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When Buildings Shape Us

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." - Winston Churchill 

I have built an architecture practice with this understanding. I believe that our character is formed by our response to our surroundings: the pathway to a building, the feel of the first door, the sound of the interior, the quality of light, the proportions of the rooms, the sequences and variety of spaces, the symbols in the materials and the details - all of these influence emotions and behavior. I could go on and on (actually, I just did). I spend my time studying the buildings that make me feel good and inspire me to make new and better buildings.

Many others, more insightful than me, have studied the relationship between architecture and character.

Leon Battista Alberti, Ebenezer Howard, and Frank Lloyd Wright
(Photo credits: Leon Battista Alberti (Left) courtesty of Wikipedia, Ebenezer Howard (Middle) courtesty of Wikipedia, Frank Lloyd Wright (Right) courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian Renaissance-era architect, claimed in the 1400s that balanced classical forms would compel aggressive invaders to put down their arms and become civilians. 

British author and thinker Ebenezer Howard believed companies would be more efficient if their employees lived in village-like garden communities.  

Frank Lloyd Wright similarly believed appropriate architecture would save the US from corruption and turn people back to wholesome endeavors.

In the last 100 years, we have researched these ideas carefully. In the 1950s prizewinning biologist and doctor Jonas Salk was working on a cure for polio in a dark basement laboratory in Pittsburgh. Progress was slow, so to clear his head, Salk traveled to Assisi, Italy, where he spent time in a 13th-century monastery, ambling amid its columns and cloistered courtyards. Suddenly, Salk found himself awash in new insights, including the one that would lead to his successful polio vaccine. Salk was convinced he had drawn his inspiration from the contemplative setting. He came to believe so strongly in architecture’s ability to influence the mind that he teamed up with renowned architect Louis Kahn to build the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., as a scientific facility that would stimulate breakthroughs and encourage creativity.

Salk Institute
(Photo credit: Salk Institute courtesy of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive collection at the Library of Congress.) 

Two researchers from Cornell University looked at housing density and height and their relationship to family health and child development: Dr. Nancy Wells found that children who lived in 14-story public housing were found to have greater behavioral problems than children living in three-story public housing. Social isolation may be one reason for this, because parents are less likely to let their kids play outside if they live high up in a large building. Dr. Gary Evans wrote that families living in high-rise housing, as opposed to single-family residences, have fewer relationships with neighbors, resulting in less social support.

Many other studies confirm what our predecessors believed so strongly: Our buildings have a profound influence on our health, happiness and relationships. Healthy interaction is a fundamental goal of TBH&H homes – whether in our open plans, communal dining rooms or porches. Can our homes make for smarter kids? Self-reliance? More graceful aging? We’re working on that.

(Feature image photo credits: Winston Churchill courtesy of the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division. Hillgrove Residence porch courtesy of Karyn Millet Photography)