The Power of the Architect – Part 1

Designing environments that work

Modern office building

The other Monday evening, I was flicking through the chanels of the hotel tiny TV looking for something easy and not too brain taxking to watch, when I landed on a programme all about the secret life of buildings and how they way they are designed can have a fundemental and often quite scary effect on our behaviour, health and wellbeing. I thought it would do until the second episode of Corrie came on (I told you I needed something inane and not too taxing to relax didn’t I?).

Here’s what the Chanel 4’s introduction for the programme says on its website ” Architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff explores the impact the design of buildings can have on us – on our identity and self-esteem, and on relationships, our chances at school, and even our weight and immune system”

Well, I was only watching a couple of minutes when I was hooked. This programme was fascinating. So much so I started writing notes (so much for relaxing then!). This was the second of three in the series. Unfortunately I’d missed the first one which was the designs of our homes. I’m going to catch that one on On-Demand.

This episode concentrated on how architecture can change the way we feel and behave. It looked at how it can even change our brains. Wow – really?

Tom Dyckhoff visited several different buildings throughout the programme. Some of these have achieved iconic status such as The Gerkin designed Norman Foster. The Gerkin, which got it’s name from the its shape which looked like a giant gerkin, is a magnificant building but when you entered inside it became bland, souless, unispiring. The only thing going for it was the view. This was very different to Foster’s other iconic building in Ipswich.

The Willis building was iconic back in 1975 because it was one of the first truely open plan office buildings in the UK. It was column-free with reflective surfaces to reflect light back into the office space and a large rooftop restaurant which catered for all staff bringing levels together. There was evern a swimming pool (later covered over to provide more offices). This structure was unique also in that it said there was more to people than work. It was very popular with the workforce.

Bored man at deskWe had a fascinating insight into how architecture can have a detrimental effect on us when Dyckhoff then took us to Deloitte’s offices in London. Apparently, when the staff moved into their current building, morale took a nose dive. Team work and productivity fell dramatically. Guy Battle, partner in Deloitte even said his “heart fell” when he walked into the building. From the organisation’s point of view, the space was very efficient but it just didn’t inspire people. It was, again, souless. When asked what she would have like to change, one member of staff said “additional facilitities for staff” and somewhere where all the other tenants could “congregate and mingle”.

It seems that because these structures were built to house many different tenants they needed to have a broader appeal and therefore a less interesting look and feel. Rab Bennett, architect of the Deloitte building acknowledged the direction office spaces need to go in should be better and “if architects were more like craftsmen again, making things properly with good responsible work” people would still buy that although still maintained that buildings would still have to have a broad appeal. Norman Foster also agreed that perhaps the internal space could be better and had even tried to influence his clients. “at some point” he said “you have to let go”.

So how did the programme prove that how our environments are designed can affect our brain development? Enter Fred Gage, Neuroscientist at San Diego’s Salk Institute. Gage had carried out experiments on mice (apparently mice have a similar brain structure to humans). It seems that, contrary to the belief that we are all born with all the brain cells we need, we can actually grow new brain cells. Our brains cells can grow and mature by as much as 15% in a month. It appears that external environments do have a significant influence on our brain development.

NeuronsAs long as we are continually developing and we are moving within different spaces especially when those spaces are of different qualities and stimulii, our brains will constantly change and shift. Gage stated that “architects are impacting the structure of our brains by the spaces they are making but they’re not taking into consideration how”. He advised that both neuroscientists and architects need to work together because “we shoudl be highly motivated to optimise our understanding so we can optimise our own performance and abilities”.

Remember at the beginning of this post I said I’d settled down to relax and watch some mind numming TV. This was so I could help my brain switch off. No such luck. With this fascinating programme, my brain kicked into to gear and revved right up. Now I think I may have mentioned in the past how I’m always switched on and see analogies in life with learning everywhere. Oh how I wish I could switch off sometimes. Well that’s all very interesting, you might say, but what has this got to do with learning, blended learning and e-learning? I say it has everything to do with it.

What I saw was all these wonderfully shiny new buildings, cleverly constructed and award winning in design. They were rich in texture, unusual in shape, flashy and looked very expensive. All the time and energy seemed to had been spent on how good they looked. How impressive they were on the outside. Applauded how clever and innovative the artist/designer/architect was who came up with these plans. They are, indeed, things of wonder and (not always) beauty. But the one big flaw is that they were built for efficiency. They weren’t built with the people in mind. There was little thought in how people behave. There was no thought in how people feel. We’re people, not machines. We need social interaction, we need stimulation, we need challenge, we need emotional connections, we need to feel comfortable not constrained.

Have we fallen into the same trap when designing our e-learning? Have we spent our energies on designing shiny new learning environments full of ‘bling’. On the outside they look like they will deliver. They look expensive. They look clever and flash. They mezmarise and astound us with programming panache. Do they tantalise and entice us with wonderous award winning exteriors yet lifeless and cold on the inside with unispiring information laden drudgery? Of course the look is important but once you’re through that fancy door, are they devoid of challenge, social interaction and emotional connection? Can you choose your own path or are you constrained and shackled at every step? Are they designed with people in mind? As architects for our learning environments, do we really consider our audience and their needs?

Do we really understand the serious impact we can have when we build learning environments? Fred Gage, the neuroscientist mentioned above, advised that architects and neuroscientists should work together. Very true. I say the architects of our learning environments should heed the same advice.

In my next post I’m going to explore a little more of this fascinating programme and how we can make parallels in our learning designs.

And for those of you who would like to see the programme here it is on YouTube or On-Demand on Channel 4

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