Architectural Empathy: Why Our Brains Experience Places Like People

Piazza san pietro, rome, the welcoming “enfolding arms” of the immensely powerful “mother” church.
Piazza San Pietro, Rome, the welcoming “enfolding arms” of the immensely powerful “mother” church.

In The Architecture of Happiness, philosopher Alain de Botton tells a persuasive story about how we tend to perceive buildings and people in similar terms – and are led by the same in-born empathy into parallel concepts using the same vocabulary. He explores how we tend to experience – his word is transubstantiate – architecture in terms of ourselves; in his words, we call things “happy” that make us happy. In addition to architecture, the idea applies equally to landscapes and cityscapes and to everyday objects that we give personalized names – like houses or boats.

The point is not, of course, that the physical places or things themselves have human feelings or qualities. What’s happening is that we explore, interpret, and come to understand them with the same sensory systems, brain structures, experience, memories, and reasoning that we use to detect the qualities and inner thoughts of people. Our encounters may be far less intense, but we respond with the same innate structures of mind, body, and language, to what’s out-there.

Essentially what’s happening is that we’re applying what we’ve learned in the primal relationships experienced within ourselves and with each other – from birth. We tend to observe and judge whether a place is muscular, hard or soft, warm or cold, welcoming or threatening in its posture, competent, graceful or awkward, retiring, boisterous, charismatic, honest. We take pleasure, too, in recognizing and relating a place to our personal values, calling into play the full range of abstractions that we use to position ourselves and each other in society – beliefs, styles, ideas, interests, status, or power.

Just as we are quick to read attitudes toward social class, religion, or ideology in human conversation, we find them in the modest good manners of Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square, or, at another extreme, the militant grandiosity of a crusader’s castle. The halo effect comes into play too, when one outstanding fragment or quality casts its glow, for better or worse, over the whole person/place. Finally, we make emotional judgments: Do we resonate with love and desire, detest, or envy the kind of personality that we read into this place? Does it echo or reflect our values and tastes or reject them? Again, in this sense, we, ourselves, are the primary contexts that give a place “meaning.” […]

Aline Chahine
Aline is an international licensed architect currently practicing in Canada, she is the reason you are reading this right now, Aline founded the platform back in 2008 shaping the very foundation of Architecture Lab, her exemplary content curation process that defines the online magazine today.
Aline Chahine
Aline Chahine
Aline is an international licensed architect currently practicing in Canada, she is the reason you are reading this right now, Aline founded the platform back in 2008 shaping the very foundation of Architecture Lab, her exemplary content curation process that defines the online magazine today. Highlights Aline founded Architecture Lab in 2008 Lead editor of dan | dailyarchnews since 2019 Founded and Creative Director of DesignRaid Licensed architect with creative sales and marketing experience Experience As full-fledged architect, Aline's background involved a great deal of research that lead to the creation of Architecture Lab as an online database of exemplary design. Her experience snowballed into founding two architecture platforms, Architecture Lab and DesignRaid. Education Aline received USEK’s Master of Architecture in 2004 and BA in English from the University of Toronto
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About Architecture Lab Architecture Lab is a MKR.S Media brand, a website devoted to extraordinary design and aesthetics aiming to promote exceptional aesthetic values and sustainable design in all it's shapes and sizes. Learn more about us and our editorial process and feel free to contact us if you would like to see something in particular on the website, our certified experts will get back to you with the most trustworthy advice as soon as possible. Read all articles by Aline | Follow her on LinkedIn

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