Students of psychological research have become familiar with a wide array of factors that play a role in how our lives unfold, including our personalities, upbringing, talents, motivation, social connections, cultural attitudes, and the structures of our societies. In Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, Sarah Williams Goldhagen makes a passionate case for another set of factors that impact us: the buildings, landscapes, and cityscapes around us.
We might think the built environment is just the wallpaper of our lives, but Goldhagen hopes her book will convince us how wrong we are about that. She presents evidence to suggest that buildings, public art, landscapes, and cityscapes matter, whether we are paying attention to them or not.
The built environment, she claims, influences our moods, motivation, and confidence; our attention, perception, learning, and memory; the actions we choose and those we never pursue; our feelings of safety or threat; and our identity and sense of self.
The design of spaces is a factor in students’ participation in classrooms, and workers’ satisfaction with their jobs. The built environment gets under our skin, altering our physiological responses, our health, and our healing. It can promote engagement with other people, or alienation from them. It has a say in the capabilities we develop, and the communities we foster.
Good design, then, is not just a nicety, a frilly extra — it is a fundamental human right. Goldhagen wants to persuade citizens and community leaders to look beyond the usual considerations of costs, profits, speed of construction, and the familiar ways of doing things.
“How a place works at the scale of the city or its site, how it comes to feel and serve its users over time and in different seasons, the granular details people notice when moving through spaces, the nonconscious responses people will have to a project’s small-scale and less visible features, such as sound, materials, textures, and construction details,” are just some of the things Goldhagen wants us to pay attention to.
To create better built environments, she asks questions such as, “What is it about a place that draws us in or repels us, that sticks in our memory or fails to register, that can move someone to tears or leave her cold?”
As if in tribute to Goldhagen’s arguments about the significance of texture, color, and other aesthetic dimensions, Welcome to Your World is one of the most beautifully produced social science books I’ve ever seen. The pages are creamy, weighty, and sensual, and the dozens of photos are luxurious, even those depicting what’s wrong with our built environments. I like to write notes in books that I’m reviewing, and I did so in this book, but it felt a bit like defacing a work of art.
In the first chapter, titled “The Sorry Places We Live,” Goldhagen argues that we have too often made a mess of our built environments. She takes aim at the usual suspects, such as soporific suburbs, noisy and crowded cities, and soul-crushing slums. Hers stands out from previous discussions on the topic in explaining what, exactly, we are doing wrong, and why we keep making the same mistakes.
The subsequent chapters are even better. In “People Embedded in Social Worlds,” for example, Goldhagen takes us on a walk through three very different places – the Latin Quarter in Paris, the Old City in Jerusalem, and downtown Seoul – and shows how they fashion entirely different emotional, psychological, and interpersonal experiences.
Other chapters zero in on specific buildings, landscapes, or public artworks and how they fare in serving the humans they are meant to engage. There are extensive, illuminating discussions of the Scottish Parliament, the Museum at the Stream in Antwerp, the Cloud Gate sculpture (also known as “the bean”) in Chicago, the Amiens Cathedral in France, the Salk Institute in San Diego, the Parthenon, the Sydney Opera House, and the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, among others.
Goldhagen taught for ten years at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, housed in Gund Hall. I spent my four years of graduate school in psychology just steps away, in William James Hall. The story I was told (probably apocryphal) was that new design students were led to the roof of the psychology building, and directed to look at Gund Hall. Then they were told, “Never do that.”
Goldhagen wasn’t quite as harsh, but she did offer a compelling analysis of what does and doesn’t work about the building. Some of the psychological insights were especially delicious, especially how students were assigned to spaces in ways that reflected their status, with the most advanced students enjoying the highest perches.
Chapter 6 is the one I was hoping Goldhagen was building up to, in which she distills the previous 218 pages into a set of basic principles of design. (For example, we crave “visual, textural, and olfactory complexity,” but not too much complexity.) I wasn’t so sure the principles were sufficiently specific to guide professionals in their planning or to help non-professionals in their assessments of their built environments, but maybe that’s an unrealistic aspiration.
A useful way to approach Welcome to Your World, I think, is to study all the pictures first, before reading a word. That way, you can appreciate how much Goldhagen can contribute to your understanding, beyond your untutored first impressions. You can also form your own judgments, independently of what you will read later. For me, the results were sometimes startling, as, for example, when Goldhagen waxed poetic about buildings I found hideous.
As much as I enjoyed the book, there were times when I wanted to put it down. Maybe part of the problem is that I’m a know-nothing when it comes to architecture, so I can read something like “spires, griffins, trefoils, quatrefoils, applied colonnettes” and realize that I only know what two of the six words mean.
What I appreciated most about Welcome to Your World was Goldhagen’s deep and multi-faceted understanding of the psychology of our built environments. One perspective, though, seemed underdeveloped. I wanted a greater appreciation of humans’ sensitivity to the gaze of other people. Aspects of design can make us feel self-conscious or at ease. Take, for example, the central plaza of the Salk Institute. I’ve never been there, but from the photo, it appears that pedestrians traverse a wide-open, unadorned space flanked on both sides by buildings where people work and can look out their windows. Goldhagen describes what’s great about the space. I’m not a particularly self-conscious person, but I think if I were to walk down that plaza, I would feel like Steve Martin in “The Lonely Guy,” with people on both sides stopping what they are doing to stare at the person on her own.
My reservations are just quibbles, though. Welcome to Your World is a most welcome contribution to our understanding of our built environment. I hope Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s dreams for the future of our buildings, landscapes, and cityscapes come true, because they are my dreams, too. If you read the book, they may be yours as well.
Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives
Sarah Williams Goldhagen
Harper, April 2017
Hardcover, 348 pages