The Psychology of Architecture

Categories: Architecture

Architecture is the heart and soul of construction. While the architect is not vital to all construction projects, all notable works have at least one architect working at the core of the job. While an architect must understand how to construct drawings and how the construction process works, there is so much more to understand to truly design something great. We as architects must be able to consider art and design in hand with the mathematics and logistics that go into actually constructing the design.

In many ways architecture is the psychology of construction; we must understand who it is we are building for, what region we are building in, and the ways that the people of one region might think differently than the ways people of another region might think so that we may manipulate that so that people will go into a space and immediately see what the architect wants them to see or behave and move through the space in the desired manner.

The Eye of the Beholder Changes the Perception of Architecture

In 2015, a study was conducted on Facebook to see how the public would react to a photomontage depicting a contemporary house partially suspended over a cliff with glass windows incasing the whole structure (Bianco, 2018). In 2014, the images were uploaded to a Facebook page dedicated to the author Cambria Herbert simply asking a yes or no question about if people would want to live in the house. About a year later, the author shared the post to his wall.

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This opened up an opportunity for a survey to be properly conducted, as the author had about 3,500 friends on Facebook at the time. Within the first 24 hours, the post had circulated to 3598 people, had been clicked on 477 times, liked 83 times, and commented on 67 times. Unfortunately, it did not receive any shares, so unfortunately the survey was limited to people who were either friends or friends of friends with the author. This led to all women that were not directly friends with the author to be over 50 years old, most of whom were over 60, and men to average about 15 years younger than the women.

The results were rather surprising, with 95% of people commenting that they would not live in the house (Bianco, 2018). Some claimed that it was due to a fear of heights, while others blamed it on the home being too open where they could easily be viewed. Some even expressed concerns for the structural integrity of the homestead. The only comments that expressed a desire to live in the home belonged to people involved in the architecture profession. The believed reasoning for this is that the architects viewing the pictures are viewing it under a trained eye, whereas the public was simply viewing it with their internal fears in mind.

Bianco’s study shows the influence that a choice in career and education has over the way someone might view something related to their field (Bianco, 2018). While an architect might see the beauty of the structural systems that overhang from the cliff and the light conditions that are made within the space due to the surrounding curtain wall system, a regular citizen simply pictures trying to sleep over the edge of a cliff. We as architects can see that the building has been constructed properly and therefore know that it will not collapse, but an everyday person will still have that fear that the home could go tumbling off the cliffside at any given moment. However, that being said, the survey was also quite flawed. For starters, they maintained the survey only through one author’s Facebook page, which unfortunately lead to a lot of people from the same generation taking part in the survey. From my own personal research, I have found that 60% of the women that I surveyed tend to develop acrophobia between the ages of 45-60, with the chances getting higher the older the participant was. Seeing as all of the women from the survey were within this threshold, it can be safe to say that perhaps more people would want to live in this house had they appealed to a larger demographic.

Based on this study (Bianco, 2018), it is quite clear that architects need to pay close attention to the audience that will be inhabiting the space. It is our job to create a fluid, aesthetically pleasing piece of architecture that will satisfy the needs of the people who are to be using it, without sacrificing their comfort in order to create a “statement.” Another promising concept that can be gathered from this survey is the idea of expressing our work to the public through the usage of social media such as Facebook and Instagram in order to get opinions from the public in the region in which the structure would be placed. As Miss Herbert stated in one of her replies to people in the comments section, “There is a difference between seeing and feeling architecture. Architecture is not just… concepts … but about feelings. Friends, your reactions are so valid … and yet so many designers forget to take that into account,” (Hebert, 2015).

Biologically Inspired Space

In 2017, Alex Coburn, Oshin Vartanian, and Anjan Chatterjee published an article regarding neuroscience applied to architecture (Coburn, 2017). What sets this article apart is that the authors focused on studies that relied on quantitative data as opposed to qualitative data. In 2004, neuroaesthetics began to make a breakthrough, as suddenly, thanks to fMRI, we were able to view the ways the brain physically responded to art. Beginning in 2008, studies began to pop up that applied this technology to the neuroscience of architecture (Brown & Lee, 2016; Mallgrave, 2010; Eberhard, 2008). To help break down the way we view aesthetics (Chatterjee, 2013; Shimamura, 2013), the Aesthetic Triad was created. This triad breaks down into 3 systems: sensorimotor, knowledge-meaning, and emotional value.

Sensorimotor processing is the use of our 5 senses to get a feel for the space we are in. The use of our senses to immediately process basic information such as color, lighting, and motion allows us to process more advanced concepts such as symmetry of space and contrast (Coburn, 2017). It has been shown that areas of high visual contrast will be able to capture interest faster because these areas provide more visual stimuli. Meanwhile, spaces with more symmetry trigger recognition faster. Meanwhile, we must also consider the nonvisual experiences of architecture as well. For example, odor can leave a large impact on an occupant’s emotional response to being in a space (Barbra & Perliss, 2006). Sense of smell (olfaction) can revive memories of past places, while acoustics can help influence the mood people are in while in a space. This can be used to manipulate people to behave a certain way while in a certain space (such as loud noises in a stadium or the complete silence of a library.)

Statistics show that in modern day, most people spend about 90% of their time in a building (Coburn, 2017). The spaces in which we reside can often have a large impact on our mental health and well-being. For example, in 2014 a study was conducted by Gilbert, E. and Galea, S. in which they found that unwanted noise could increase blood pressure. Quality of light can also have an impact on people’s well-being. It was found that insufficient day-light can disturb sleep quality by messing up the circadian rhythm (Dutton, 2014). The circadian rhythm is our mental “clock” of sorts. Not everyone’s circadian rhythm is the same, thus why some people function better at night while others function better in the morning hours (Myers, 2014).

The information from this article is unbelievably useful to architects (Coburn, 2017). The article directly talks about the neuroscience of design, and how we as architects can manipulate visual, auditory, somatosensory, vestibular, and olfactory stimuli to enhance the overall quality of the space. It gives us a much deeper understanding of how we understand aesthetics and why certain designs are pleasing while others are not.

How to Train Future Architects More Efficiently

Metacognition is defined as being aware of what you are learning, or, “having control of the cognitive process of knowledge,” (Kurt & Kurt, 2017). An experiment was conducted on an architecture design studio of which consisted of 9 female and 11 male students to see if keeping reflective design journals (RDJs) would improve metacognition among the students. Within the RDJ, students would write about every activity that occurred in studio, critique the exercises practiced in the studio, such as ways the project could be improved the following year, ask questions and critique other students, etc. These RDJs were designed to force students to really think about what they were learning within the studio, and involve them more in the processes behind what they are doing in the studio/ why they are doing it.

The results from the experiment showed that students who kept RDJs were more concerned about what they were learning, with their grades in the studio reflecting that fact (Kurt & Kurt, 2017). 80% of the students who participated in writing RDJs saw an improvement of their grades from the previous semester, while only 10% of the students’ grades remained the same and 10% saw their grade decrease (presumably to the increased work load.)

The RDJ experiment has extreme potential for improving the overall quality of education received in architectural courses (Kurt & Kurt, 2017). If something of the like is not already required by a students studio, it would be extremely beneficial to keep a personal RDJ for a student’s own reference. It will increase the overall understanding on why certain programs are being introduced to the studio and will force the student to think about what the educational benefit of doing the exercise will be.

Default Light Settings and Energy Consumption

Due to increasing population, and therefore increased power consumption, we are all looking for ways to increase the amount of energy that is being consumed. More power is consumed in the construction industry and in buildings than anywhere else. While a huge effort has been made to reduce the amount of energy we consume by improving technology within buildings to be more efficient, the best way to reduce power usage is to teach people to live more sustainably. Studies show that a large amount of energy waste comes from occupants failing to change light settings throughout the day to match their needs (Heydarian, 2016). Typically when a person enters a room, light settings are adjusted accordingly but typically will remain the same way for the remainder of the time that the occupant is in the space.

An experiment was then conducted to see how varying light conditions could help improve overall energy consumption (Heydarian, 2016). The goal was to provide an energy efficient light solution occupants within the space were comfortable with upon entering the room. Therefore, they would not want to change the settings to something less efficient. To test this, the researchers set up a room that was 50 square meters in size with 3 windows facing south, each with an individual shade that could be adjusted. 12 light fixtures, each with 3 florescent bulbs, were placed in the room. The way the light switches were fixed allowed for a total of 32 different light settings. All of the participants were divided and placed into one of 5 light settings. The first setting had all of the shades open and all lights turned off. The second setting had all shades open and 1 light turned on. The third had all of the shades closed and two lights were turned on, while the fourth had all shades closed and all lights on, and the fifth setting had all of the blinds open in addition to all of the lights being turned on. By the end of the experiment, they found that group 2 had the most people keep the current light settings, with 75% of the participants maintaining that setting. This setting also happens to be the most efficient with the exception of just keeping the lights off and the windows open.

So how can an architect use this information? Architects can be more situationally aware of where windows are placed so that more natural light gets in without letting harsh light in (such as sunrises and sunsets.) This can be accomplished by keeping windows to the north or south of structures if at all possible (Heydarian, 2016).

What Can Modern Psychology Do To Improve Architecture?

Psychology plays a very large role in the architect’s process. Architects must be able to constantly learn and adapt to improve their designs as the tastes of people change and as they move their work to different cultures and societies. This means that architects should find ways of improving their learning process. As we learned earlier, keeping a RDJ (Kurt & Kurt, 2017) is an extremely efficient way of doing this. Other ways of improving our designs would be through studying neuroaesthetics (Coburn, 2017), and how we can use new fMRI studies to influence how people move and interact with a space. This can also be used to manipulate how people behave in a space, whether we are seeking to improve moods through the use of natural light, or bring out the creative thought process by using color theory to our advantage.

A continuous struggle for the construction industry is to create more sustainable buildings and in the long run, influence people to live more sustainable lives. While we can make a building more and more efficient, in the end, it must be the general public’s decision to reduce their consumption for a truly sustainable society. In the default lighting settings study (Heydarian, 2016), we saw that providing the proper initial lighting conditions (via natural light) can significantly reduce the usage of power.


  • Myers, D. G. (2014). Exploring psychology (10th ed). New York: Worth Publishers.
  • BIANCO, L. (2018). Social Media: Third-Person Perceptions of Architecture. Urbanism. Architecture. Constructions / Urbanism. Arhitectura. Constructii, 9(3), 265–272. Retrieved from: /login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=128141814&site=eds-live&scope=site
  • COBURN, A., VARTANIAN, O., & CHATTERJEE, A. (2017). Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 29(9), 1521–1531.[_]a_01146
  • KURT, M., & KURT, S. (2017). Improving Design Understandings and Skills through Enhanced Metacognition: Reflective Design Journals. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 36(2), 226–238.
  • HEYDARIAN, A., PANTAZIS, E., CARNEIRO, J. P., GERBER, D., & BECERIK-GERBER, B. (2016). Lights, Building, Action: Impact of Default Lighting Settings on Occupant Behaviour. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 48, 212–223.

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The Psychology of Architecture. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from

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