BUENOS AIRES â€" We seem to have forgotten how architecture can affect us and for that, perhaps, we can blame some of the excessive statements made about it. Consider Leon Battista Alberti, an early theorist of Renaissance architecture, who declared in 1400 that the balance of classical forms could turn barbarian invaders into civilized citizens. Was that wishful thinking? If you think Leon can be excused for his belief because he was from such a distant past â€" when people did and said silly things â€" let me point out that, at the start of the 20th century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who counts the Guggenheim museum in New York among his many emblematic works, said that good architecture could save the United States from corruption.
This and other nonsensical claims have made us all forget a basic thing: that architecture does affect psychology.
The topic became relevant again eight years ago, almost fortuitously, when British researchers found one of the links between architecture, city planning and people. Apparently a 10-minute walk along one of the main roads in southern London put psychotic patients in a worse state of mind although I am confident a 10-minute walk along two of our own capital's shopping streets, Florida and nearby Lavalle, would worsen any psychotic case and prompt a psychotic symptom or two among the sane.
The Australian architect Jan Golembiweski, who is a specialist in how environmental factors affect mental health at Sidney University, has found that a positive environment can inspire good mental health. In one study, he concluded that people with psychological problems reacted far more often to bad environments than the mentally healthy.
The impact of architecture can be greater when the scale is larger. Robert Moses, a planner working in New York from the 1930s, built highways, avenues, bridges and his famous parkways for the exclusive use of cars. In addition to their aesthetic quality, these areas prevented buses (and their lower-class passengers) traveling to exclusive destinations like the Jones Beach State Park, which itself was another one of his crafty projects.
Many believe that this champion of discrimination learned many of his city planning tricks from Baron Haussmann, the mid-19th century official who helped reshape Paris into a city of boulevards. The aim behind creating the wide axes often leading to some grand monument, as conceived by emperor Napoleon III, was to put a permanent, preventive end to street revolutions. The wide boulevards effectively made it difficult to build barricades or obstruct the army and their construction opened up excellent real estate opportunities.
While architecture can influence people's moods, the correlation is presently no more scientific than the realm of color therapy: light colors make you happy, dark ones sad, yellow and green are soothing, red is a stimulant and the like. But as we have seen, city planning can be a potent instrument of control and discrimination.
Architectural psychology is already being used every day in the design of shops, hotels, casinos and parks. Design is now known to influence customers after observing the behavior of visitors at Disney's big shopping outlets. The data these observations yielded led store managers to systematically relocate mirrors, piles of cans, posters or seats.
The researcher William Poundstone has stated that the U.S. firm Sorensen Associates uses tracking devices on supermarket trolleys to see what customers do. The firm reportedly observed that shoppers circulating anti-clockwise are, on average, likely to spend $2 more per supermarket trip than customers moving clockwise. That led supermarkets to put entrances on the righthand side to prompt this pattern of movement and, ultimately, ensure their owners became wealthier. Just one of the many uses of architectural psychology.
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.