Why some places make us feel terrible

Been in a concrete box recently that made you feel depressed or annoyed? There’s a solid scientific basis for that response, as leading US architecture critic and lecturer Professor Sarah Williams Goldhagen explains in her new book Welcome to your world – how the built environment shapes our lives.

Goldhagen brings together the latest research findings of multiple scientific disciplines – including cognitive psychology, environmental psychology, neuro-anthropology and neuroscience – to put forward a case for human wellbeing to be placed at the centre of the design disciplines’ thinking.

Put simply, good design makes us feel good. Goldhagen brings together the research that proves it and applies it to the architecture discipline.

Interviewing leading researchers in the field, she collects evidence of how the built environment shapes our emotions, memories and wellbeing and then interweaves it with design theory and thinking.

Using case studies and personal anecdote, she explores the way different buildings and places affect us through sight, sound, touch and even our ability to interpret our place in the grand scheme of things.

The case studies includes examples of how design can either embrace and enhance the human experience, or can result in habitats that detract from the day-to-day business of being human.

The use of natural elements and views is essential to good design, Goldhagen argues.

She also makes a case for public policy to consider the impacts of the urban form and urban design on the health, productivity and wellbeing of the entire community.

Good design is also not necessarily expensive design.

“I think that at any level of investment, you can make better decisions or worse decisions, and if you’re not making good decisions, you’re making bad ones,” Goldhagen says in an interview about the book with Surface.

As architecture is the art form that has ongoing and major impact on everyone in the community, Goldhagen advocates for thoughtful design approaches that can achieve betterment for the entire society.

Good design should be everywhere, from public housing and accessible public transport to welcoming streets and major commercial developments.

Architects, landscape designers, urban planners and everyone else involved in the built environment needs to become aware of “their immense power”, she tells Surface.

“They can either make human experience or really f*** it up.”

  • Listen to a podcast of Goldhagen discussing the book, the problem with starchitects and the “perils of lowest common denominator construction” here

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