During my Architectural Studies coursework, we constantly pondered the ways in which the built environment affects the behavior and psyche of those inhabiting the space. In fact, two of the cornerstones of civilization were architecture and agriculture -- the wall and the crop. These two tools allowed ancient societies to stay in place with more reliable food and shelter. With the benefits and security that these two advancements afforded, other pursuits could flourish.
In fact, throughout history, architecture has been used to show power, wealth, to protect, to worship, to control. Prisons were constructed with poor natural light and air flow, menacing and gloomy architecture to both punish inmates and discourage the free from committing crime. One fascinating prison was constructed as a tower so that the warden could surveil every cell easily, but was masked from the inmates. This idea of constant surveillance is anxiety-provoking to most of us.
We not like to be "on display," and privacy allows us the physical and mental space in which to relax. Likewise, when we are too crowded, behavior deteriorates rapidly. In a series of experiments conducted by John B. Cahoun in 1962, rats were used to study population density and social pathology:
From these experiments a breeding utopia was established for the rats in which they only lacked space. “Unwanted social contact occurred with increasing frequency, leading to increased stress and aggression. Following the work of the physiologist, Hans Selye, it seemed that the adrenal system offered the standard binary solution: fight or flight. But in the sealed enclosure, flight was impossible. Violence quickly spiralled out of control. Cannibalism and infanticide followed. Males became hypersexual, pansexual and, an increasing proportion, homosexual. Calhoun called this vortex “a behavioural sink”. Their numbers fell into terminal decline and the population tailed off to extinction”  Go to Article
On the more appealing end of the design psychology spectrum, architects and designers are using the tenets of ancient design theory, such as Vasati and Feng Shui, as well as design psychology, to create architecture that is beneficial to the human psyche with function tailored to the unique needs of the inhabitants. Indeed, as IDEO's Tom Kelley points out in an illuminating interview, the first psychological principle that one should keep in mind when beginning a project is empathy:
"That’s easiest to achieve if you’re creating products or services for someone just like yourself. So, for example, IDEO is designing new experiences for aging populations around the world, so it has been really helpful for IDEO to have the 91-year-old Barbara Beskind on the team. Of course, designers often must create solutions for people unlike themselves. And that’s where empathy comes in so they can create a product or service that will delight customers, simplify their lives, or give them peace of mind. Part of the reason customers like Uber so much is that it eliminates the awkward social moment at the end of a taxi ride in which you have to calculate a tip, pay the driver, get your change or receipt, and leave the vehicle."
I love this concept and how Kelley so eloquently distills a designer's true task when beginning a project. Although he is referring to larger, institutional projects, the concept of empathy translates elegantly to residential and small-scale commercial design. We may have heard of the ways in which the design of casinos causes visitors to lose sense of time. We know that "coastal decor" often reflects the colors of the beach -- crisp whites, soft tans and tranquil blues. We know that home buyers gravitate towards neutral and uncluttered interiors. But an interior designer is tasked with much more than that. If we can marry principles of design AND decipher each client's individual needs, we can have a profoundly positive affect on their psyche.