Boring architecture is starving your brain

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Designer: Thomas Heatherwick thinks the construction industry is in crisis. “We’ve become accustomed to buildings that are boring,” says the man behind London’s revived Routemaster bus, Google’s Bay View and New York’s Little Island. “New buildings, over and over again, are too flat, too plain, too straightforward, too shiny, too dull, too anonymous, too serious. What happened?” While these characteristics can often be aesthetically appropriate in themselves, Heatherwick notes that their constant conflation into the aesthetics of modern buildings and urban spaces makes them extremely boring.

Boredom isn’t just an annoyance, she said — it can actually be harmful. “Being bored is worse than being bored at all,” Heatherwick writes in her latest book. humanize“Boring is a state of psychological deprivation. Just as the body suffers when deprived of food, the brain also suffers when deprived of sensory information. Boredom is hunger of the mind.”

It’s not just a matter of opinion. For example, Heatherwick cites research by University of Waterloo cognitive neuroscientist Colin Allard, who studies the neurological and psychological effects of the built environment. In his experiments, Allard has shown that being surrounded by tall buildings significantly affects people’s moods. In one experiment, he collected data from wearable sensors that tracked skin conductance response, a measure of emotional arousal. When people walk past a boring building, “their bodies literally go into fight-or-flight mode. They have nothing to engage their brains with,” Heatherwick says.

Heatherwick argues that the brain craves complexity and fascination. “There’s a reason why the complexity and rhythm of nature draws our attention back when you look into the wilderness,” he says. “We need that in buildings. Less is not more.” This is supported by research by psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, who in the 1980s developed attention restoration theory, which posited that people’s concentration improves when they spend time in natural environments.

“We are not paying attention to the nutritional value to society of the buildings around us,” says Heatherwick. For example, he believes architects now prefer to prioritise building interiors while ignoring how a building looks from the outside. This is a mistake. “Buildings are the backdrop to the life of society,” he says. “A thousand times more people will walk past this building than will walk inside it. The exterior of that building will affect them and contribute to the way they feel.” Ultimately, to humanise our urban spaces, architects need to think about the people who live in them. Heatherwick recalls a debate a few years ago involving construction industry elites about whether public opinion should matter. “We debated all night and then they voted that their opinion didn’t matter. It was unbelievable.”

This kind of short-term thinking highlights what Heatherwick calls “the dirty secret of the construction industry”: its devastating environmental impact. Just think, for example, that 1 billion square feet of buildings are demolished each year in the U.S. “That’s half of Washington, D.C., destroyed, just to be rebuilt with the same kind of boring buildings,” he says. In the U.K., 50,000 buildings are demolished each year, with the average age of a commercial building being about 40 years. “If I were a commercial building, I would have been demolished 14 years ago,” he says. “To build a tower in the City of London, which isn’t that big by global standards, requires the equivalent of 92,000 tons of carbon emissions.” As a result, estimates suggest that the construction industry now emits five times more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than aviation.

“We can’t build buildings that will only last 40 years. We need a millennial mindset,” he says. “The construction world teaches you that form follows function, less is more, decoration is a crime. It’s powerful, and when you’re studying, it gets into your head and brainwashes you.” But Heatherwick reminds us that emotion is function, and should be celebrated in the construction world.

This article is published in the July/August 2024 issue Wired UK Magazine.

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