Designing buildings that you don't get lost in (and why architects don't do this)

"Getting Lost in Buildings," a paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science, looks at the intersection of cognitive science and architecture, and suggests directions in designing buildings that are easier to navigate. I'm one of those zero-spatial-sense people who can stay in a hotel for a week and still turn down the wrong corridor every time I get out of the elevator, so this is fascinating stuff for me:


Some buildings, on the other hand, make it difficult. Carlson and her coauthors, Christoph Hölscher of the University of Freiburg, Thomas F. Shipley of Temple University, and Ruth Conroy Dalton of University College, London, use the Seattle Central Library as an example. The bold building, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, opened in 2004 and won awards for its design. But visitors complain that it's difficult to navigate. People expect floors to have similar layouts, but the first five levels of the library are all different; even the outside walls don't necessarily line up. Normally, lines of sight help people get around, but the library has long escalators that skip over levels, making it hard to see where they go.

For building users who may find navigating in new environments challenging, there are strategies that are helpful. "I used to worry when I explore a new city by myself that I would not find my way back to the hotel," Carlson says. "However, this simple trick is effective. At each intersection where I need to turn, I spin around to see what the intersection will look like from my return perspective. That way, I will be able to recognize it from the other direction, and I can store that view also in my cognitive map." This strategy also tends to work well for indoor navigation.

Architects, on the other hand, may be among the class of people with very strong spatial skills, because their craft requires numerous spatial transformations, such as needing to envision 3D space from 2D depictions. One unanticipated consequence of such abilities is that they may not be very good at taking the perspective of a user with poorer spatial skills, and therefore may not be able to fully anticipate where users may have navigational difficulties within their buildings.

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