It’s mid June of a hot summer in 2014 and as I sit at the intersection of Wilmington Ave and Grape St in Watts, Los Angeles I observe closely. I do my best to consume everything around me and while our assignment is to record the conditions of the site I find myself unbearingly preoccupied with the people walking up and down this street, going in and out of stores, riding their bikes, looking over their shoulders, I see a woman crying and screaming as she tells me and my colleague that she has just been robbed, but she doesn’t stop for help, instead she continues walking to wherever she was going.
I spot a mother and her son, when she sees me sitting on the sidewalk with a sketchbook I can tell that she becomes suspicious and I see her subtly bring her son closer to her, I notice that her head shrinks down and her shoulders raise up toward her ears and her eyes squint just so slightly. My presence and the presence of the rest of my studio makes her uncomfortable and in this neighborhood it’s hard to trust people you don’t know. Soon I realize, as I watch her as she continues down the street, that she is afraid of everything around her. She constantly looks to her left and to her right to ensure that her and her son make it home safely.
I spent that entire summer in Watts for a design-build studio at my University. The studio was focused on the beautification of the Wilmington Corridor in Watts. This was a place high in crime, poverty, and neglect. My studio, filled with young adults who were getting an education at a private university and most of whom did not grow up in a place like Watts were supposed to come in and make things a little better for this community.
Who were we to determine what was best for a community that we weren’t even a part of? How could we come close to understanding what everyday life is like for the people that lived here.
At this time in my education I had grown to have an invigorating passion for psychology and human behavior. I had read a ton of material on body language and how people interact with each other and the more I read the more I was confused with my education.
In school we learn about architecture in a way that removes it from human context. The focus is all about theories of form and geometry, of materials and systems, of history and scholarship. The architectural curriculum contains not even one class about people, about how we think and behave, what drives us and moves us. There is no talk of sociology, psychology, biology, neurology. Not of our behavior or what history has to say about our relationship to our environment.
This is extraordinarily perplexing to me. As architects we are trusted with creating a world for humanity to inhabit, but how can we do that if we don’t understand them. It’s obvious that the mother I spoke about earlier was fearful of the people in her environment. But what about her environment could make her feel safer? This question should precede any other design agenda. What if on her entire walk home there was no where for someone to hide? That would eliminate the uncertainty of what danger might lie in an alleyway or side of a shop. It’s an environmental change that meets an internal human need, in this case, safety.
I do recognize that architecture could not entirely remove something as powerful as fear but what I’m saying is that our focus as designers should begin and be guided [almost entirely] by the people we are designing for. I spent my entire last year of college searching for material directly relating architecture to human psychology, sociology, and biology and while I was able to discover many interesting things I found myself disappointed with the overwhelming lack of literature on these dichotomies.
There is a lot of stuff out there about topics like: phenomenology, psychology of color, philosophy, ergonomics, and countless other areas looking at people’s relationship to physical and perceivable phenomena. There is especially interesting progress being made in neuroscience and its relationship to architecture (check out The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture).
Ultimately, I think, even more so than having scientific evidence, it’s having architectural education grounded in understanding the people we are supposed to build for. If foundational classes in psychology, human behavior, sociology, and neuroscience were a core part of the pedagogy at design schools I believe it would not only result in more thoughtful design outcomes but also empower designers to design on an even deeper level.
So, what do you think? Should the study of people be more of a core focus in architecture school? Have you had some of the same feelings? What have you read or learned in your career that has given you a better understanding of people’s relationship to the space around them?
Im also very interested in any reading recommendations and feedback on the article in general. I haven't written in a while and I am always reading and looking for new things to discover!
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This blog explores ideas about design and how it relates to our lives through research and critical thinking. As the title suggests this will be a platform to present thought provoking ideas intended for further discussion.