Boring Architecture Takes a Psychological Toll on Us

Neighborhoods with a mix of styles linked to higher levels of happiness and empathy.

Physical surroundings can have a major impact on a person. There's a growing body of research that suggests architecture affects us both physically and emotionally, as detailed by the Science of Us. While this may not be entirely surprising, it's worth bearing in mind.

Today, the world is seeing the rise of not just megacities, but vast massive urban centers grouped together under hubs around the world. As more and more people gravitate toward cities to live and work, it's important to take into consideration how these surroundings are affecting us.

Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist from the University of Waterloo, published a study with the Guggenheim Museum that monitored people as they walked on a very specific itinerary through New York City's Lower East Side. Participants wore devices that tracked skin conductance, an electrodermal signal linked to emotional excitement.

First, these participants walked by a Whole Foods grocery store. Researchers found they were decidedly bored based on their biometric responses. Typical words used by the participants to describe the building's sleek, homogenous facade included "bland" and "passionless."

From there, the route veered into a decidedly more eclectic block, dotted with busy restaurants, open doors, and windows. This area sparked much more physical excitement and elicited words like "lively" and "socializing. These findings are in line with Brendan Walker, an aerospace engineer at the University of Nottingham. Walker has written that the human psyche benefits tremendously from cityscapes that are varied in design and style.

Interestingly, other research indicates neighborhoods do not have to be immaculately clean to please us. In fact, an experiment in Seattle found that chaotic, messy areas of the city were more likely to produce kind, pro-social behavior.

Top photo: Office buildings in Pentagon City, specifically, the headquarters of the Transportation Security Administration in front and the Drug Enforcement Administration respectively.