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Architecture and Evolutionary Psychology

Architecture and Evolutionary Psychology

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Published by Bryan Castañeda

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Bryan Castañeda on Apr 23, 2012
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04/23/2012

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Views expressed in this essay are those of the writer and are not necessarily shared by those involved in INTBAU.
Architecture and Evolutionary Psychology
Charles Siegel
Vernacular and traditional buildings have common features that create places people arecomfortable with. This is what Christopher Alexander calls “the timeless way of building.”Modernists abandoned these timeless patterns because of their fascination with newtechnology and their search for novelty, which is why modernist architecture feelsuncomfortable.Evolutionary psychology can help us understand why we like this timeless way of buildingand why modernist architecture goes against human nature.We must begin by thinking about attitudes toward building that developed during the periodof evolutionary adaptation, when our ancestors were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Theyonly built temporary structures, because they stayed in one place for a time, until theydepleted their food sources, and then they moved on to a place where food was moreplentiful. They built with materials found on the site, because they did not havedomesticated animals to help them haul things, so they took only what they could carrywhen they moved.Permanent buildings developed later, beginning about 10,000 years ago, after agricultureallowed fixed settlements. Agriculture and domestication of animals are relatively recentand have not had much effect on human evolution. There have been some evolutionarychanges since then, but these changes are relatively minor, and they are not universalbecause they happened after people separated into different groups. For example, somegroups evolved lactose tolerance after they domesticated animals and people who coulddigest milk had a better chance to survive, but Chinese did not evolve lactose tolerancebecause they did not domesticate animals that produce milk.
 
2If we are looking for universal principles that underlie vernacular and traditional architectureacross cultures, we have to go back to Paleolithic times. Despite the immense differencebetween what people built then and what people built after they had permanent settlements,we can find a basis in evolutionary psychology for key principles of today’s theories of traditional architecture and urbanism.
Scale of Whole to Part 
One principle of today’s traditional architecture is the proper scale of whole to part.Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros have found that people are comfortable withbuildings that have a hierarchy of scales, with a ratio of about three to one.A large building might be broken up into two wings and a central portion, each one-third thesize of the building. These three portions might each be broken up into three bays bypilasters. The bays might have windows that break them up visually into smaller areas.There is a great deal of latitude involved. The ratio could be anywhere between two and fiverather than three. The submasses of the building could be unequal. Sometimes traditionalbuildings use more than five repeated elements, to create an effect that is imposing ratherthan comfortable. Nevertheless, there is a hierarchy of scales within the building, and theratio of whole to part at each level in the hierarchy is somewhere near three-to-one.We can speculate that this comes from the ratio between the structure and the entrancewayin temporary structures, as we can see in the illustration on the following page.In this nineteenth century photograph of an American Indian teepee, the width of theentrance is somewhat less than one third of the width of the front of the structure. But thisstructure is made of hides that have been sewn together, and the needle was inventedrelatively late in our evolutionary history, probably about 50,000 to 75,000 yearsago. During most of our evolutionary history, the structure would have been smaller, and theentrance would have remained about the same size, creating a ratio of about three to one.
 
3If the entrance is larger than this, the building does not offers as much protection from theweather. If the entrance is smaller than this, people are likely to knock over the structurewhen they are getting in and out. Our Paleolithic ancestors probably built structures thatwere more flimsy than the teepee in the illustration, made of branches and leaves or vinesthat they found at each place they stopped, so there was a real danger of knocking over thestructure.Pre-humans and humans were more likely to survive if it felt right to them when they saw anentrance that was about one-third the size of the structure, so this scaling of whole to partbecame embedded in human psychology.The illustration on the following page shows a very ordinary traditional building that uses ahierarchy of scales with this ratio. The building is divided into five sections. The centralsection, bays, and outer sections are each divided visually into three subsections. Manyof the windows within each subsection are divided into three sections. This building wouldseem cold and impersonal if it were just a box with plate-glass windows, but because it isdivided and subdivided, it has a comfortable, intimate scale.

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