Why facades are critical for a great public space

In the recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about public space. We often hear how important is the right size of a square, the appropriate choice of greenery, comfortable sidewalks for pedestrians or ergonomic design of benches. We hear a little less, however, that one of the most important elements of public space is the buildings that surround and shape it.

Negative space - modern development
Negative space is not enclosed, it forms the background for buildings. Outdated standards often lead to it. Source: Hi Development

There are several reasons for this. First of them might be a practical one. Under today’s conditions and with the current form of the zoning plan in many European cities, the city simply does not have much impact on the appearance of buildings. In some countries, we encounter so-called “form-based” zoning plans. Meaning those that determine the formal appearance rather than the function of buildings in a certain zone, so that the whole neighborhood looks pleasing and unified.

The second reason is the orientation of today’s architecture on individual buildings and their authors, rather than the creation of harmonious neighborhoods. And the third one is the strong legal protection of private property, which results in weak powers of the city in regulating the appearance of buildings.

Positive space - old town square
Positive space: It forms a closed whole. In the book “Soft City”, Jan Gehl and David Sim describe reasons to return to buildings cities this way. Source: Unsplash / Thomas Konings.

Public space: Positive or negative?

We should not perceive public space as a “negative space”, a kind of a background for individual buildings. We should perceive it as a “positive space” – the foreground that should be surrounded and shaped by buildings. This is exactly what Jan Gehl or Christopher Alexander talk about. Such a space carries a much higher quality of human experience. It becomes a “place”, not just a “space”. Lighting norms bearing a modernist heritage, however, often prevent the creation of such a space in many countries.

But there is another reason why we should focus on building facades when thinking about public space. It’s more recent than the urbanist tradition, but at the same time it brings very similar recommendations. This reason is the scientific knowledge about humans. You may not have heard of it yet, but today the sciences that examine the relationship between man and his environment are becoming more and more popular.

You can find them under names such as environmental psychology, psychology of architecture, cognitive science, neuroscience or neuroaesthetics. They ask themselves how our environment affects us and how to design the cities on the basis of this knowledge.

An evolutionary legacy for the 21st century architecture

These sciences are creating knowledge that points to a mismatch between the needs of our bodies and brains on one hand, and the way we build our cities on the other. This can be attributed, among other things, to modernism of the twentieth century, which, in collaboration with the industrial production of buildings, threw away a thousand years old architectural tradition.

This tradition allowed cities to grow organically, on a human scale and on the basis of aesthetic criteria that are natural to humans, because they are based on the geometric principles of nature, in which we have evolved over millions of years. In animals, we have understood these principles long ago. During the twentieth century, it was fashionable to build modernist enclosures in zoos. One example is Lubetkin’s penguin pool at London Zoo.

However, it was later found that this impoverished environment is not suitable for animals because it does not provide them with enough stimuli, does not mimic their natural environment (also called “environment of evolutionary adaptation”) and thus leads to animals that are stressed and behave restlessly or aggressively.In reaction to that, we soon started building enclosures focused on animal wellbeing, resembling their natural habitats. But architecture for people is still lagging behind.

Our cities need buildings and facades that match the structure of our perception and our brain. Those that people used to create intuitively because they considered them pleasant and beautiful – whether vernacular architecture with folk ornament or urban public buildings built according to classical principles.

Lubetkin's penguin pool
Lubetkin’s penguin pool proved to be unsuitable for animal life because it did not resemble their natural habitat. Architecture for people, however, is still built on modernist principles. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What facades does a good city need?

The simple answer: A good city needs facades that increase the quality of life of as many of its inhabitants as possible.

Facades that help reduce stress and create places to which people can form emotional relationships. Those that carry within themselves the qualities of humanity and thus reflect ourselves. It needs buildings that are not too large, have lots of small details, reflect the symmetry of the human body and living nature, do not attack us with sharp angles and edges, are not too monotonous, but at the same time not too chaotic. They are tailored to humans and their architects place people at the top of their values.

A more complicated answer: A good city needs facades that meet the criteria of biophilic design and reflect how our brains view the world around them. Cognitive science has long used terms such as “embodiment” and “extended mind”. These theories say that our perception does not only work as an independent observer: “I see, think and react.” Our mind uses its environment as an extension of itself. A simple example is research which shows that people better remember information in the same place as where they learned it.

Tilted building from Zaha Hadid
Architects of Zaha Hadid probably did not work with psychologists when designing this building in Antwerps. Visually unstable and inclined structures can cause anxiety. Source: Unsplash / Claudia Lorusso.

Embodiment, on the other hand, says that we do not perceive objects (and buildings) around us as just a mixture of lines and colors. Our minds use so-called “mirror neurons” (which help us to be empathetic), for empathizing with the inanimate objects we look at too. They relate to them on the basis of experience with our own body.

Today, for example, we can build a structure that seems to resist gravity, such as a dramatic overhang or tilt of one of its elements. At the rational level, people know that the overhang will not fall down on them. But on an emotional level, such buildings can cause tension. And our emotions, although we are not always aware of them, shape our lives much more strongly than our rational, evolutionarily younger part. Based on this scientific knowledge, we can start creating principles for a human-focused architecture. We will look at those principles in the next article.