10 ways that your mental health can be affected by architecture
The environment you are in, be it a living room, a workplace or a whole city, influences how you feel about yourself and the world. It’s been proven, for example, that certain colours, or geometric patterns, or variations of noise, among other things, can make you anxious, insecure, relaxed or optimistic.
Here are 10 ways in which architecture can affect your mental health, and why:
Patterns bring a sense of consistency and organisation. In other words, a lack of chaos. Research argues that identifying patterns reassured our ancestors that it was possible to predict what came next, improving their chances of survival. Theoretically, geometric patterns today evoke the same physiological reaction. These patterns are often referred to in architecture as rhythm, because it causes the eye to flow from one focal point to the next.
There are four such categories of rhythm:
alternation (the repetition of a contrasting pair),
progression (either increasing or decreasing the size of the element in the pattern),
repetition (repeating a single element), and
transition (a line that the eye can follow from one point to the next).
The buildings that follow either of those patterns are usually considered beautiful because their predictability evokes feelings of safety, security, well-being and survival. On a biological sense, oxytocins and endorphins (responsible for feelings of pleasure) are released, calming us down and allowing us to appreciate the environment.
Nine Square Pattern
Still on the note of pleasing patterns, one of them requires special attention: the nine square pattern, which resembles the structure of the human face. It automatically catches our eyes, even if we don’t consciously understand why. Facial recognition has been paramount in the evolution of the human race – helping us identify the difference between other people (friends and foes), animals and inanimate objects. Buildings that follow the nine square pattern automatically arrest our attention because it triggers recognition in our brain. If the aesthetic is then pleasing, we feel safe and secure.
Aesthetic and façades
Beauty is a subjective term, but recent research shows that abandoned establishments or houses can make us feel unsafe, while dilapidated façades were found to lead to anxiety and persistent low mood. Monochromatic colours, poorly placed windows, lack of details and repetitive styles were proven to produce sensory deprivation, which leads to lack of intellectual stimulation and creates an unwelcoming environment.
Following the point above, certain buildings should automatically evoke negative feelings. But there’s a caveat here. The Barbican, for example, is a brutalist structure that follows the negative premises above – in short, it’s a boring building. But despite being called London’s “ugliest building”, it actually brings an overall positive feeling in people. Why? Nature. The Barbican is full of greenery, lakes and balconies and features mini town squares that allow residents to socialise, work and relax.
Access to green spaces such as parks and woods dissipates some of the stress of city living. Research has shown that being surrounded by nature helps with general mental wellbeing, reduced depression and stress, improved social and cognitive functioning, improved mood and reduced aggression. Biophilia theory, from Edward Wilson, states that humans have a biological need to be in contact with other species. This is part of the reason for why new buildings tend to have greenery as part of their design.
Light affects our mood, disposition and sleep patterns. Generally, spaces that are well lit reduce stress by increasing feelings of safety – although this can change a little bit depending on the context. If you live in a house where bright lights shine in your window, you may not be able to sleep or feel exposed and surveilled.
The rules of thumb in what it comes to lighting are: rooms that are used in the morning (like bedrooms and kitchen) should be placed facing the east to stimulate the circadian rhythm with natural light; windows with high head heights provide more access to daylight and allow sky view (which can be particularly invigorating in dense neighbourhoods); allow for tenants to have a personal control over the amount of daylight (and artificial lighting) they receive inside the room they are in.
Sound can be a bit tricky: noise can cause stress, anxiety and depression and affect sleep patterns, which further increases the risk of deterioration of mental health. At the same time, the right kind of sound – such as the ones produced by nature – help reduce stress and bring a feeling of safety and comfort. Buildings recently have started to be designed with that in mind, so they have soundproof rooms for things that demand attention, such as working or studying, or to keep noise from filtering out, such as when sports are played. Windows are placed strategically to allow people to control the noise that comes in, depending on their needs at the time. Building insulation, street trees and general noise barriers also are taken into account, as well as traffic restrictions.
Feeling too cold or too hot will bother us, generating stress and restlessness. Furthermore, the air temperature is not the only way the body has of gauging thermal environments: radiant conditions (such as sunlight), air movement (natural ventilation) and the conduction of heat via surface materials (such as wood and stone) affects how we feel in a place.
Having a notion of where things are – and how you fit in the picture – can be one of the determining factors for us to feel rested or stressed. In other words, you need a sense of direction. According to research, “places with rotational symmetry, which look the same whichever direction you look at them from – Piccadilly Circus, for example – are a nightmare for orientation.” Buildings that are confusing on the inside and / or outside provide a wealth of insecurity and stress.
How high a building is also affects our mood. Research has found that people in higher floors then to isolate themselves more – people don’t need to interact with each other so much, as they’re mostly self-sufficient and absorbed in their own lives. Which takes us to the last point:
Humans need to interact with each other, that’s a well-known fact. But living in big cities does not help; it actually increases the feeling of isolation, since you are often surrounded by millions of people but hardly know any of them. City dwellers are more prone to developing schizophrenia, depression, loneliness and chronic anxiety – and the main trigger for that seems to be the lack of social bonding. To counteract that, developers and architects have been focusing lately in designing spaces that promote a sense of community, with communal areas and the possibility for meaningful human interaction. An example of that is walkable neighbourhoods, mixed land (that allows for shopfronts and nearby amenities) and fine-grain street fronts.