Architectural Psychology 1969–2007



The aim of this paper is to critically evaluate the impact that research in Architectural Psychology and human aspects of design has had in the teaching and practice of Architecture, over the past 38 years. During this period there have been over 20 international conferences on the subject, numerous symposia and PhDs, dedicated international journals, books, articles and other publications. What has been the major contribution of this research to our understanding of people–environment relationships from both the theoretical and practical perspectives? Has this increased knowledge resulted in changes in legislation or directives by the appropriate professional bodies and institutions? It is argued that this significant multidisciplinary body of knowledge has contributed to a change in attitudes within the architectural profession towards a more humane environment. One of the main problems identified is how to communicate this knowledge to both students and practitioners. A case is made through the teaching of the subject over the past four decades that students not only appreciate the psychological and cultural aspects of design but consider the subject fundamental to their education. This is supported by annual feedback studies on a longitudinal basis, as well as many examples of students putting this knowledge in practice when they qualify.

The reader interested in research-based projects in the Year 2 undergraduate course, can obtain from the address above a specially prepared CD. A visit to the website will show the titles of over 1,400 Environmental Psychology reports. The reader can identify changes of students’ interests during this period and compare them with those in the international field.

By: Byron Mikellides


Architectural psychology, environmental psychology, man/woman (people)–environment studies, human factors of design or the ontoperivantic (human/environmental) aspects of psychostructural environics, call it what you may, has been concerned explicitly over the past 38 years in making better and more humane environments. These preoccupations have also strong and varied undertones and appeal to the social and behavioural sciences including psychology, sociology, neurophysiology, geography, and anthropology. To what extent is the architect better off now and how much do we know and practice this new knowledge?

The aim of this article is to provide the reader with a critique based on the knowledge and experience of teaching Architectural Psychology to architecture students since the subject was born in 1969 at the House of Black Dell in Dalandhui, Scotland and the first conference proceedings were published by the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and edited by David Canter (1974).

There are at least four questions which need to be addressed:

  • Have research, conferences, books and journals contributed to an increase in our knowledge on the subject?
  • Has this knowledge been communicated to designers on the built environment as witnessed through the practice of architecture?
  • Has there been a change in attitudes towards a more humane architecture, after putting this research knowledge into the educational curriculum?
  • Have professional groups and institutions such as local authorities and professional organisations such as the RIBA and the ARB (Architect Registration Board) influenced legislation and directives on such issues as accessibility, disability, crime prevention, human rights and sustainable development?

Has research and publication increased knowledge of architectural psychology?

In 1969 there were very few books from mainstream psychology or sociology that designers found inspiring or relevant to the practice of their profession. Richard Gregory’s (1998) Eye and Brain, first published in 1966, was one such book from experimental psychology, as was Michael Argyle’s (1997) The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour published in 1967, which considered psychological needs and motivation in social psychology. Ervin Goffman’s (1963) Behaviour in Public Places was another major contribution from Sociology. The Hidden Dimension, by anthropologist Edward Hall (1966) was another such book discussing ethological issues, proxemics and cross-cultural differences in space requirements. Nico Tinburgen, John Calhoun, Robert Ardrey, and Konrad Lorenz were the predecessors of Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, discussing the modern equivalents of territoriality and personal space within the new concepts of defensible space, surveillance and vandal-proof architecture. Roger Barker’s (1963) pioneering work in ecological psychology in his book The Stream of Behaviour, Kevin Lynch’s (1960) The Image of the City, and Terence Lee’s work on mental mapping applications Psychology and the Environment (1976) were significant landmarks of what was to follow. In the field of experimental aesthetics, Daniel Berlyne’s (1971) Aesthetics and Psychobiology, as well as Rikard Küller’s (1972) Semantic Model for Describing Perceived Environments came after the first conference.

A body of specialised knowledge began to evolve in the 1970s and new publications included Proshansky, Ittelson and Rivlin’s (1970) Environmental Psychology, David Canter’s (1974) Psychology for Architects, James Gibson’s (1979) Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Neil Prak’s (1977) Perception of the Visual Environment, Charles Moore’s (1977) Body Memory and Architecture and Byron Mikellides’ (1980) Architecture for People.

Schools of architecture introduced the subject in various guises ranging from human aspects of design to courses in architectural psychology or as part of history and theory. Terence Lee and David Canter moved from St Andrews and Strathclyde to the University of Surrey to offer the first MSc course in environmental psychology outside the context of a school of Architecture. In Lund, Sweden we saw the first Department of Theoretical and Applied Aesthetics formed, which hosted the third international conference on the subject. In fact, the development of the subject can be seen in the 21 conferences on architecture psychology, widened in 1988 to IAPS (International Association for People–Environments Studies) an organisation established to promote research and communication of these concerns about people and environments in theory and practice. Future historians will be able to assess objectively the contribution of this subject during the last 38 years within the various relevant social sciences as well as its impact on the design professions. At this early stage, one can only undertake a ‘content analysis’ of its development reflected
in the papers presented and published at the various conferences, as well as the title themes of these events.

In addition to these books and conference proceedings, there have been many papers in the psychological and the architectural journals with specific themes on the subject. The Journal of Environmental Psychology was first published in the UK and Environment & Behaviour in the USA; the Architectural Psychology Newsletters, published by Sue-Ann Lee at Kingston followed by the IAPS Bulletins, have kept researchers in touch with each other over the years. International organisations such as IAPS, EDRA (Environmental Design Research Association), PAPER (Pacific

Atlantic Australasia Organisation) were established. In the USA, the Journal of Architecture and Planning Research won publishing awards and Raymond Lifchez’s (1981) special issue entitled Designing with People in Mind, was followed by his book Rethinking Architecture (1987), highlighting his concern about accessible architecture to disabled groups.

The verdict on the first question raised is that a considerable amount of new knowledge and research has been accumulated over the years in different guises in books, conference proceedings and scientific articles. This increased knowledge is in the areas of the psychology of space and place, perception, colour and light, aesthetics, participation and human needs, cross cultural studies, Post Occupancy Evaluation, proxemics, accessibility issues, as well as sustainable development in its various aspects.

Has the knowledge of Architectural Psychology influenced the practice of architects?

The second question that needs to be addressed is how this knowledge has been communicated to designers practising their profession and to students of architecture aspiring to influence our future living environments. When we look at the real world of architecture, a considerable amount of this research has gone unnoticed. Some architects are sceptical about its value in design and, as a consequence, design awards are given primarily for imagination and originality at the expense of the users’ health and well-being. Niels Prak’s (1984) Architects, the Noted and the Ignored provides us with a useful analysis of the self-image and self-esteem of the professional as opposed to the user. However, a growing number of established and up-and-coming architects are offering us hope for the future when they combine both originality and aesthetics with an understanding and catering for people’s needs. In some of these cases, the architect puts their clients’ needs at the top of their list.

Have curriculum changes led to a change in attitude towards more humane architecture?

Ralph Erskine is one such architect; in the Pågens bakery in Malmo, Sweden, he has considered the occupants’ psychological needs such as the balance between ‘contact’ and ‘privacy’ as well as ‘identity’ and ‘personalisation’, while remaining very much aware of the occupants’ differences in terms of personality and values, as well as the need to change the open-plan office landscape for various activities, whether co-operative or competitive. One can see this genuine concern about the users in the sketches he made in Architecture for People (Mikellides, 1980:135), that he is deeply aware of the research on proxemics, personal space, social distance and territoriality, as well as the social psychological literature on human needs. His comment in the sketches referred to above, that ‘neither buildings nor furniture solve social or psychological problems, but hopefully they can help’, shows that he has grasped the concept of ‘architectural determinism’ just right (i.e., he does not make extravagant claims nor does he reject the role of the creative and caring architect in improving and facilitating more humane environments).

This is where Alice Coleman in Utopia on Trial (1985) got it wrong. While following and replicating the work of the late Oscar Newman (1972) on defensible space and surveillance, she has stressed far too much design improvement as the sole factor for health and well-being. Refurbishment, management, security and landscape improvements could be just as important, however, depending on each problematic housing estate in its own location, whether high-rise or not. Even Oscar Newman (1987:30) commented that ‘Utopia on Trial does not pay sufficient attention to social factors interacting with the physical as causes of housing disfunction. As for her comment that ‘Utopian designs have tipped the balance sufficiently to make criminals out of potentially law-abiding citizens and victims out of potentially secure and happy people’ (Coleman, 1985:15), the language is emotive and does not do justice to an otherwise important piece of research using unobtrusive measures. By getting the balance of the concept of architectural determinism wrong, however, she invited criticism discrediting the research. She also fails to stress the point that in the final analysis it is not so much the actual design improvements made which are important but the exercise of participation and feeling on involvement of residents in the design process that contributes to the residents’ well-being.

There are other architects who should be mentioned in this context who have contributed through their architecture and writing to designing with people in mind, through their own idiosyncratic approaches, to making healthier and happier places for people to live in. Christoph Schulten’s sensitive participation projects in Aachen and Bavaria; Walter Segal’s projects in Lewisham and Stutgart University self-build housing for students; Phil Bixby’s work with unemployed groups in the north of England; Herman Hertzberger’s attempt to get people involved with their surroundings, each other and themselves; Lucien Kroll’s (Mikellides, 1980:162) motto ‘no inhabitant participation, no plans’ and the late Charles Moore’s (Mikellides, 1980:115) dictum that ‘buildings, if they are to succeed, must be able to receive a great deal of human energy and store it and even repay it with interest’ are genuine non-cosmetic attempts to consider, interpret and translate in their own way the concepts of human needs, aesthetics, health and well-being at their drawing boards. These days some of these concepts are referred to as ‘sustainable architecture’.

However well briefed, well prepared and motivated the architect may be, there will usually be problems and conflicts that cannot easily be solved. A case in point is the exemplary Hartcliffe project at Bristol carried out in 1969. In this pioneering experiment the architects, clients and psychologists worked together on the proposed move of an industrial and commercial complex of Wills Tobacco Co. from the centre of Bristol to the Hartcliffe suburb. The aim of the experiment was to collect the people’s reactions to the pr
oposed move, their anxieties and feelings, as well as to consider their views on amenities and working conditions. Another objective of the study, according to Brian Wells, was ‘not only to promote the efficiency but to promote happiness and add something to the quality of people’s working lives’. (Wells, 1969:44). The pilot study, the interviewing, the structural questionnaires and the objective analysis of data used the latest scientific techniques yet there were problems in, for example, translating the company’s desire for a single, communal dining facility (to bring together all grades of factory and all office workers) as employees wanted the hierarchy of dining facilities that they were used to. Architects, clients and psychologists had to meet again, re-educate themselves and consider how changing values in society are tempered with the users’ practical wishes.

There is another problem that arises, even in the best-intended experiments. There is no feedback on how successful these experiments are. Architectural journals should have a section on this subject. How can we learn without this information? Fortunately, in the above experiment a second-year architectural student, Jonathan Loxton, went back, as part of his Environmental Psychology course, to Hartcliffe 16 years after it was built; he found that the ‘caring company’ was not just an image but that the users were genuinely happy about working at the Wills factory, with an interesting caveat. They would have liked to have been briefed more about the visual aesthetics of the exterior of the factory which, although it won design awards, they thought looked like a ‘rusty biscuit tin’. Maybe another experiment to investigate the gap in taste between the professional and the user is in order.

However encouraging this example may be of architects designing with people in mind and even though there have been a few experiments here and there, by far the best of way of communicating the new body of knowledge is through education. Architectural students may see and study some of these successful architectural experiments, while a few may be inspired and attempt to emulate their masters. The opportunity of critically evaluating the validity and reliability of their work in formal teaching and studio projects is so unique that to ignore it is to perpetuate the naïve view that architecture is only an art at the expense of articulating form which reflects human life and emotion.

By far the main contribution of psychology in architectural education is made in the first three years of the course, and once the groundwork has been laid it does not matter what formal course in psychology or human factors the student pursues afterwards. The fact is that by this time all the students of architecture have been instilled with a ‘psychological eye’ and are better equipped to search for those aspects they have not considered in their designs before. Pedagogically this is a very difficult test to quantify but it can be seen in the exhaustive feedback studies over the past 38 years where Psychology has been evaluated amongst the best relevant subjects in their education; also in the answers to the examination questions in the first and third year on the relevance of Architectural Psychology in education and design as well as in the students’ performance in ‘crits’. The criterion of success is not to be found in the practical rules of thumb that are acquired but in the general framework and awareness of the nature of science in relation to our aesthetic and social needs. A few of the students will pursue some of these ideas and objective methods of evaluation further; others will concentrate on a more theoretical interest somewhere along the man/woman–environment continuum, and a tiny majority will apply for a higher degree in environmental psychology at Surrey. By far the greatest majority of architects will not do that but will instead practise their profession. It is this group of architects that we are most interested in. For example, Mats Egelius’ award-winning participation projects in Sweden are well documented. While a student at Oxford he attended the Lund Conference, researched the subject, wrote articles in the architectural media and a book on Erskine and above all put this knowledge to designing buildings and influencing peoples’ well-being; he even lives in an apartment in the same housing block he designed for people through active participation – something that very few architects do.

The impact of Egelius and others like him is difficult to quantify, but their research is crucial in making a difference to peoples’ lives. Other examples include the work of Gus Grundt, leading the team that won the European Sustainable City Award for Oslo in 2002; the work of Phil Bixby enabling poor families in the north of England to build their own homes by extending his traditional architectural role; the work of Chris Trickey who for the past 20 years has been designing with people in mind in the south of England; and in his firm’s latest project, designing the Police Headquarters in Hertfordshire in 2005, he worked with an architectural psychologist to include in his design the latest research in colour and light psychology. Examples from non-Oxford Brookes graduates include Omretta Romice’s ongoing successful participation experiments in Glasgow and Roderick Laurence’s full-scale simulation experiments in Switzerland. So in answer to the third question raised, this subject can change the attitudes of the new generation of architects and has done so where it was taught.

I held this belief in 1968 when I started teaching the subject at the Oxford School of Architecture. Over the past 37 years we have produced thousands of graduates in architecture who have studied architectural psychology, not as an option but as an integral part of their three-year course in architectural studies. Students like the subject now no less or more than they did then, and they see its relevance to architectural education. Architectural psychology has not been just a fashionable topic like many other trendy theories, philosophies or subjects, such as semiology, phenomenology, deconstruction, ergonomics, simulation, virtual reality, chaos and catastrophe theory, quantum physics and nowadays sustainable development and digital culture. Architecture should not only cater to selfish hooligan interventions but also, and to a larger degree, to pragmatic and habitable and healthy buildings which may not win design awards but can provide the inhabitants with pleasure and joy.

Unfortunately, despite the positive contribution that psychology could have in architectural education, there is little evidence that it is taught, let alone integrated within the architectural curriculum in the UK. Amber Beare (1993) carried out the only survey of the 36 schools of architecture in the UK with a 60% return rate. Beare found that only parts of the subject are covered – human factors, colour theory and space perception being the most popular topics. The most popular book in the curriculum is Oscar Newman’s (1972) Defensible Space. The only other survey of its kind is a cross-cultural comparison between Sweden and England on colour research in architectural education by Janssens (Lund) and Mikellides (Oxford) (1998). A total of 448 students in five Swedish and British universities took part in testing the students’ knowledge on colour psychology, colour systems, myths and beliefs about colour. Despite the respondents’ positive attitudes toward
s colour research, their actual knowledge based on the coverage of the subject in lectures and studios was very poor in both countries. We think these results are typical and represent the situation in other schools of architecture in both countries.

The architect who has had no training in psychology or human aspects of design as part of his/her education will either completely dismiss research in architectural psychology as being of no practical usefulness whatsoever (because he/she fails to understand it), or may view part of it with unrealistic enthusiasm, awe, or even see it as panacea for the complex problems of modern society. This is aptly illustrated by the Government’s eagerness to apply Alice Coleman’s ideas on solving crime and vandalism overnight as an easy, short-term solution. The emphasis should not be on psychology after the architect has qualified in terms of research projects, post-graduate courses or higher degrees, but on it being part of his/her development of basic architectural concepts. The old proverb ‘prevention is better than cure’ applies here as well. Perhaps we should move some of the emphasis away from architectural psychology towards a psychological architecture.

The concepts of accessibility and disability issues, fire behaviour (by the late Jonathan Simes), housing guidelines including Ingrid Gehls’ psychological needs of identity, control, security, experience and pleasantness as well as different concepts of participation can be easily related and integrated in studio projects (Mikellides, 1980). The subject of aesthetics entails different philosophical, psychological and practical considerations; however difficult, it can be tackled immediately in the first year of architectural education in a sensible and sensitive way by looking at beautiful elements and structures in nature and the built environment – a successful project run over the past 25 years. By appealing to nature, which has been in the design business for one hundred million years, as well as experiencing nature during the changing of the autumn colours at Westonbirt Arboretum, and then driving to the beautiful city of Bath, students begin to understand the concepts of rhyme – both synchronic and diachronic – as well as rhythm, balance and harmony. In 2004, over 3,000 visitors at Westonbirt Arboretum, Great Oak Hall went to the exhibition to see the students’ work appreciating both the theoretical basis and analysis of the project as well as the stunning images, i.e., combining theory and practice.

Students also see how these ideas have been used since antiquity; here Vitruvius’s (1960) concepts of commodity firmness and delight (40 BC) become not only relevant but link with the past to the inquiring architectural mind: the training in geometry and philosophy, the golden section and theories of proportion, astronomy and especially music where rhyme and contrast are an integral part of a musical composition. Perhaps one needs to go back to basics. Students also see the relevance of poetry and Gerald Manley Hopkins’ ‘platonic dialogue’, Andy Goldsworthy, Victor Vasarely and the methods of structuralism (Mikellides, 1980). They also study Küller’s model of aesthetic experience relating the concepts of complexity and unity to physiological arousal. Architectural examples proposed by P. Smith’s books Architecture and the Principle of Harmony (1980) and the Dynamics of Delight (2003) are also relevant.

The outstanding work on the subject by evolutionary biologist Nicholas Humphrey is the backbone of this project (Mikellides, 1980). During this period it has been consistently considered by students as one of the best projects they have in Year 1 and, even more encouragingly, students use the concepts of synchronic and diachronic rhyme throughout their five years at school. These are the people who will be practising aesthetics in the future and this project is a good start. These concepts are now part of the architectural vocabulary and were published in 2004 by Tom Porter’s book Archispeak, an illustrated guide to architectural terms.

It is one thing to know about psychological needs and even to be able to recite them from memory and another thing to isolate the relevant ones for a defined problem within a particular social or cultural context. Knowing about human needs is an important first step, understanding these needs a vital second, but evoking and expressing them through their translation in built form is a culminant third. It is at this stage that the creativity and aesthetic sensitivity that is demanded of the architect becomes the critical factor. At this point, the architect may need to be inspired by nature and art, or go out to learn from experience what natural structures people find beautiful, as well as from architectural precedent and Post Occupancy Evaluation studies. Then he or she may return to the drawing board and try to emulate these structures in design not by naively mimicking natural objects but by being inspired by the relations between the artificial elements exhibiting the felicitous rhymes of natural beauty. It is in this marriage of interests, and in this understanding, that the architect’s truly creative role resides.

Have professional groups and institutions influenced legislation and directives?

Finally in answer to the fourth question raised, there is no better time than now to consider the impact of this research on human needs and aesthetics, to the design professions. By far the best way is through education. The current EEC Directive, Article 3, prescribes that architects should be trained and educated, in addition to design and technical expertise, in aesthetics and the human sciences. In fact, six out of the eleven requirements are about these aspects. Aesthetics, human sciences, social factors, preparing briefs, human comfort, users’ needs, methods of investigation and the architect role in society are the actual terms used. Nor is it a coincidence that the RIBA strategic study carried out in the UK by a previous President, Frank Duffy in the late ‘90s, sees that the top priority for change perceived by staff and students in schools of architecture is ‘a greater focus on design from human/social needs’, (RIBA Report to the Oxford School of Architecture, 1998). There is the realization, more than ever before, of the potential impact of this research to different professionals in both education and practice that has changed over the years. Different countries have been more successful than others. In the UK this knowledge is incorporated in both legislation and different types of Directives. In addition to the EEC Directive above, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Crime Prevention Act 1997, the Human Rights Act 1998 and currently the various Sustainability Directives and Agenda 21 are further examples of where IAPS research over the years has become an important part in the education and practice of the design and planning professions.


The fact that well over 4,000 students over this period have studied Architectural Psychology
as an integral and mandatory part of their education at par with Design, History and Theory, Structure and Technology, despite the economic climate, philosophical and personality traits of five different Heads of School over the years is a test of the validity and reliability of the value of Architectural Psychology on a longitudinal basis. This was achieved because the consumers of this work considered the subject in annual student feedback in 38 years as essential, relevant and interesting in their education.

Charles Moore once wrote that when people do visit a place and like it or feel some connection with it, they send postcards to their friends to indicate their pleasure. Over the years, letters from past students and at the Doric Architectural Alumni Reunions informed the School of the pride they felt when designing with ‘people in mind’. This is a difficult test to quantify and administer but it is another way of showing the profound influence that Architectural Psychology has had on their lives and the ways they want to share it with the people they are designing for. RIBA prizes are now given not only for original designs but for humane ones as well.

In pedagogic terms, this article has shown how a subject like Psychology is integrated within a design-based course. The critical factor is the balance between imparting knowledge, practice and research. Over nearly 40 years of teaching the subject at the Oxford School of Architecture, students considered it fundamental to their education, not as elective but as a mandatory part of the curriculum in all 3 years of the BA Honours course. The emphasis on research-based experience in the second year, offers the students the possibility of meeting people – young and old, here and abroad – that they are designing for. The titles of the various projects undertaken are a testimony of the range and topic of interest. This real life research-based learning goes beyond carrying out good pieces of work. The clients of buildings, whether private homes, public buildings, streets or towns, find the results of student projects interesting and relevant to their lives. The specially prepared pedagogic CD of the content and method of teaching the subject is a useful outcome of how it could be done in the future with 40 years history behind it. The pride and joy experienced over the past 10 years when their work was also exhibited to the public as documented in the CD is a further testimony that this approach is not just fashionable but a sustainable academic and pedagogic practice.


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