BUENOS AIRES — 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 — when people did and said silly things — 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.