How Social Sciences Shape the Built Environment

Within an increasingly specialized environment, architecture is becoming a collective endeavour at every stage of the design process, and social sciences have acquired an important role. As architecture has become more aware of its social outcome, decisions formerly resulted from the speculative thinking of the architect are now backed up by professional expertise. The following discusses the increasing role of humanist professions such as anthropology, psychology, or futurology within architecture.

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Finding Appropriate Answers to Complex Design Briefs

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Moving Kiruna. Image Courtesy of Jessica Nilden

Today’s social landscape acknowledges the crucial value of community involvement, but tapping into this design thinking requires a particular array of skills outside the scope of the architecture profession. This was the case of the relocation of Kiruna, a Swedish town developed around an iron mine that started destabilizing the ground. The enterprise made headlines a few years ago due to the unique task of displacing the city while preserving its sense of identity, collective memory and community dynamics. White Arkitekter’s design strategy and project for Kiruna was shaped by the work and research of an in-house social anthropology team lead by Viktoria Walldin, tasked with identifying the mechanisms for forming a new social structure. The strategy to relocate the town debuted with gathering input from citizens and developing process tools to encourage and systematize public involvement. The initial research and dialogue unearthed the citizen’s vision for the new town, and a recurring discussion and feedback informed the masterplan.

Promoting a Holistic Understanding of Space

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Maggie’s Leeds Centre by Heatherwick Studio. Image © Hufton+Crow

Environmental psychology studies how the environment shapes behaviour, and it provides invaluable and precise input to the field of architecture. This area of expertise allows architects to make informed decisions about spatial configurations, materials, colour, lighting and many other elements that go into the design of a space. Environmental psychology started taking shape in the 1960s in relation to healthcare design. It soon began to systematically study learning spaces and elderly environments, as architects wanted to understand how to best design specific architectural programs. More recently, discussions around mental health and wellbeing have entered the architecture realm, prompting architects to search for science-backed input for their designs. In this sense, the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health conducts research and builds a dialogue with designers and policymakers to help them shape a built environment that fosters wellbeing.

Informing the Design Process

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3XN's Sydney Fish Market. Image Courtesy of MIR

Combining architecture with social science expertise creates a detailed understanding of how to achieve a human-centred design. 3XN’s research division GXN encompasses a team with backgrounds in architecture, behaviour design, anthropology and social sustainability, tasked with exploring how architecture shapes behaviour and apply the latest knowledge to the studio’s architecture. The team has developed a toolbox for creating a detailed understating of the task and its opportunities, which then translates into a behaviour strategy informing the design. 3XN’s Sydney Fish Market draws on GXN’s research into social interaction psychology, while the Church + Wellesley mixed-use project results from a collaborative process engaging the community conducted by the research division.

Shaping the Future of the Built Environment 

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ARPA by (ab)Normal & Ludwig Engel for Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019. Image Courtesy of Oslo Architecture Triennale

Speculative thinking is intrinsical to architecture; however, for several decades, it has taken a life of its own, becoming more formalized, and establishing itself as a distinct “career path”. Ludwig Engel is a futurologist and urbanist whose work comprises the ARPA project for the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale and 2038 – The New Serenity, the German contribution to this year’s Architecture Biennale. He is also the co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Forum Neurourbanism, a working group of university professors, scientists and practitioners from the fields of psychiatry, urban planning, psychology, neuroscience, architecture, sociology, philosophy and ethnography, who explore future-oriented designs for cities, with a focus on behaviour and mental health. The interdisciplinary group aims to provide policy advice based on the experimental research it conducts and its investigation into the prerequisites for qualitative urban living.

Architecture can benefit significantly from the input of social sciences, as the knowledge they provide reinforces intuitions or contradicts assumptions, unearthing overlooked aspects. Social sciences, thus, provide the framework for a design based on knowledge rather than personal belief, leading to an architecture better suited to the needs of its users.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Collective Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Andreea Cutieru. "How Social Sciences Shape the Built Environment" 31 May 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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