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Boring Architecture Is Starving Your Brain

Designer Thomas Heatherwick thinks the construction industry is in a crisis. “We’ve just got so used to buildings that are boring,” says the man behind London’s revived Routemaster bus, Google’s Bay View, and New York’s Little Island. “New buildings, again and again, are too flat, too plain, too straight, too shiny, too monotonous, too anonymous, too serious. What happened?” While those features can often be aesthetically appropriate on their own, Heatherwick notes that it’s the relentless combination of them in the aesthetics of modern buildings and urban spaces that makes them overwhelmingly boring.

This boredom, he adds, isn’t just a nuisance—it can actually be harmful. “Boring is worse than nothing,” Heatherwick writes in his latest book, Humanize. “Boring is a state of psychological deprivation. Just as the body will suffer when it’s deprived of food, the brain begins to suffer when it’s deprived of sensory information. Boredom is the starvation of the mind.”

This isn’t just a matter of opinion. Heatherwick cites, for instance, the research of Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo who studies the neurological and psychological impact of the built environment. In his experiments, Ellard has shown that people’s moods were considerably affected when surrounded by tall buildings. In one experiment, he collected data from wearable sensors that tracked skin conductance response, a measure of emotional arousal. When people pass by a boring building, Heatherwick says, “their bodies literally go into a fight-or-flight mode. They have nothing for their mind to connect to.”

The brain, Heatherwick argues, craves complexity and fascination. “There’s a reason why, when you look out into a forest, nature’s complexity and rhythms restores our attention back,” he says. “We need that in buildings. Less is not more.” This is backed by the research of psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, who in the 1980s developed Attention Restoration Theory, which posited that people’s concentration improves when spending time in natural environments.

“We haven’t been paying attention to the nutritional value to society of the buildings that are around us,” Heatherwick says. He believes, for example, that architects now prefer to prioritize the internal spaces of a building, while neglecting what the building looks like from the outside. This is a mistake. “Buildings are the backdrop of society’s life,” he says. “A thousand times more people will go past this building than will ever come inside it. The outside of that building will affect them and contribute to how they feel.” Ultimately, to humanize our urban spaces, architects need to think about the people that inhabit them. Heatherwick recalls a debate of elite people in the construction industry a few years ago about whether the opinion of the public mattered. “We debated all night and then they voted that they didn’t. It was unbelievable.”

Such short-term thinking is leading to what Heatherwick calls “the dirty secret of the construction industry”: its disastrous environmental impact. Just consider, for instance, that in the US, 1 billion square feet of buildings are demolished every year. “That’s half of Washington, DC, destroyed, just to get rebuilt after with the same sort of boring buildings,” he says. In the UK, 50,000 buildings a year are demolished, with the average age of a commercial building being around 40 years. “If I were a commercial building, I would have been killed 14 years ago,” he says. “To build a tower in the city of London, which by global standards isn’t that big, takes the equivalent of 92,000 tons of carbon emissions.” As a result of this, estimates show that the construction industry now emits five times more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than aviation.

“We can’t have buildings that are only here for 40 years. We need thousand-year thinking,” he says. “The world of construction teaches you that form follows function, less is more, ornament is a crime. It’s powerful, and when you’re studying, that goes in your brain and brainwashes you.” But Heatherwick reminds us that emotion is a function, and one that should be celebrated in the world of construction.

This article appears in the July/August 2024 issue of WIRED UK magazine.


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