The Role of Architecture in Our Cities and Lives

Local populations that contribute to the design and construction of buildings in their region have increased rates of happiness and healthiness.

If we refer back to Darwinian theory, all species of animals are drawn to natural habitats set up for their thriving. When it comes to humans, we are looking for environments that provide a delicate balance of intrigue and protection. While we can’t swim particularly well (compared to whales) or fly, we have managed to use our intelligence to engineer technology that can transport us around the world in the sky and across the earth’s biggest oceans – our brains are our superpower. We are attracted to the prospect of more information about the environment like hounds on a fox hunt.

We Are Drawn to Mysterious Environments

Not surprisingly, we tend to like environments that flirt with us; those that bring mystery and complexity. The uniform layout of conventional streets in American towns and cities ensure navigation in the areas is easy. That said, humans naturally prefer curved streets, where the road ahead can’t be seen. When considering a floor plan sketch, it’s important to remember that we are drawn to the element of mystery as it excites our curiosity. Of course, we ultimately want environments that also satiate our curiosity.

Balancing Intrigue with Clarity

“Legible” environments are those that humans can conceptualise a cognitive map of without much effort – basically spaces that are easy to survey. The ability to view what’s coming – prospect – plays a big role in the legibility of an environment. Think back to the land of our origin, the African Savannah, where there were key environmental markers, like densely packed trees, to guide us on our way.

We tend to fall in love with landscapes that manage to beautifully balance the element of mystery with legibility; coherent structure with marvelled complexity. Fractal geometry serves as an effective divider in natural environments, providing order to chaos. We learn from the fractal patterns present in nature, as they inspire much architecture around the world

The Evolution of Architecture

When it comes to vernacular structure formats and settlement arrangements, the rise of both can be traced back to the complexity of the human mind and body. The neurological processes in human minds exhibit fractal properties in the same way the composition that organ cells exhibit fractal properties. In olden times, settlement structures evolved organically, and growth was restricted by the availability of local natural materials, such as stone and wood. Civilisations grew slowly. All road networks followed natural contours in the land – there were no bridges, tunnels or carved out flat highways.

The colossal scale of development and fast pace of life in recent half-centuries has meant traditional architectural evolution is no longer organic. Too many of our everyday surroundings are ill-suited for the cultivation of community, wellbeing and human creativity. So, how should we begin the seemingly monumental task of creating environments that work for us rather than against us? WikiHouse, a platform for the design and construction of affordable family homes, was co-founded by Alastair Parvin. Parvin informed us that much of what people write-off as bad architectural design today is, in fact, good architectural design – it’s just that the economic goals of the architecture run counter to the thriving of the individual human.

The Rise of Collective Efficacy

To create environments that serve human needs better, people need access to the tools required to co-create homes, streets, community centres, schools, parks, and workplaces. When local populations become involved in designing, creating, building and nurturing their local surroundings, they benefit from a greater sense of community, pride and personal agency (AKA “collective efficacy”). The higher the rate of collective efficacy, the lower the rates of violent crime, littering and vandalism.

There have been many successful collective efficacy projects around the globe including Bristol’s street artists and “half-houses” in Chile. Collective efficacy results in ordered complexity which results in thriving, healthy spaces. To cultivate a resilient future for the next generation, we all need to start playing a more active role in shaping our local surroundings as opposed to letting them shape us.