How Architecture Shapes Our Minds as well as Our Cities

Communities that take the design of their buildings into their own hands are more likely to be healthy and happy.

Darwinian theory explains how animals evolve to be attracted to the environments they thrive in. For the human species, environments that offer the right balance of stimulation and refuge are attractive. Humans can’t fly and we’re not the best at swimming and smelling – although we have invested technology to allow us to take to the skies and sail across the world’s oceans with ease. We are drawn to environments promising new information in a manner not dissimilar to bloodhounds tracking a scent. To strike this balance use a floor plan drawing service to perfect the amount of refuge and stimulation in your next project. 

We like surroundings that captivate our attention: mysterious and complex settings.

While the orderly arrangement of American streets is designed for easy navigation, we actually prefer streets that curve and place what’s ahead out of sight, ensuring we are kept tantalised by the hint of mystery about what lies ahead. We are attracted to environments that stimulate our natural curiosity, but also ultimately satisfy it.

An environment is said to be “legible” if it’s simple to survey and construct a cognitive map of. Prospect – the ability to view ahead into the distance – is a key component of that. There need to be elements that guide our way, such as clumps of trees, for an environment to be truly legible.

The landscapes we fall in love with are those that balance mystery with legibility, complexity with coherence. Natural environments are divided by fractal geometry with a unique recipe of complexity and order. The fractal patterns present in nature hold the key to helping us understand well-being in buildings, from the layout of the streets of London to the cascading domes featured on Hindu temples.

The architectural design of settlements and vernacular structure came about from the ordered complex systems in our bodies and minds – neurological processes in humans display fractal properties, as do the cell structures of our organs. In the past, building structures tended to evolve in an organic manner – using natural materials local to the area, such as stones and wood. Settlements grew slowly. Roads simply followed the natural contours in the earth.

In the 21st century, the fast pace of life has meant the organic evolution of buildings and roads has been lost.

Many of our towns and cities fail to serve our need for creativity, community and well-being. So, how do we start to recreate civilisation to be more in line with our needs and wants? WikiHouse’s co-founder Alastair Parvin explained that often what people refer to as bad design is actually good design with a different set of economic goals in mind. WikiHouse is an open-source platform for designing and building affordable homes.

Parvin went on to explain that if you want humans to create buildings that better serve their needs, you need to provide individuals with the tools they need to co-create their family homes, work spaces, streets and road networks. It is known that when people are invited to be involved in the creating and nurturing of their immediate environments, they feel a heightened sense of pride, agency and community – often referred to as “collective efficacy“. When collective efficacy rates increase in an area, there tends to be less vandalism, violent crime and litter.

Some examples of successful collective efficacy projects include Bristol’s street artists, Chilean “half-houses”, Detroit’s urban farmers and more. The ordered complexity of those projects created vibrant, healthy places. To create a resilient future, populations need to start taking a role in shaping their own environments instead of allowing them to shape us.