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Research Says Boring Architecture Can Negatively Impact Our Emotional State

“Blah” buildings might be the reason why you feel meh.

By Nathalie Nayman December 22, 2016
Editorial Credit: mezzotint / Shutterstock

When you live in NYC, you sort of owe it to society to feel happy and blessed. You’d better be. I mean, there are much worse places to live in. Yes, some of us get occasional valid excuses for feeling despair (like bedbug infestation) but others fail at being happy without any understandable reason. You may have a perfect job, a great apartment, and even manage to still keep your friends despite your success. But still, every time you walk home, you look around and have this inexplicable, existential “my life sucks” feeling.

It turns out, there might be a reason for it after all.  A number of researchers have been investigating the effect that architecture might have on our emotional state. Guess what these folks found out: boring buildings make us humans, feel meh. And by “meh,” we mean depressed, anxious, severely bored and even less kind to one another.

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One of scientifically-backed examples here is the Whole Foods Market in Lower Manhattan. It turns out, people really hate this huge monolithic building – often without even realizing the extent of their hatred. As the researcher, Colin Ellard of the University of the Waterloo was walking small groups of people past the building, they wouldn’t stop berating it—passionless, monotonous, bland, they called it. We assume there could have been other, less appropriate adjectives that didn’t make it to the study. Just a block away from Whole Foods, however, people would change the tune drastically: “lively,” “busy,” “socializing.”

So much for the organic food trend. New Yorkers might love them some tofu and kale – but a tiny bodega filled with unhealthy choices is what they want to pass by – and look at – on the way home.

Seriously, though, there is a whole lot of curious scientific findings that explain why we feel what we feel around certain buildings. For instance, Ann Sussman’s and Justin Hollander’s book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment is a very interesting read – at least, judging from the few pages that Amazon allows us to browse for free.

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Just to give you one example, have you ever heard somebody describing a bland building as “faceless” or “soulless” while, at the same time, claiming that an adorable quaint house on the corner has its own “personality”? Well, they are not totally crazy, says Cognitive Architecture.

One of the basic principles that explain how we respond to the architecture is that “Patterns Matter.” Human beings are visually-oriented and we are particularly good at prioritizing the face (imagine what would our lives would be if we had trouble to identify our spouses, in-laws or parole officers on the fly?). Now, one of the side effects of this super-skill, explained Sussman and Hollander, is that we see faces everywhere – even where they are not: think the infamous Virgin Mary’s image in a burnt piece of toast. We do exactly the same with buildings. We “see faces in many of our favorite houses and streetscapes – and in doing so most easily and subconsciously make emotional attachments to these places.”

Now, what kind of architecture we tend to favor without realizing it is a good question. In short, it’s really not about aesthetics and pleasant looks. What we crave, says another researcher, Charles Montgomery, is cacophonous, jumbled-up, “messy” blocks. They give us variety.

The list of revelations can go on and on. The bad news here is that, no matter what research says, we kind of have to live with what we’ve got. Whatever it is that city planners may have had in mind when shaping that piece of the Stone Jungle you see every day, it definitely wasn’t your emotional comfort. There are way too many ugly or boring buildings in every city, and it’s not as if they will be redesigned any time soon.

The good news is that, if you’re suddenly overcome by boredom and apathy when walking down the street (even though you still are employed, and your mattress is bug-free,) now you know what might be the culprit. Have a look around – chances are, there is a big, grey, boring building staring at you from the nearest corner.

Nathalie Nayman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nathalie Nayman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nathalie Nayman

Nathalie is an international media trooper. After working as a journalist in Moscow, Nathalie participated in local politics and social movements in Cairo where she covered the protests and political upheaval of the Arab Spring. Nathalie is Agorafy's content manager. She produces and oversees unique and creative content for the Newsroom.

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