Ignoring Environmental Behavior Research, by Thomas Fisher
«Since architecture centrally involves constructing environments for people, why has the architectural community largely ignored environmental psychology, the field that analyses how well we do in meeting people’s needs? Is it that we don’t want to know or, even more troubling, that we don’t care how we’re doing? Or have our various modern and postmodern ideologies gotten in the way, allowing us to convince ourselves that the enormous literature in environmental behavior has little relevance to either the discipline or practice of architecture? And is it time, as architecture has become much less ideological and much more tolerant of difference, to look again at what environmental psychology has to offer us?
Understanding “the other,” though, rarely happens without resistance. Architects, for example, sometimes complain that environmental behavior research uncovers the obvious, and when you scan the abstracts in the major journals in the field—Environment and Behavior, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Journal of Environmental Psychology—you will find a lot that does seem self-evident: inner city children benefit from green space, windows in the workplace improve job satisfaction, aesthetically pleasing stairwells increase their use, and ventilation affects worker performance.
And yet how much does this claim of obviousness stem from our own desire to avoid facing up to what we, as architects, have done over the last fifty years? What this research really makes obvious is that we have been designing cities without green space, workplaces without windows, offices without adequate ventilation, and stairwells from hell, and this points toward a much broader critique of the architectural community.(...) No wonder many architects don’t want to read this literature.
Nevertheless, many architecture faculty, especially design faculty, dislike environmental behavior research because it seems too deterministic or too simplistic when researchers use the results of their work to drive form-making too directly, without all of the other factors affecting design taken into account. While studio faculty don’t hesitate giving students all kinds of other determinants of form, the neglect of social science research in architecture studios stems from a deeper divide. Environmental psychology has a strong empirical, functional, and instrumental bias, measuring people’s behavior in order to change environments to improve our chances of being healthier, happier, and/or more productive. Architectural theory over the last forty years has gone in almost the opposite direction, with an ideological, formal, and skeptical tilt. This has led to a studio culture that focuses on propositions more than measurements, aesthetics more than human activity, and speculation more than demonstration.
Not everyone can know everything, and the enormity of the environmental psychology literatuire can be a deterrent to architects' command of it. Still, that is no excuse for the outright neglect of this research by architects over the last serveral decades. If nothing else, environmental behavior studies can help us see how much the architecture culture is, itself, an environment in which we beahve in often unexplained ways, based on unspoken assumptions, and resulting in unanticipated consequences. Were we to become more self-conscious and self-critical of our own professional and disciplinary culture, we would find that envioronmental psychology has much to offer, not least of which, like all good psychology, is an understanding of ourselves.»