Pruitt building before it was demolished

How architecture can change the way we feel

It's easy to forget how architecture is not only about function but also about design. We are always told the it’s what’s on the inside that matters.

In practice, this is true. But it is important to remember that architecture is often thought around those who dwell inside. It’s got the ability to affect and influence our emotions and perceptions. Factors such as space, light and materials can alter the way you feel and make you feel all sorts of things.

It isn’t just an instinctive feeling either, scientific research has shown that certain cells in our brain region attune themselves to the places and spaces we inhabit. What of the particulars of architecture and how it affects us? What aspects of a building’s architecture do designers look towards when creating and emotional response in those who look at them?

Metropolitan WharfMetropolitan Wharf - Modern Penthouse living in Historical building


How a building looks can triggers a psychological impact even at the most basic level; if something looks good, it will probably make us happy, while a poorly-designed building will have the opposite effect. It goes deeper than that. A complex facade will be appreciated but something monotonous can be detrimental to some. 

Architectural horror stories like the 1950's Pruitt Igoe Housing complex in Missouri show this phenomenon. 33 featureless apartment blocks, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, became notorious for their crime and social dysfunction. Experts argued that the wide open spaces between the blocks discouraged any potential sense of community and instead instigated violence and crime. In 1972 they were demolished.

Pruitt demolishonThe second stage of demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in April 1972

Back then, there was no behavioural insight behind the modernist housing projects but today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind or environments people like or find more stimulating. 

Environmental psychologist Colin Ellard conducted a study and found that commuters were found to hurry past areas where monolithic, austere buildings dominated. Living in close proximity to such environments can generate stress. While sleeker and more elegant design can impact our mood in a more positive way.

Ceiling height

A room’s ceiling can have a great impact on someone’s thoughts and actions. Higher ceilings, such as in art studios, may encourage abstract thought processes while lower ceilings allow for a more specific, focused view of things.

Research ties high ceilings to a psychological sense of freedom, triggering our tendencies toward spatial exploration.


What’s outside can have a major effect on how distracted you get. If it’s greenery, chances are you will focus on the task at hand much better. Views of natural settings actually improve people’s focus.

If the building is located in a more urban setting, where nature is scarce, it’s been proposed that these busier environments can be too stimulating to stay focused.171208-Amin-Taha-Clerkenwell-287

Clerkenwell Close Apartments by Architect Amin Taha, feature great views and lots of natural lighting

Architect Lynn Grossman, AIA chair and Library Awards jury member, believes that the award-winning libraries were built with this in mind

“The libraries all are exciting, engaging and comfortable places to spend a morning, an afternoon or an evening,” she says. “With abundant views and natural light, people using them can observe the activity and the natural world outside, and those outside have a glimpse of what’s happening inside. They are separated yet connected, and they help to connect their communities together.”

Numerous studies show that buildings can impact a person’s health, and as citizens of modern societies spend 90 per cent of their time indoors, this is more important than ever.


The interior colour of a building can affect your mood and perceptions. For instance, if we take restaurants as an example: Low-lit restaurants with warm lighting usually expect their customers to stay longer, whereas harsh white lighting will get you on the move.

The colour palette can invoke a particular mood or emotion. Blues and whites tend to bring feelings of serenity and calm whereas orange is stimulating and encourages enthusiasm. Accents of green can help alleviate stress.


Similarly, the way a building is lit changes our feelings and emotions too; bright lights, for example, heighten the way we feel in both a positive and negative manner. Consider the hue of the lighting too. Blue tinges can make us feel more energetic and alert, allowing for tasks to be completed quickly and more accurately, even after exposure to such a colour has ended.

Natural lighting, meanwhile, has further benefits too. Labs and places of work that allow natural sunlight to flow in have shown to have a more positive effect on workers’ sense of well-being than those without windows. Exposure to natural light can increase a desire to exercise more, promote sleep at night and help with our body’s natural circadian rhythms, so that we know when to feel alert and energetic, as well as when to wind down in the evening.

The position and direction of lighting serves to evoke a mood or feeling. Lighting above the eye level can create a more formal atmosphere.

Even the position and direction of lighting serves to evoke a mood or feeling. Lighting above the eye level can create a more formal atmosphere, while a position below the eye level lessens the formality and creates a sense of individual importance. Lighting on the walls and ceiling emphasises the spaciousness of a building, while a lower level of lighting, accented by darker areas free from light invokes privacy and intimacy.


“The impact architecture has on a person’s mood is huge. Arguably these are the fundamentals of architecture: not how it looks, but how we feel it, through the way it allows us to act, behave, think and reflect,” says Melanie Dodd, programme director of spatial practices at the Central St Martins. “But it’s not necessarily causative – meaning architecture may not have a direct relationship with our mood that is measurable. It may be complex, subjective and happen over time and with use.”

The interior of a building should be constructed in a way that uses space to its advantage. As opposed to designing something that dictates to the individual how to feel, it will have a flexibility that allows people to experience and explore it for themselves.

RESHOOT - WVGCUS - 10 The Factory - courtyard 01

The Factory N1 - Authentic loft space in one of East London's most iconic warehouse conversions

To this end, a design has to be mindful of the range of tasks people must perform in their place of work. A variety of spaces, including places for group or solo work, allows for optimal conditions and a more positive working environment. There’s a balance between form and function that designers and architects must take into account, which may prove difficult in the absence of actual prototypes, while budgets and laws can also place restrictions on design.

Architecture of the future

Architecture faces many challenges. Technological advancement brings with it endless opportunities but we still need to understand and continue the important conversation about how architecture affects us.

What types of spaces will we need in the future? We know architecture can create emotions and change the way we experience spaces. Now we need to keep talking about the kinds of emotions we want to create.