How Experiencing Beautiful Architecture Can Make You a Better Person

How Experiencing Beautiful Architecture Can Make You a Better Person

Nancy Mitchell
May 6, 2016
Gaudí's Parque Güell is a great example of beautiful, intricate architecture.
(Image credit: Luciano Mortula/Shutterstock)

You probably won't be surprised to learn that studies have verified that experiencing beautiful buildings and vibrant, varied streetscapes is good for your mood. (Science is always verifying things that are obvious to us already.) But it turns out that being surrounded by beautiful architecture can do more than just that: it can actually make you a better person.

The kind of environments, researchers say, that produce positive effects on people aren't necessarily neat and tidy. The human brain craves intricacy and variety, so we tend to respond to buildings that have lots of interesting details, and varied, lively environments, like a city block with lots of restaurants and shops. (This is something that urban planning pioneer Jane Jacobs knew well — her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is basically an extended argument for urban variety.)

The kind of architecture that humans crave is the architecture of liveliness and vitality, where there are lots of things happening and lots of things to see.
(Image credit: nschouterden under CC BY 2.0)

Neuroscientist Colin Ellard performed a series of studies about the way urban environments affect people's moods, centered around a Whole Foods grocery store, whose massive (and somewhat bland) building occupies an entire block of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Ellard led groups on walks through the neighborhood, and had participants wear sensors that measured skin conductance, a physiological response to emotional excitement. The results? Skin conductance hit an all-time low when walking by the Whole Foods, but rebounded nicely on surrounding blocks, where a pastiche of restaurants, shops, and bars create a vibrant environment. When asked questions about their response to their surroundings, participants on the more varied blocks recorded words like 'lively', 'busy', and 'socializing'. In front of the Whole Foods, it was 'bland', 'monotonous', and 'passionless'.

Interestingly enough (and to you, this may be one of those things that already seemed completely obvious), feelings of boredom aren't just a momentary downer: they can actually make you more stressed. In another study, participants watched one of three videos: an interesting one, a sad one, and a boring one. The people watching the boring videos had higher heart rates and higher levels of stress hormones even than the people watching the sad videos. So a blah visual environment could mean feeling more stressed and worn out all the time.

But that's not all! Further research suggests that experiencing exciting, intricate streetscapes can actually make you a kinder person (at least for a while). Charles Montgomery, the author of a book about how urban environments affect people's moods, conducted an experiment in Seattle that placed researchers who pretended to be lost tourists in front of either “active façades” — stretches of street with lots of vitality and visual variety — or “inactive façades,” like long warehouse blocks. People at the active spots were almost five times more likely to stop and offer help, and seven times more likely to let the lost 'tourists' use their phone to look up directions.

Which all seems to indicate that urban beauty (and vitality, which might be even more important than beauty) isn't just an aesthetic problem: it can have a huge effect on our moods and even our actions. You can read even more about this in a fascinating article on the psychological effect of boring buildings at New York Mag's Science of Us.

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