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In the Mood for Architecture

 

How the composition of cityscapes shapes the way we feel

By Coleman Molnar

Standing at the corner of King and Bay can make you feel a few things, if you ever stopped to look around and actually consider it. Even if you had no idea as the important nature of the goings-on inside the buildings, you’d notice, if you looked, a certain style of architecture. A certain seriousness.

The rough, beige stone walls of the various banking headquarters are weighty and expansive, rising up to the 10th floor or so, before giving way to pains of glass, stacked atop each other until they abruptly end, somewhere just below the clouds. The architecture is impressive, beautiful in its own stark way. It looks important. But when the wind blows off the lake and up the cold stone corridor that is Bay Street, it catches you feeling…What is that?…Anxiety? Excitement? Insignificance?

If the buildings here had faces, they may not be scowling, but they certainly aren’t smiling. You can feel it.

It's basically common knowledge that spending time in or around nature can relieve stress. We’ve all heard of nature bathing—and most of us can attest, with first-hand experience, to the absolute restorative effects of a weekend at the cottage—but what about the buildings we walk by? How do they make us feel? Collin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo has been asking these questions since 2009, testing his hypotheses in various cities around the world, and has been discovering some interesting things about the way architecture and city design affect our moods.

"When we think of buildings, we often think of what’s going on inside, but as a pedestrian on the street, what’s affecting you the most is what’s on the outside,” says Ellard. “We have lots of evidence from lots of different experiments now that a style of a buildings façade and its content has a big impact on what you do, how you look around and how you feel while in a certain space.”

Since 2009, Ellard and his “travelling urbanist think tank,” with help from the BMW Guggenheim laboratory, have been conducting walking experiments in New York, Berlin and Mumbai studying how people act and feel in settings ranging from busy marketplaces, to parks, to financial centres. Today, his research is focused on the streets of Toronto.

Through a combination of surveys and medical-technical measurement techniques, like heart rate monitors and brainwave-sensing headbands, the Psychology on the Street team has been tracking and documenting how Torontonians react with the city’s urban spaces.

“There are all kinds of factors within urban design that affect how we feel and how we think where we go and what we do,” says Ellard. “You could consider everything from the very obvious green-scaping and landscaping, which is incredibly important to one’s emotional state when watching the street, to factors like building facades, the skins of buildings.”

Places like Queen Street West or the new Queens Quay strip are among some of the city’s most pedestrian-friendly locations, according to their research. The combination of greenery, open space without too much clutter, and varying building facades are pleasurable for most passers-by.

When it comes to Bay Street, Ellard says it’s “not ideal” for pedestrians, even if it is standard for a business district. “They’re often chock-full of skyscrapers and there isn’t a lot of variety on the street-level façade,” he says. “In terms of how that makes a pedestrian feel, it’s not optimal, but we also have to think about what those buildings are for. If you’re designing a bank headquarters for a business district, you don’t want to have a fun, party atmosphere on the street, like a marketplace, say. You want to convey a certain kind of attitude of seriousness and safety. The design of those buildings is in keeping with the corporate image they want to convey, but for a pedestrian walking down the street, the affects of all that are psychologically negative.”

That’s not to say that elements of Toronto’s Financial District are not impressive in their own right; many notable architects have contributed to make the area noteworthy. Mies van der Rohe’s signature “skin and bones” style can be seen in the TD Centre and throughout the PATH; WZMH Architects are responsible for the Royal Bank Plaza, whose 24-karat gold window denote a visceral sense of power and prestige; and Santiago Calatrava’s neo-futurist Allen Lambert Galleria has been described as an “extraordinary white steel cathedral of commerce.”

But the effect of all this on pedestrians—unlike the fun-by-way-of-frenetic energy of Kensington, or the relaxing vastness of Trinity Bellwoods Park—can be psychologically oppressive. That feeling that settles over you when you take a moment to glance around Toronto’s business district, it’s totally justified. Intentional even. Notice it. Appreciate it. And if you’re working in the area and start noticing it too often, consider counterbalancing it.

“We all have to spend time in settings that weren’t built with the idea of a great pedestrian experience in mind,” says Ellard. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. We have to find that balance, maybe consider alternatives when we’re planning our route from our home to our office, maybe instead take the route that has some nice imagery, or some interesting facades, or that takes you through a one-minute walk through some green space.”

Toronto boasts plenty in the way of green space, and its individual neighbourhoods (of which there are many) all have different personalities, intentionally reaffirmed by the style of architecture. Enjoy them all, but don’t forget that, like everything else in your life, it’s all about balance.

Culture, DesignThe Bull Team