Book Excerpt – Chapter 1

The Inescapable Architecture of Everyday Life

Architecture surrounds us but there is little general awareness of its impact on us. A mother once spoke about selecting a school for her daughter and she said that most of the institutions she visited had buildings that seemed more like prisons. She wondered how being schooled in a rigid corridor-centric building without art or natural light could make a child bright, courageous, and well-rounded with an appreciation for beauty in life.

Indeed, not just schools but the entire built environment plays a major role in all our lives and has the potential to provide a framework for our flourishing.  Streets we walk on, rooms we work in, even corridors we go through all affect us in myriad ways.  Most of us give these spaces no more than a passing thought.

In An Outline of European Architecture, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner said that “a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.” The implicit assumption he made—and we all make—is that the bicycle shed is unimportant and has nothing to offer us. 

We tend to notice only what is striking or dramatic, in a word, monumental, and the everyday environment which is relatively humdrum escapes our gaze.

This is a natural corollary of the inaccessibility of the everyday in a wider sense. Ordinary moments like sipping a cup of morning coffee elapse unremembered; only the extraordinary persists. It takes effort to turn our attention to daily matters because we are generally able to manage them unconsciously.

When we do, a very rich structure reveals itself.

Not long ago, the novelist David Foster Wallace narrated the following story in a commencement speech: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

Wallace adds, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

Architecture is like this ambient water. It is invisible but inescapable. The trace each encounter with it leaves on us is infinitesimal, but an infinity of such imperceptible experiences over the course of days, months, years can and do add up.

The macro impacts of these micro effects go unremarked unless there is some breakdown or disaster in our dwellings. As a result, they remain mute enclosures that are poorly understood. Perhaps the most important aspect of our ordinary surroundings is how they affect our well-being.

The field of design and health emerged in the previous mid-century to study the effects of the built environment and to recommend ways to promote wellness through architecture. With the unfortunate growth of chronic lifestyle diseases, it has now acquired a practical urgency even though it has yet to have a wider impact.

One reason for this may be that while a great deal of convincing evidence has been accumulated leading to many practical initiatives, the field has yet to forge a unifying theoretical perspective that can interpret this data, explain it, and even make new and unexpected predictions. We hope to contribute to this effort, especially to show that our architectural interactions are far from obvious and possess a deep and fascinating structure capable of endless elaboration.

There are many levels at which this immersive built environment exerts its influence. It can be as simple as a single enclosure such as a room or Pevsner’s bicycle shed. It can accommodate multiple such spaces in apartments and offices.

The latter constitute complex multistory buildings including soaring monuments. Less easily grasped are neighborhoods and cities. Beyond these lie entire regions connected by geography and transportation networks.

How these levels are designed and linked to each other and the meanings they generate have a lasting impact.

The user is in fact an active rather than passive agent and participates in shaping his experience and his response to the architecture he encounters. By using very recent ideas from economics and psychology that deal with how people make choices, we build a framework that provides a way to understand architecture and how it affects our health.

Our protagonist is a genial character named Phil who occasionally along with his neighbor Tom negotiates different choices of actions involving physical activity, social interaction, and emotions that result in a wide range of types of effects on health, each experienced through varied architectural elements such as streets, stairways, workplaces, residential neighborhoods, public plazas, parks and playgrounds, and  so on.

The basic focus throughout the book is on human behavior in the context of design that affects Phil’s wellness—and by implication ours—positively or negatively, in big ways or small.

This framework is developed in detail and some of the basic concepts of choice theory, a basic framework of ideas in economics, are introduced and related to architectural meaning. The examples allow us to draw out the abstract ideas from the concrete settings. 

A key pair of distinctions helps us understand this diverse terrain of action. One is what economists label rational and irrational actions and the other is Daniel Kahneman’s slow and fast thinking.

According to Kahneman, slow deliberation generally results in rational choices whereas fast intuitive thinking sometimes results in irrational choices.  In the next chapter we’ll explain what makes an action rational or irrational.  We try to show how both kinds of choices can be turned to our advantage. The definition captures something about the logic of choosing.

For example, if Phil is at a restaurant and initially feels like choosing an avocado sandwich over an egg sandwich, which he prefers to a cheese sandwich, we could reasonably expect him to opt for the avocado sandwich over the cheese sandwich as well.  If Phil doesn’t, if he prefers the cheese sandwich to the avocado sandwich instead, we would consider the logic of his choices aberrant and call it irrational.

The way we use the terms “rational” and “irrational” is very different from both colloquial uses and other technical uses such as those of Kierkegaard, William James, and Sigmund Freud among others. If Phil enjoys skydiving every weekend, some may deem him irrational in a colloquial sense because they think he is endangering his life too much.

But if he has carefully weighed the pleasure he derives from the activity against its risks then in our economic sense his choice would be rational. The philosophical senses have little to do with our distinction between rational and irrational actions. They originate in different models of the mind than ours and have different applications.

There are just a few other technical terms in this book that describe the principles underlying choice. They help to orient the reader to a new way of thinking about architecture.

We also show in the last chapter that the historical Vitruvian triad of utility, firmness, and beauty that has organized architecture for two thousand years itself appears in a different light in this new context. Most important, we argue that health and wellness are an integral part of all architecture at all levels and should not be an afterthought.

We offer a way to make the invisible architectural water surrounding us visible. This framework combined with existing approaches in the field of design and health could help architects to realize the promise of our schools and other everyday places, enabling people to become bright, courageous, and well-rounded individuals with an appreciation for beauty in life.

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