Heidelberger Platz U-Bahn, Berlin. Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty



How to appreciate buildings

It’s easy to become blasé about the built world. Tune in more deeply and architectural adventures await around each corner

Heidelberger Platz U-Bahn, Berlin. Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty





Colin Ellard

is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada and director of its Urban Realities Laboratory, where he works at the intersection of urban design and experimental psychology. He also partners with architects, museums and other NGOs on projects to enrich public debate about the built environment. His most recent book is Places of the Heart (2015).

Edited by Matt Huston





Need to know

You can probably think of at least one building you have visited that felt as though it reached inside you, affected you deeply, and perhaps changed the way that you thought about the world. For me, my first visit to St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City when I was in my 30s had this impact. The sheer size of its interior knocked the wind out of me, though the details were just as significant. Every surface seemed covered with exquisitely detailed art – material evidence of the immense human effort over many centuries that had produced this setting. As I surveyed my surroundings with tottering knees, I realised how far the effects of architecture could go beyond utilitarian functions like keeping us out of the rain.

But it doesn’t take a massive cathedral to ignite interest in the human response to buildings. You might have experienced similar feelings in many different kinds of settings. Small churches, college courtyards, commercial headquarters (think of the main office of a major bank) can all evoke a response. Even everyday architectural spaces can connect with our feelings. Think of when you last walked into someone’s home for the first time and experienced an ephemeral sense of its atmosphere. Architects have written entire books about these feelings.

The observation that ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’, attributed to Winston Churchill, may be threadbare but it is nevertheless profoundly true. The buildings we inhabit help to make us who we are. Yet, in the run of our everyday experiences, it’s easy to become desensitised to their influences. Buildings can seem at times like little more than the containers of human experience, but they are so much more than that. Architecture can function as a vessel of emotion and thought. It can influence the way you feel about yourself and others. As any great art can change who you are, so can a building. It is the art that you live, work and play inside. If you are willing to spend the time to curiously explore buildings both from the inside and the outside, you will be rewarded with a greater sense of the power of place and, with mastery, a more refined ability to use your settings to control your own experience.

There are ways to avoid falling into the trap of com-place-ency. They resemble the contemplative practices that human beings have used for millennia to find more direct connections with themselves and their surroundings. The methods of the contemplative sciences are also commonly used by architects and designers to tune their own designs. As we will see, being still and being receptive to your surroundings – letting a scene wash over all your senses with as little analytic interruption as possible – while not an easy thing to do, can, with practice, enrich your experience of places.

Buildings are embedded in cultures, histories and narratives, and a complete understanding of how a piece of architecture ‘works’ requires us to dig into those levels of meaning as well. Sometimes, one’s primal emotional response to a building and its layers of meaning can intersect. Consider a building like Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. It is a sharply angled, zig-zagging monster of discomfort and foreboding. Yet, understood as a reflection of Jewish life in Berlin after the Holocaust, the building is a brilliant response to its surroundings and their history.

Much of what I have learned about the human response to architecture has come from my working life, in which I conduct scientific research on how people perceive and react to different kinds of environments. I’ve pioneered a method that I call ‘psychogeographic walks’, in which I lead people through a series of places while probing their thoughts, feelings and even their physiological condition, looking for associations between architecture and psychological states. The real treasure has come from post-walk debriefing sessions, when participants flesh out their impressions with me and with each other. The recommendations that follow are largely based on such practices and experiences.

In this Guide, we will explore a set of practical methods for engaging with buildings that will enrich your experiences of them. We’ll spend some time looking at the origins and underpinnings of these methods in aesthetics and psychology, but the most important thing is to leave the armchair behind, go out into the world, find buildings that you’d like to explore, and work to understand how those buildings affect you and others as they do.

What to do

There are a number of different ways to use these exercises. You might just sample from them as the mood and opportunity strike. Alternatively, you can make a more intensive set of studies of a building or neighbourhood in which you go through the exercises step by step using the same site for all. Many of us plan parts of our vacations to include a visit to a specific building, just to appreciate its design. It’s no accident that virtually all city tourist guides include extensive information about a city’s architecture, though they often contain few clues about how to engage deeply with it.

A couple of other tips as you embark on your architectural adventures: it’s completely fine to explore buildings by yourself. In fact, much like solo movie-going, it can be liberating to be freed from the duty to talk to your friends about your experience. On the other hand, there’s much pleasure to be drawn from comparing notes. You’ll learn that our responses to buildings are hardly universal. Also, don’t feel that you have to visit the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel to practise these exercises. Indeed, there are benefits to exploring your responses to highly familiar spaces, even your own home (see the first exercise below).

Tune into how a building makes you feel and think

Architects must learn to attune themselves to the way that a design influences their feelings. This can be a little bit like mindfulness meditation and can be practised with very simple objects – even something like a chair or a vase – before working up to things such as cathedrals or other architectural showpieces. Though a trainee architect takes years to learn how to do this, some practice with the basics will enrich your experience of architecture.

As a first attempt, find the place within your own home that makes you feel most comfortable, safe and happy. You might consider where you go when you are most troubled or when you have to make a difficult decision. Where do you go for self-soothing? Go there when you’re ready.

Sit quietly for at least five minutes, as you might do if you were practising meditation. Keep your eyes open and remain alert to your surroundings. As best you can, tune in to your flow of thoughts. See if you start to feel a sense of slowing or quickening. Do your surroundings stimulate certain kinds of thoughts? Certain kinds of settings can elicit a sense of awe, for example, making you feel small compared with your surroundings. Then, try to attend to your bodily state: where is the tension? How is your breathing? Can you feel your heartbeat?

Finally, pay attention to your senses:

  • What do you notice in the space around you? What features draw your attention? Do fine details draw you in? The contours of the space? Colours?
  • What can you hear? Spaces ‘speak’ to you mostly by the way that reflected sounds (of footsteps, for example) reverberate and echo. You might try closing your eyes for a few seconds to get a sense of this.
  • Can you detect a particular smell? As Marcel Proust illustrated so powerfully in his novel Remembrance of Things Past (1922-31), smells have an extraordinary effect on memory and emotion. It can be very difficult to feel positive emotions while in a place that is permeated by an unpleasant smell, while pleasant aromas (such as the smell of cooking) can quickly tilt your impression of a place.
  • What about sensations of touch? Even if you aren’t touching anything at the moment, you can have a sense of how something would feel if you were touching it (the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa calls this sense ‘the eyes of the skin’). Look at the textures of the walls and floors. Does it seem as though you are feeling them with your fingers? What does it ‘feel’ like?,+3rd+Edition-p-9781119941286Though some of this might seem like it has little to do with architecture, there is abundant evidence that the details of your surroundings exert a powerful influence on the patterns of your thoughts, your nervous system, and even the state of your heart and your skin. You might find yourself attending to the world in a different way while immersed in a space with lots of natural features, with less sharply focused attention. If you’re in a tightly constrained space, you might find yourself responding with anxiety and its attendant increase in heart rate and sweat gland activity.

A great way to better appreciate the impact of your surroundings is to experiment with different locations within your home. How do things change when you go from your quiet, happy place to a more dynamic, active location? For many people, the location within the home that sees the most dynamism is the kitchen. What happens when you try the same exercise there? One approach you can use is to go through the spaces of your home systematically and compare them. You could even make an annotated map on paper, jotting down what you sense and how you feel in each room.

You can also ask yourself: besides the actions of other inhabitants, what features of the spaces of your home contribute to your thoughts and feelings? Consider shape (including the shape of a particular room), patterns, colour, and form. For example, higher ceilings may promote abstract thinking, and people tend to find curvature attractive. You might even think about how you could change design elements within your home to shape it to your needs and desires.

With your observational toolkit tuned up, take your sensibilities on the road. You should be able to conduct the same kinds of procedures in any architectural space or, for that matter, as you behold any building’s exterior. What is your thinking like when you’re standing on the steps of a courthouse, gazing up at the details carved into its stone facade? How does your heart behave in an art gallery? What’s your mood like in an unfamiliar restaurant? As with your learner exercises in the home, try to tune in to the elements that speak to you. What are they saying? With time and practice, this kind of assessment of a built space can start to become automatic. Those responses have always been there. You are now just training yourself to be attuned to them.

Move through a building and observe how you react

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the 19th-century German poet-scientist, reportedly described architecture as ‘frozen music’. It’s a compelling idea, but it might also be misleading. In spite of what I asked you to do in the previous exercise, it isn’t common for us to sit still when experiencing architecture, observing it from a single, fixed perspective. Instead, we are frequently in motion. If we are using a building for whatever it is designed to do, then we are moving through it from one useful place to another. If we are simply enjoying or appreciating a building, then we are still moving, but now driven mostly by what attracts or repels us. In other words, if architecture is music, then the moving observer is the conductor.

For this exercise, it would make less sense to learn the ropes in your own home. Unless you live in a large estate or castle, the affordances for movement are probably restricted. Instead, go out into the world and find a place that interests you. A shopping mall, city hall, hotel, museum or any other large architectural space will work.

Allow yourself to move through the space as your desires call to you. Allow yourself to be pushed and pulled by your surroundings. In the mid-20th century, a political movement led by the artist-philosopher Guy Debord advocated exactly this kind of practice, which was called a dérive, or ‘drift’. The legendary Swiss French architect Le Corbusier described what he called the ‘architectural promenade’, which is a similar idea for interiors. He suggested that interiors have itineraries, which are brought to life by our movements as we traverse a space. More generally, architects are preoccupied with transitions – those locations in a building where, as we walk, a surprising vista is suddenly unveiled. Think of the effect of descending a grand staircase or turning a corner to discover an unexpectedly large vault of space, which can cause changes of posture and movement with an attendant effect on our senses, a kind of awakening.

As you walk around a building, try to notice how moving through the space affects you. In a way, you can think of this exercise as a graduation from the first one. But now that you are moving, there are many more opportunities to notice the effects of the design of a building on your body. Do you find yourself wanting to speed up or slow down? Does your posture change as you walk through different spaces? Do you notice anything special about where you want to stop and look around?

Explore the functionality of a building

One measure of the success of a building is surely the enjoyment, awe and appreciation of its design. However, there is an important distinction between the performance of a building as a work of art and its role as a functioning piece of machinery in the fabric of life. A breathtaking library is a thing to admire, but if it is very difficult to find a book or even one’s own way, there is a level at which the building has failed.

So, when you explore a building, take a step back and think about what the building is for. If the building you are visiting is one that has a personal use for you, this is easy enough. If you visit an airport in order to take a flight, then its success has much to do with things like your ability to find the right terminal and the right gate. But, during your peregrinations through the built world, you’ll also want to explore buildings that may not have such a direct connection with your own life.

An elaborate civic building such as a courthouse might well affect your emotions when you enter it, but it is also designed to do work. How well does it perform? In this case, the most important clues might come not from looking inward but by looking outward to watch the behaviour of others. Where do people linger? Do they seem to be lingering there for a clear reason? In a well-designed space, locations of lingering and gathering are planned carefully. Museum and gallery curators, for example, think deeply about how a visitor explores a space. The British Museum in London commissioned very detailed explorations of such questions in order to maximise the impact of the building. Similarly, do you see people finding their way through the building with ease, or do they seem to trace and retrace their paths? Though the exterior of the Seattle Central Library is striking, its taxing multi-level, labyrinthine design poses some formidable wayfinding challenges. Some other kinds of spaces, especially those like airports and other transit stations that are designed to optimise the flow of traffic, are often more successful in helping people find their way.

Understanding how a building works in this more practical sense takes a little time to do well. If you have the chance to spend an hour or more in a building such as a courthouse or a library, you can take up a variety of positions, watch the buzz of activity, and get a feel for how things are working (or not).

As you develop experience, you’ll also want to reflect on the interactions between your emotional responses to spaces (all the things you learned to attend to in the first two exercises) and the functions of the space. Does a certain kind of functionality, or lack thereof, contribute to certain feelings for you? In one of my own experiments, I sought to measure emotional responses to an affordable housing complex in New York’s Lower East Side that was, to my eye, poorly designed – with simple cinderblocks and hostile fencing that discouraged lingering. I found that people who were visitors to the area (like me) responded negatively to the site, although many local residents who knew the history and culture of the buildings responded with warm affection. Museums and galleries are particularly interesting examples, as an important part of the function of such buildings is to heighten engagement of the senses and the body. Navigability plays a role in fulfilling this function, but artful designers also think about the impact of transitions from one part of the space to another and the flow of events as one traverses the space.

Consider the building’s context in time and space

To gain a deeper appreciation for how a building relates to the world around it, it helps to dig into its history, its critics, and the stories told about (or by) its architect. Any landmark building anywhere in the world is likely to have voluminous material about it online, but even less famous places are often well documented. If you’re interested in a big, old house in your town, an online search or the local town hall will often bear fruit. Historical plaques on buildings are useful starting points and some even include links for a deeper exploration. Many cities have architectural walking tours that are offered live or via a freely available annotated map. (Here’s an example from the small city where I live.) These sources can provide a wealth of useful contextual information.

Try seeking answers to the following questions to explore the background and context of a building:

  • What’s going on in the neighbourhood? There’s rarely a better option than exploring the area on foot to get a better sense of this. Who is here? What are they doing? What is the vibe? Go beyond your own exploration, though, to dig into the history of the neighbourhood, starting with an online search. Take a look at a map of the building’s surroundings as well.
  • Who was the architect? For ordinary buildings, especially residential ones, this might be more challenging to discover. For institutional and larger commercial buildings, however, the answer is often available at the building’s website. Exploring the body of work of the architect and their design philosophy will often yield insight into the building that interests you.
  • How old is the building? Architecture is, of course, not static. Tastes change and so does the world. Transportation networks, the economy and lifestyles all evolve and, as they do so, architectural fashions adapt. It’s very common, for example, for two adjacent buildings to have been constructed in different eras and to embody different architectural styles. In the best cases, the later buildings will still relate stylistically to the earlier ones in some way. Exploring the temporal relationships between a building and its surroundings can provide fascinating insight.
  • What was the building’s approval process like? All buildings need permission and, for larger buildings, the regulatory approval process can be lengthy and complex. Except for very controversial buildings, this can take quite a lot of digging to unearth, but fruitful sources are often the archives of local news media or, if you have a lot of patience and interest, even the minutes of local government meetings.

As an example of this exploratory approach, look at the building called the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. This structure earned a place on many ‘world’s worst architecture’ lists, its appearance derided as ugly and alien. The glass pyramid addition to the Louvre in Paris, designed by I M Pei, was similarly reviled when it was first unveiled in the 1980s. Countless public consultations dealing with proposed new designs encounter protests from stakeholders that a building ‘just doesn’t fit the neighbourhood’. So, at all levels, from giant new urban skyscrapers to more modest new buildings in the suburbs, we are preoccupied with the way a building fits into its setting.

In the case of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, opened in 2007, the structure was conceived as an odd-looking add-on to a museum building that was designed early in the 20th century and styled mostly in a classical Italianate fashion (roughly based on 16th-century Italian Renaissance styles). The Crystal consists of a series of interlocking shapes (like crystals, hence the name) that jut provocatively from the side of the original building. Though the intentions of its architect – incidentally, the same Daniel Libeskind as designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin – might seem opaque, they are born partly of an attempt to riff on the original design, dragging it from the early 20th century into a more dynamic future, and fitting the context of a city poised to grow into a world centre of culture and commerce. The crystalline design was also meant to resonate with parts of the museum’s collections, such as its impressive mineralogy exhibition. The architect’s provocative style most often involves eye-catching (and usually slightly disturbing) sharp angles and honed edges.

As this example shows, your senses and movements can take you only so far in the effort to appreciate a building fully. You must also engage with its greater story – and you might be surprised by what you discover. It’s important to keep an open mind. Though there certainly are some architectural horror stories, a deeper exploration will often help you better understand a building that, on first appearance, doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Key points – How to appreciate buildings

  1. Buildings are much more than containers for human experience. They have a capacity to stir up emotional responses, serve as symbols, and change how we think about ourselves and others.
  2. You can practise being attentive to the power of buildings. Engaging with the sensory experience of a building and digging into its background can deepen your appreciation of it.
  3. Tune in to how a building makes you feel and think. Sitting quietly, contemplate how your body feels in a built space. Note what sights, sounds and other sensations stand out to you, and consider how they are affecting your thoughts and feelings.
  4. Move through a building and observe how you react. See how different parts of a building draw you in or push you away. Note any effects of transitions, such as turning a corner or descending a staircase.
  5. Explore the functionality of a building. Look for clues that a building is fulfilling its functions well (or not), such as the amount of ease with which inhabitants seem to find their way through it.
  6. Consider the building’s context in time and space. Enter a building’s bigger story by finding out how it fits into the neighbourhood, who designed it and when, and how it was received.

Learn more

Commonalities and differences in how people appreciate buildings

If you have taken the time to follow some of the instructions in this Guide, and especially if you’ve discussed some of your observations with others, you will have discovered one of the ground truths of architectural appreciation: in many ways, we are all different in how we respond to a space.

There are some features of buildings that elicit broadly shared responses from humans. For example, psychologists talk about the duality of ‘prospect and refuge’. The idea is that certain locations provide us with abundant sensory information (prospect) and make us feel safe and protected (refuge). Most people have a seemingly innate preference for locations in space that afford both good prospect and reasonable refuge. The 20th-century American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had an implicit understanding of the operation of prospect and refuge, and he used it to make residential spaces comforting by, for example, including cosy, low-ceilinged areas of refuge. The high premium on real estate with large windows and long views (ie, prospect) is also probably a consequence of these inclinations. These ideas have a long history, originating with the thoughts of early researchers of animal behaviour interested in how animals selected habitats. The overarching principle, it was argued, was to see and not be seen.

Another example of a seemingly near-universal principle has to do with the preference for symmetry. Generally, people prefer symmetrical faces on buildings, and this may be related to a biological predisposition to prefer symmetry in human faces or bodies (such symmetry is a somewhat valid indication of health). At first blush, it may not make much sense to think about preferences for faces or bodies as being a factor in architectural preference, yet some research in neuroscience suggests that we have an inbuilt tendency to ‘embody’ the objects that we see, even buildings. You’ve probably noticed, from time to time, that objects can appear to be face-like and that, once seen, the face in such an object is almost impossible to ignore. This phenomenon even has a name: pareidolia.

In many other ways, though, our preferences vary. For example, I can’t stand the style of architecture known as Brutalism, a style characterised by minimal ornamentation, exposed concrete and steel, and a reverence for the raw appearance of materials. Others love the style’s honesty and integrity, and its freedom from the cloying nostalgia of older styles.

Some variation in preferences is born of acculturation or education. For example, traditional Muslim architecture and design places great emphasis on privacy. This can be seen at many levels, ranging from the layout of homes to the design of entire cities. One very well-worked example of differences in preference involves architects and non-architects. In a classic study that asked architects and laypeople to assess photographs of buildings, the former preferred facades that had simple forms, fewer materials, and lots of concrete. Laypeople showed a preference for more complex combinations of materials, warm colours, and framed windows. The discrepancies in taste between these two groups are probably partly accounted for by the way architects are educated (every architecture school has a kind of ‘culture’ that informs stylistic preference). This is troubling if it means that many architects are not trained to make buildings that are favoured by the public. Some would argue that the way around this is to make sure that architectural design adheres as much as possible to universal principles related to qualities such as symmetry and prospect/refuge.

There are many other reasons for differences in architectural preference. For a long time, the prevailing sentiment in architecture seems to have been to ‘design for the middle’ (which some cynics have described as the 45-year-old white male). But there is an increasing sensitivity to the importance of individual differences in design. In modern workspaces, the best designs accommodate not only a wide variety of different work roles but also a variety of different types of workers. For instance, work roles requiring intense focus (coding, let’s say) can benefit from small spaces that are secluded from distracting sights and sounds, while other roles, especially those that call for creativity and collaboration, will likely benefit from more open designs. What’s more, we can differ dramatically from one another in terms of personality traits such as introversion/extroversion (so, for example, some workers will benefit from spaces where they can take a break from interacting with others). There is also substantial variation in the traits known collectively as the autism spectrum, including such factors as sensitivity to noise, disorder, and various kinds of intense sensory experiences. A truly inclusive workplace should consider these individual differences in designs that are meant to optimise worker satisfaction and wellbeing.

Links & books

There is an endless list of websites that showcase architectural projects, both new and old. Two of the better-known ones are Architizer and Dezeen. Though the primary audience for these sites is the architectural community, you can find fascinating stories about the history of a particular design and critical reactions to it.

The Centre for Conscious Design is a worldwide organisation of scholars who are interested in the impact of design on behaviour and the ways in which it can enhance human life. Although much of the content of their website is devoted to urban scale issues, there is also much to learn about the appreciation of architecture.

The BBC article ‘The Hidden Ways That Architecture Affects How You Feel’ (2017) by Michael Bond provides a great overview of the psychology of urban and architectural design, including interviews with some of the key players in this domain.

The article ‘Architecture with the Brain in Mind’ (2004) by John Eberhard and Brenda Patoine covers some of the early modern history of scientific interest in the relationship between the brain and architecture. Eberhard was an early proponent of recognising the importance of this connection.

The excellent TED talk ‘Why the Buildings of the Future Will Be Shaped by You’ (2014) by Marc Kushner argues that the widespread availability of information about architecture through social media platforms such as Instagram has revolutionised the field by engaging the public in the critical appraisal of buildings.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is one of the world’s foremost architecture critics. In her book Welcome to Your World (2017), she turns her attention to the psychology and neuroscience of design, with brilliant effect.

The award-winning journalist Emily Anthes’s book The Great Indoors (2020) focuses on the impact that interior environments have on our lives. The book is replete with fascinating examples and important applications of the science of interior design.

My own book Places of the Heart (2015) was written to bring to wider attention the fascinating relationships between the design of buildings and interior spaces, and our emotional lives.

Carol Davidson Cragoe’s book How to Read Buildings: A Crash Course in Architectural Styles (2008) is a very practical pocket-sized guide for handy reference on the street.





8 February 2023