The "real world" is a place architects love to talk about but hardly know. Psycholigists are now -- with dubious success -- trying to get them acquainted.
Architects have virtually nothing to do with housing people. That is done by builders without benefit of architect. Though much photographed in fashion magazines, architect-designed houses are as rare (and expensive) as truffles.
The reason architects know so little about the needs of the people who use their buildings is that few of them are able to work on their own. As architecture historian John Marston Fitch has pointed out, most work for large architectural and engineering firms. That means they are increasingly specialized and rarely see the design as a whole, let alone its context. They hardly ever see their clients.
The clients, furthermore, are hardly ever the real clients, the people who use the building. Instead, the architect answers to investors, corporate managers, institutional directors or governmental bureaucrats. They never see the workers in the office skyscraper, the blue-collar workers in the plant, the housewives in the housing projects, the children in school or the shoppers in the malls.
The building consumers have no way to express their expectations, requirements and demands. Until recently, for instance, the D.C. Department of Buildings and Grounds actually prohibited architects who were designing its school buildings from interviewing teachers and principals about them. (The smarter ones did anyway -- at clandestine tea parties.)
The architects' isolation, says Fitch, has inevitably led to "the abstract, the formal and the platitudinous in architectural design." Post-modern flimflam generally make matters worse. It is mostly even more abstract, more formal and more platitudous than the modern style it hopes to improve.
As a consequence, architecture today does not work very well, as we all know. It undoubtedly contributes to the mounting irritation and inefficiency in American life.
One answer might to be to teach the kids in architecture to take sketchbook in hand and go out and observe life. But that would be too simple and unscientific. So psychology and other branches of behavioral science are coming to the rescue.
The first studies on the effect of architecture on human behavior were Herbert Gans' "The Urban Vilagers" (1962) and Edward Hall's "The Hidden Dimension" (1966). More recently a young Harvard psychologist, John Zeisel, has become prominent in this growing field. Zeisel developed a three-step methodology: (1) He asked the architects of a housing project how they expected their design to affect the behavior of the occupants; (2) he observed the occupants to see if the indeed behaved as the architects wanted them to (they didn't); and (3) he proclainmed this admirable bit of common sense to be a new discipline called post-occupancy evaluation, or POE.
Now Zeisel has come up with "Inquiry by Design: Tools for Environment-Behavior Research" (Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., $8.95), a primer for environment-behavior research, or E-B. The same mail brought me another book, written by Arthur I. Rubin and Jacqueline Elder, "Building for People: Behavioral Research Approaches and Directions" (Government Printing Office, $14) a primer for "Man/Environment" research, or M/E.
The basic differnce between E-B and M-E is that E-B is taught in a handy paperback and easy to read, while M-E is a heavy and heavyhanded government publication -- the result of 10 years of labor under the auspices of the Commerce Department's National Bureau of Standards. It is hard-bound, hard to read (because of its redundant jargon and idiotic typography) and too wide to fit on standard bookshelves.
Neither E-B nor M-E tells architects how to do better. They tell would-be behavioral scientists how to make common-sense observations sound "scientific" and sell them to architects.
Zeisel at least offers a few examples, although they prove nothing in particular. One example tells of an architect who designed a housing project in South Carolina. He placed the driveways of neighboring houses next to each other, rather then on the same side of the house, in hopes that this would get the neighbors to talk and get friendly.
Well, they did talk -- and fight. They fought about the neighbors' rotten children who left their tricycles on the driveway.
Zeisel also found that, in a double-occupancy hospital room, it is a bad idea to place the toilet close to one of the beds. The person in that bed is likely to be frequently disturbed and the person in the other bed has further to walk.Hurrah for E-B!
He warned about the "Hawthorne Effect," says Zeisel. In the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric, it seems, behavioral scientists set out to research the effect of lighting on workers' productivity. When the scientists turned the light up, the workers worked harder. When the scientists turned the light down, the workers also worked harder. My own conclusion is that in a dull factory hall any environmental change is somehow stimulating. The research scientists, however, fudged thier explanation.
The Bureau of Standards, naturally, attempts to set standards -- in this case for measuring a host of things people might require of thier architecture. cHow do we find out how people are affected by room temperature, light levels, color, odor, vibration, noise, etc., etc.? "Building for People" tells us about all the studies that have been conducted about these matters, but not what the studies found.
How could it? One person's hot room is another person's ice box, so let him put on his sweater. Ther are no norms in most of these matters that an architect can build. He certainly should not build on statistical averages or majority preferences.
It may be perfectly true, for instance, that 52.3 percent of all patients in a clinic waiting room are soothed by blaring Muzak. But then if it is driving 7.9 percent of this captive audience berserk, what happens to minority rights? We are finally respecting the rights of non-smokers by confining the smokers to their own compartments. Why don't we do likewise with noise pollution?
I am afraid that little of this behavioral "scientification," to coin an ugly word, will help architects design more pleasant and efficent living and working environments. People will adjust to minor inconviences if they like a place and find it beautiful. People become grumpy and unproductive if they hate the place and find it ugly.
In part, beauty and ugliness are, of course, relative terms and subject to fashion, to changing moods and contexts that no science can chart.
Good, livable buildings, however, can be designed for clients who care by architects who care enough to explore the real world, develop an intuitive feeling for people and who meet peoples' needs with that undefinable, unmeasureable and utterly unscientific mystery called art.
What Zeisel and the Bureau of Standards have given us, I am afraid, are crutches for an ailing profession. But crutches are not cures. What ails architecture today cannot be remedied by post-occupancy evaluation or POE, behavior-environment research or B-E, man-environment studies or M-E, or any other acronyms dredged up by the behavioral science or BS.