When our own home becomes the center of the universe …
The lockdown had both positive and negative effects on our everyday life – the psychology of architecture shows us what we can learn from it …
As responsible citizens we are used to act self-determined, to make our own decisions and to regulate and control our social life independently. However, restrictions on how we are suppose to interact with each other brought a completely new way of life with them. The social life of the whole family suddenly took place at home and within the own four walls, which consequently became the center of the world. It was precisely this aspect that became a test for many families. No retreat, an already rather tense personal disposition and hardly any privacy. Sounds familiar? Relax! It might be neither your, your partner’s or your children’s fault – the architecture of your own home could be responsible for the disharmony. Often, the built environment informs people’s relationship with it and amongst themselves on a very subtle and subliminal level. It is precisely this exciting interrelationship between men and the built environment that architectural psychology is concerned with. Based on environmental psychology, it tries to find answers to complex human-environment aspects in architecture.
“Architectural psychology is […] always application-oriented: Its goal is to use psychological knowledge to contribute to the creation of ideal environments and to avoid or eliminate unfavorable environmental conditions and to replace them with something better”. (Flade, 2008)
The individual human being is dependent on the fulfilment of certain needs. These needs include the fulfilment of one’s own privacy, social regulation and self-determination – to name just a few examples.
The design of one’s own home is therefore not a question of good or bad taste – rather, essential factors of architectural psychology play a decisive role. The requirement for privacy is a central need, a need which is exacerbated by the necessary curfew.
Privacy results from the way in which human and social qualities can be attributed to a real space. As Richter notes, the private sphere also serves social regulation by opening up to and withdrawing from the outside world. “The regulation of privacy has a psycho-hygienic function that should not be underestimated.” (Richter 2019)
A house, an apartment, a built living space that can do justice to each of its users, makes a significant contribution to a better attitude to life. Interpersonal conflicts within a family or a residential community can be reduced and one’s own health can be positively informed.
For a limited time one can cope quite well with the non-fulfilment of these basic needs, but in the long run, such a deficit has consequences. Normally, we move daily between the priorities of interacting with other people and being completely for ourselves. It is a constant interplay between seeking contact and allowing oneself to withdraw. During the lockdown however, this balance could no longer take place as usual and an imbalance was felt more quickly. It manifested itself through an irritated state of mind and indisposition.
Before the Corona crisis one could find one’s personal balance and retreat in sports club, in public spaces or other beloved places outside one’s own four walls. In many apartments it now becomes difficult to create something comparable as a replacement. The more people live together in a household, the more limited the use of the rooms becomes. The situation is exacerbated by an imbalance in the distribution of space that each family member can make their own.
The architectural psychologist Peter Richter describes this appropriation process in his book Architectural Psychology – An Introduction, as follows:
“People often define their privacy through symbolic markings. At workplaces, for example, one can find photos of family members and other personal objects that are supposed to guarantee privacy and at the same time have a marking function. Just like personal space, privacy is very important for the psychological balance of a person.”
If a regulation of contacts and a fulfillment of privacy is not possible, psychological defense mechanisms are the consequence.
So how can I determine for myself which areas are assigned to whom and how the distribution within the household is divided? A first simple method can be to consider where things that are personally important to you, your own fragrance so to speak, find their place. This is an individual process and ranges from personal pictures to person-specific everyday objects to functional objects that can be assigned to a person. If you play through this thought process with each member of your family, you will soon realise who has what space at their disposal and who takes up what and how much space.
Even the communally used rooms of a family such as the living or dining room, i.e. those rooms that should be available to the whole family, are not always equally usable for all members of the household. Often there are strict rules on how these rooms should be used and designed. Children are often not allowed to inhabit these spaces in the way they would like to. Most children would never think of decorating the beautiful cabinet in the dining room, where great-grandmother’s English porcelain has found its place, with toys or stuffed animals. They would not appropriate this space. In the living areas, which are considered common areas, only at first glance all family members are invited to appropriate the space on an equal footing.
But it is not only children who are often restricted in the use of the rooms and referred to their own areas. If I have never been able to use my personal space within my own four walls, it is all the more difficult to create a place here ad hoc during the lockdown restrictions.
If every person living in the household had enough areas that they could personalize, if they could create a place where one could find peace and quiet and where privacy was respected, living together would be much more harmonious from the point of view of architectural psychology. A family room only works if all the members find their place there and if it can really be appropriated by the entire family.
Even small changes in the conception of a space can have a significant effect, create a balance between interaction and retreat and increase one’s own well-being enormously.
The only question that remains is how to create these areas without having to enlarge the living space?
It is often enough to ensure that each family member gets his or her own space – even if it is only a niche. This area can and should be freely designed and personalised. Resting places which are designed and built with rules or temporary restrictions, fulfil the need for privacy if the necessary separate space is lacking.
The exceptional time has shown all of us how quickly one has to adapt to new manners of living and habits – keywords like home office and home schooling come to mind. Individual places with minimal space requirements can be integrated quickly and offer individual areas in the common household and create structures for each family member.
Many helpful tips and a good step-by-step guide for the implementation of the aforementioned practices is offered by the Austrian Institute for Living and Architectural Psychology. The institute has set itself the goal of applying the knowledge of residential and architectural psychology. Together with an interdisciplinary team, they have created a user-friendly guide and provided easy to implement steps for your home.
With the right know-how we have it in our own hands to create a humane living environment and thus improve the well-being of every single person.
ARCHITEKTUR psychologisch betrachtet, Antje Flade, Hans Huber Verlag, 1.Auflage 2008, S.14
ARCHITEKTURPSYCHOLOGIE Eine Einführung, Peter G. Richter, Pabst Science Publishers, 4. bearbeitete Auflage 2019, S. 249