings to shape are behavioral, not architectural. Architects seldom have psychologists on their team, which is a pity, because they have a lot to teach us.

Psychologists describe behavior change as a six-step process called the Transtheoretical Model. Stage 1 pre-contemplators are unaware of the need to change a habit. Stage 2 are contemplators considering the merits of doing something different than what they usually do. Stage 3 are convinced and in preparation, ready to take immediate action. In Stage 4 they finally undertake the new behavior. Stage 5 is for monitoring and maintenance, and Stage 6 deals with relapses to old habits. The time between Stages 1 and 4 is typically 12 to 18 months.

The inconvenient truth facing architectural behavioral shapers is that building users may be uninterested in or possibly antagonistic toward the desired behavior a design is promoting. Architects assume their audiences are Stage 2 contemplators getting ready to work and live differently, or are in Stage 3 preparation ready to take immediate action. I think it’s likely that many are Stage 1 pre-contemplators unaware of, uncaring, or underestimating the need for behavior change, or overestimating the problems they’ll encounter if they try.

Breaking old habits is hard. Hoping that simply changing an environment will move people from Stage 1 to 4 runs counter to accepted behavior theory. I’d like to see the evidence for “If you build it, they will come.” Yet the conventional wisdom that we are products of our environment is baked into designers’ heads in architecture school and carries into practice. Psychologists have a name for this: environmental determinism. The doctrine was hardcoded in 2010 as an American Institute of Architects vision statement: “Driving positive change through the power of design.” Forgotten in those words were the highly visible public housing failures of the 1970s that demonstrated the limits of best intentions, even when psychologists and sociologists were on board. Reality has a way of bursting theoretical bubbles. No building alone can resolve deep-seated class and race problems. The gap between Stage 1 and Stage 2 is wide.

Environmental determinism is not only problematic, it has proved dangerous. The idea that some surroundings (like tropical climates) make people lazy and uncivilized, while other conditions (like those found in northern Europe) bolster civilization justified 19th century Western imperialism and hundreds of years of colonialism. Second-class citizenship, Jim Crow and eugenics result from this kind of thinking.

Although environmental determinism fell out of favor after the failed social housing projects of the ’70s, it refuses to die. Architects want their work to make a difference. They want their designs to matter. The open question is how. As Goldhagen notes, psychologists and neuroscientists are testing novel theories of human response to environments. Examples include research on the impact of natural light on mood and cues for wayfinding. Papers presented at a 2016 Psychology of Architecture symposium included “Influence of Lighting Color Temperature on Mental Effort” and “Neural Codes of Architectural Styles in Human Visual Cortex.”

There is a difference between a building triggering a physiological response and architecture changing behavior. Scientific evidence of the former does not constitute proof of the latter.

Fascinating research, but there is a difference between a building triggering a physiological response and architecture changing behavior. Scientific evidence of the former does not constitute proof of the latter. De novo (“starting from scratch”) or modified psycho-social theories of behavior that integrate newly discovered cognitive pathways will have to be tested. Until then, there is one time-proven means of persuading the masses to change their beliefs, intentions, attitudes, and even their behaviors—from Stage 1 to Stage 4 in one fell swoop. The behavioral model is called Narrative Transportation, the theory that people immersed in a story (novel, film, stage production, etc.) modify their worldview to match the story’s protagonist and can leave the experienced changed. Building design and narrative once had a close relationship, but no longer.

Not to sound paranoid, but I fear the issue of architectural persuasion is existential. Environmental determinism’s failure showed leading architecture (Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe, et al.) does not shape behavior any better than secondary architecture. Who, then, needs architects? Computer-aided drawing, building information models, machine learning, and parametric design increasingly make it possible for non-architects to produce architectural-looking buildings. At a certain point automated and semi-automated routines generating eye-candy structures may be good enough for most clients. Throw in 3D printed construction to lower the need for contract administration and you have a perfect storm. Holistic architectural training in an age of ubiquitous artificial intelligence is an anachronism. Architects may soon need a better value proposition than their current services, or go extinct.

Churchill made his famous “buildings shape us” remark in 1943, referring to rebuilding the British House of Commons chamber damaged during the Blitz. Some in parliament wanted to remake the old rectangular room into a semi-circle like the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Churchill felt too much history (read: too many stories) would be lost and argued for retaining the chamber’s original form, declaring it had “shaped” British democracy. His argument was made during the Modern Movement. Modernist architects heard what they wanted, a different message than what Churchill intended. They assumed he meant buildings are bestowed with a magical field that radiates from interior spaces and modifies building users’ lives. The energy then continues outward from exterior walls to influence local communities, rippling in ever-widening circles to change the world.

It wasn’t necessarily true then and probably isn’t true now. A locked door may convince you not to enter a room; then again, you may try the door a little later. 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. As the great anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “The notion that we are products of our environment is our greatest sin; we are products of our choices.”

Featured image: demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, in St. Louis, via Wikipedia. 


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.