Architecture Matters

Architecture matters. A well-designed space can foster more effective learning, and can enhance creativity and collaboration. Two recent data points:

1. I just finished teaching my Spring 2011 classes. In one of them, the senior seminar for our graduating majors in educational studies, one of our books was 21st Century Learning Environments (2006). It was filled with examples of recently built schools that draw on the latest learning sciences research to build spaces that foster positive emotion, safety and security, adaptability, and collaboration. And I’ve just learned of a new book (2009) called Schools for the Future: Design Proposals from Architectural Psychology. It makes similar points: that learning environments should be learner centered, age appropriate, safe, comfortable, flexible, and equitable.

2. I’m intrigued by this idea of “architectural psychology,” and by coincidence, in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer* summarizes recent research on how spaces influence mental states. Just a few recent studies:

  • Sixty white-collar workers were followed at a government facility. They were randomly assigned to work in either an old building, with low ceilings and loud air conditioners, or in a new space with skylights (more natural lighting) and open cubicles (more conversation and collaboration). After 17 months of tracking these two groups, they found that the people working in the old building were more stressed.
  • In 2009, psychologists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) gave people tests in rooms with different colors: red, blue, or neutral. Test-takers in red environments were better at accuracy and attention to detail. Test-takers in blue environments were better on tasks that required imagination and creativity.
  • In 2006, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s school of management found that when people are in a room with a high ceiling, rather than a lower one, they perform better on tasks that require them to make distant associations.

I’ve spent some time studying architecture degree programs in various universities, but I haven’t yet seen a course in “architectural psychology.” I think it would be exciting to teach this research to the architects of tomorrow: particularly those who will be designing the learning environments of the future.

*Jonah Lehrer, “Building a Thinking Room.” WSJ April 30-May 1, 2011, p. C12

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