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How Buildings Shape Us Under Trial or Tribulation

Hospitals and prisons can be hell, but good design can at least ameliorate the suffering.
How Buildings Shape Us Under Trial or Tribulation

The Architecture of Good Behavior: Psychology and Modern Institutional Design in Postwar America, Joy Knoblauch, University of Pittsburgh Press, 264 pages.

It’s likely a very healthy thing that Americans bristle at the idea of their behavior being manipulated by their surroundings. Consider the casino floor,  its windowless and clockless nature designed to entrap you. We should be aware of these things, and it’s good to think about when our places are deliberately encouraging us to do particular things, including gambling away our savings. The next question is what a building is encouraging us to do, and in most cases those encouragements are far healthier than keeping stationary at the slot machine all night. These subtle nudges—and not the fact of their existence, which is inevitable in many buildings—and generally inevitable, and even a good thing. 

A new book on this subject, The Architecture of Good Behavior, is the sort of title that sounds dystopian but really isn’t. Joy Knoblauch examines the early decades in which psychology was brought to bear on institutional design, a field soon known as “psychological functionalism.” Her main attention is dedicated to hospitals, mental health facilities, and prisons. But her ambition expands beyond this to defensible architecture and other early applications of such thought. It’s an interesting preface to the age of neuroscience in architecture: we still haven’t reduced that to a hard science, and these early layerings of psychology over design were even more tentative, but it provides a valuable early history of these efforts.

These initiatives did not originate in a desire to warp the human spirit through design. As Knoblauch writes, “These administrators and scholars believed that architectural form should be shaped to fit the psyche of a patient or prisoner and that form could make it easier to heal patients, reform prisoners, or house residents.” She references Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power”; one might add in Cass Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism” or many similar concepts, although most of this work functionally might be even milder. A building can subtly encourage you to do things, but it cannot make you do anything (and some of these early experiments didn’t translate into very concrete or replicable results).

Psychology sometimes encouraged new practices, but often it discouraged fairly recent ones. Hospital design was one realm where extremely sound discoveries in other scientific sub-fields had ended up degrading the built environment. The rising importance of daylight, regular ventilation, and surfaces that were easily cleaned were all unquestionably important but lead to a rise of medical facilities characterized solely by wide corridors with no ornament. They were free from contamination, but also free of any human visual interest, inevitably, as Knoblauch writes, “slick with easy-to-clean plastic or vinyl materials and glossy with new metal and glass building materials.” It’s foolish and irresponsible to design in ignorance of factors that are vital to the practical use of your building, but also a danger to let only one of those many elements dictate your entire plan. 

There are photos of earlier hospitals with rugs and furnishings and art on the walls that look quite comfortable (if surely not ideally hygienic). The trouble was tossing all of this out. Knoblauch quotes an excellent passage by Mayer Spivack:

All surfaces—floors, walls, and ceilings, have either been painted or constructed of materials with a highly reflective glossy surface. The walls are the usual hard plaster, slickly painted. Polished plastic flooring stretches unbroken by pattern, and meets the walls without even an edge, curving dizzily up into the walls. The ceiling is like a mirror; it is covered with perforated metal soundproofing square, probably chosen because of their washability, and painted with a glasslike gloss white.

The total effect is that of looking down a gun barrel.

Those working with hospital design encouraged a move away from the featureless double-loaded corridor towards more winding arrangements, with triangular and hexagonal layouts suggested to reduce some of the monotony. Softening of hard and reflective surfaces was encouraged as was more furnishing and decor (in ways that were suitably aseptic). Some issues weren’t just fad design caprices: fire codes often forbade hallway furniture.

This wasn’t just revivalism, as there were elements from earlier eras they were seeking to discard.

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A concern in a more democratic age of hospitals was shedding some of the oppressive air that characterized charity hospitals, to reframe the patient not as a tubercular supplicant but as a valued customer. At the same time, there was a consciousness that some machine-age capitalism was a poor fit for patients already generally in an anxious frame of mind. The notable architectural theorist Christopher Alexander describes this dynamic in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, warning against waiting areas where you were “processed by the receptionist as if you were a package.” 

Some of the most substantial applications of this work were in the realm of architecture that is most frankly concerned with manipulation and control: prisons. 

This had long been a realm for applications of psychology, giving us the panopticon and a variety of other experiments, some objectively fairly ghoulish. The applications of psychology to prisons were largely quite humane in this era. “Neither radical nor supportive of the multi-billion-dollar prison industrial complex, this group sought to carve a space for reform often using interdisciplinary training, as criminology was a low-status field.”

One persistent problem with prison design is the risk of squandering any potential for rehabilitation and maximizing that for conflict. A frequent recommendation was seeking to separate and classify prisoners into more fractious and amicable settings. Beyond that was the more difficult and interesting aim of designing wards that would minimize violence. One Sim Van der Ryn prison study at UC Berkeley sought to furnish some privacy and intermediate areas to break up the faulty binary of the cell and the chaotic boundaryless public area with spaces in between. He sought to provide privacy, a “right to retreat” as well as liminal zones that were not entirely one thing or another, all while providing capabilities for guard surveillance. They encouraged smaller wards and hallways (if surveillance was still obviously of central importance it was to be rendered less obvious). 

Some efforts went father, proposing that prisons should be built in ways that resembled normal streetscapes, that a main street with storefronts might exert a calming effect. As Knoblauch states, they “used more typical architecture to solicit more typical and more peaceful behavior.” There were limits of course, but it was “an architecture that tried to remove the overt aesthetics of confinement.” It was all quite reasonable stuff, and we can hope it would achieve greater credence today (if this very worthy cause might fall on deaf ears in the current era of quixotic and dangerous prison abolitionism). 

Knobauch ventures literally outside in her examination of the concept of “defensible space,” an area of concern that is considerably more familiar to the general public. Some of its conclusions—in dense urban developments, “allow[ing] inhabitants themselves to become key agents in ensuring their security”—were not very robust, but they’ve been tweaked and examined since and remain a useful matrix today. 

The story in each one of these realms is incomplete: in some cases, a lack of interest or resources meant intriguing work wasn’t followed up. In others a lack of resources meant such plans weren’t implemented (sometimes very reasonably, sometimes regrettably). Forms of such ideas filtered rapidly out into building practices though, where you’ve likely encountered some every day—including humanizing streetscapes once left barren. Knoblauch has ably explained its start. 

Anthony Paletta has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.

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