Urban Design

Not Only Are Ugly Buildings Messing Up Dallas, They May Be Ruining Your Health

Critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen argues in a new book that, for better or worse, buildings profoundly shape our feelings, memories, and well-being.

Last week, I wrote about how I believe much of the new construction in Dallas — and particularly multi-family construction — leaves much to be desired, aesthetically speaking. In the combative comments section to that post, I was accused of advancing a subjective value assessment of the current state of Dallas building that naively misunderstood the delicate economics that make new construction possible. But what if the aesthetic quality of a building possesses a value that supersedes financial considerations and conventions of taste? What if ugly buildings were actually bad for your health?

That’s what critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen argues in her new book Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. Interviewed on CityLab, Goldhagen argues that part of what has led to a glut of ugly building is a split in cities and in the real estate industry between the disciplines of building and architecture:

[Cities] undervalue the importance of the design of the built environment altogether. There is this sort of professional split between high architecture and building, which my research shows is just fallacious. It’s all architecture and it’s all important, because it’s all having an impact on people all the time.

More specifically, very often in cities, the overall form of buildings is given much more priority than materials, surfaces, textures, and details. What we know about the way we appropriate and experience places is that the overall form of a place is not what most dramatically affects our experience of it. It’s more what psychologists call the surface-based cues.

Architects tend, particularly with parametric design, to emphasize overall aggregate form, and all that other stuff gets filled in later. And then, very often, it’s value-engineered out. That’s what’s creating a lot of the impoverishment in the environment. To have “sticky” places—places that engage you, your sensory system, your motor system, [and] help you create a sense of identification with [them]—you have to have all those things, and most buildings don’t.

What happens when buildings don’t engage your sensual experience of a place, Goldhagen continues, is that they end up affecting how we experience places psychologically:

Another thing is differentiated, non-repetitive surfaces. [The psychologist and author] Colin Ellard did a study of how people respond: He basically put sensors on people and had them walk by a boring, generic building. Then he had them walk past something much more variegated with more ways to [engage] visually and therefore motorically. He found that people’s stress levels, measured by cortisol, went up dramatically when they were walking past the boring building.

The reason I emphasize non-conscious [cognition] is because most people are very bad at knowing why we’re feeling or thinking the things we are. You could be walking past that boring building and you ascribe your stress to a bad conversation you had with someone the other day. But cognition is embodied, and you’re standing next to this soul-desiccating place, and that’s what’s going on.

The only way out of our current state, Goldhagen argues, is a holistic and revolutionary rewrite of all of the fundamentals of city-building:

What concretely needs to happen: One, architectural education. Two, real-estate development. Three, building codes, zoning codes, all these things need to be reviewed according to these kinds of standards. Four, architects need to not be so skittish in thinking about human experience and learn more about it. It’s a much larger problem than just, “Architects should do better.” It’s not a professional disciplinary problem, it’s a larger social problem. We also need more research.

The whole thing is worth a read.

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