Architectural Psychology: Healthy Design

Combining architectural psychology, interior design and proxemics creates spaces that work on multiple levels. Architectural psychology uses the study of behavior as the fundamental principle for design decisions. This includes both the structure of the building and the interior design. 

Table of Contents

Architectural Psychology of Home
Historic Home in Bozeman, Montana, USA

Patterns in Architectural Psychology

The field of proxemics is intimately connected to architectural psychology. Proxemics is the study of cultural differences in personal boundaries and space requirements. This includes the placement of physical dividers such as doors and walls.

Our architectural environments both define our boundaries and reveal hidden aspects of our inner selves. The ever-increasing abundance of books, magazines and television programming on interior decoration and home improvement reveal our growing fascination with every aspect of our self-created environments.

Fireplace in Architectural Psychology
Home of Edvard Munch, Photo Credit Andrew Karlsen

Already established cultural patterns of architecture reveal the natural use of many fundamental principles of architectural psychology. A group of architects led by Christopher Alexander compiled what they learned about architecture around the world into a book called A Pattern Language (1977, Oxford University Press). A Pattern Language discusses virtually every aspect of buildings: entrances, windows, hallways, fireplaces, kitchens, sleeping areas, home offices, workshops and storage spaces.

The Science of Proxemics and Social Space

Creating powerful environments for working, learning, healing and socializing has become the professional arena of environmental psychologists and the private empire of almost everyone else. Is this a frivolous preoccupation or a human endeavor as significant and meaningful as finding a mate, pursuing a career and understanding one’s place in the universe? Is the process of personalizing one’s space really a fundamental survival skill? What do our interior design choices say about our social status and gender identification?

Proxemics and Social Space
Photo Credit Andrew Karlsen

In offices and homes alike, a social order is established by proximity. The offices that are the most distant from the waiting room and closest to the boss are for the most important staff members. Likewise, master bedrooms are usually the most distant from shared spaces such as entryways and living rooms. The rooms closest to the kitchen, family room and gathering areas are for those lowest on the totem pole, usually the children.

Proxemics also has much to do with issues of privacy. Those who have important activities and conversations to engage in need to have their space. When material dividers aren’t available, visual and auditory clues can serve to define boundaries. Signs, frosted glass, bells and intercoms can serve to separate places where others are welcome and places where they must have permission to enter.

The Psychology of Home

Our architectural structures have deep symbolic meaning. The primacy of the home is virtually indisputable. Home is our territorial core. This is where we belong, where we retreat to at the end of our day, the point of reference around which we orient our lives. But what makes a home truly a home? What exactly are the powerful effects of the built environment on human life?

Before Home Renovation
Before Home Renovation
After Renovation Psychology of Home
After Home Renovation

Less than half of us actually own our own homes today, but somehow we get along without the epicenter of the American Dream. Or do we? Is owning the bricks and mortar less important than the act of personalizing our space? From the mundane fundamentals of choosing wall colors, upholstery designs and furniture styles to the more ephemeral art of feng shui, home decorating has become a complex skill and a big business.

Geoffrey Hayward, an environmental psychologist, has studied the sociological dimensions of home extensively. Hayward has isolated a number of key factors that define “home.” Social networks, self-identity, privacy and stability weigh in at the top of the list. Home ownership is actually less important than we thought.

Joan Kron, a prolific writer on home fashion and decorating, covers a fascinating array of associated issues in her book Home Psych. Other human ecologists, architects and marketing experts continue to assess our growing fixation on every aspect of our self-created environments.

Feathering our nests is actually a critical skill for anyone intent on moving up the social ladder. Our furniture, special collections, artwork and even our physical address are status symbols and send a clear message to friends and competitors alike.

The next time you disdainfully set aside the home decorating magazines conveniently placed in just about every reception area and waiting room, think again! Spending a few minutes (and a few dollars) on upgrading your home may have far-reaching effects and support the accomplishment of many significant goals in your life.

Architectural Psychology and Interior Spaces

The mounting public awareness of the health issues involved in our indoor lifestyles is evident in a number of emerging trends: the emphasis on improving indoor air quality in both public and private buildings, the movement towards “natural homes” and non-toxic building materials and the growing interest in alternative approaches to enhancing interior environments including feng shui, biogeometry and aromatherapy. 

Psychological Benefits of Natural Lighting 

The research done by architects studying patterns around the world revealed the need for people of all cultures to feel safe and nurtured in their homes, neighborhoods and towns. A simple pattern in architectural psychology for positive environments includes designing rooms to have light coming in from at least two sides.

Our eyes are built to handle visual processing with multiple light sources rather than a light from a single direction. Seeing is more difficult in environments where light is coming from only one direction. In addition, we have an instinctual need for an escape route. We recoil psychologically when confronted with cave-like rooms where we may feel trapped. More than one entrance or exit from each room is ideal.

Windows in Architectural Psychology
Photo Credit Andrew Karlsen from Home of Edvard Munch

Decorative Painting for Interiors

Decorative painting goes hand in hand with the principles of architectural psychology. Murals were used in both ancient Egypt and Greece. Tombs and temples were lavishly painted with a combination of faux techniques and mural-like frescoes.

Originally an art of the common people, decorative painting has its origins in the folk arts of every nation. Artisans and peasants painted the walls of their dwellings, furniture, doors and various household objects with simple patterns based on nature, most commonly depicting flowers.

These artisans used paints made from natural pigments. Their equipment was simple, often consisting only of a single round brush made with animal hair. In the Middle Ages, painting was concentrated in churches and in castles. Most images in these decorative paintings were religious icons and illustrations of Biblical scenes.

Decorative Painting for Architectural Interiors
Renaissance Revival Style 1874 Sideboard

Cultural Identity & Interior Design

As travel increased and cultures merged, the particular forms of paintings practiced in a region or country helped people to maintain their ancestral identity. Rosemaling, for example, is a traditional form of Norwegian decorative painting that is still practiced today. By the 17th century, decorative painting was used extensively in palaces across Europe.

Not only royalty, but also the middle and upper classes began to employ painters to embellish their homes and furnishings. Idealistic artists in the late 19th and early 20th century revived the belief that art should not be restricted to great halls, museums, and canvases but should grace the life of every man. Every household object could be a work of art that would uplift mankind. Decorative painting became a “modern” art.

Soon jewelry boxes, hand painted plates, letter boxes, keepsake boxes, mirrors, vases and a vast array of other utilitarian objects were graced with decorative paintings of all types. Distinctions between the major arts of painting and sculpture and the minor arts of decorative painting, fabric painting and ceramics were at least partially obliterated.

In England and America, the arts and crafts movement flourished between 1880 and 1910. This reformist movement was a reaction against both the overly ornate Victorian style and the machine-made products of the industrial revolution. The personality of the artisan was central. Designs were drawn from nature, historical styles or folk styles at the discretion of the artist.

Arts and Crafts Movement England
Arts & Crafts Ceramics, England

Wikimedia Commons, Photo at Birmingham Museum by Victuallers

Fine Art & Architectural Psychology

Themes in interior design includes every aspect of the environment: walls, curtains, furniture and other accessories. These can be coordinated with architectural structures for a stunning effect in any room. In addition, the fine art in any interior space can support the architectural space to create comfort and health for inhabitants.

Following the arts and crafts movement, fine artists adapted the patterns and ornamentations of decorative painting. Artists applied the decorative themes to works of fine art created on canvas. Modern artists again challenged the boundary between fine art, crafts and architecture.

Artists such as Monet and Matisse are two of the more prominent heirs to the accumulated values and styles of decorative painting. The art forms that had escaped the canvas in decorative painting had now come full circle.

Decorative painting has experienced a resurgence of popularity in recent years. In addition to art on canvases, faux painting and murals have become common in businesses and in homes. This art form directly serves the goals of architectural psychology: environments based on human behavior and psychological needs. 

Water Lilies by Claude Monet
Water Lilies by Claude Monet

Saving Civilization through Architecture

The buildings where we live, work and play have been aptly referred to by human ecologists as our “third skin.” Like our physical skin and the layer of clothing that we wear, our surroundings have a tremendous impact on our physical and psychological health.

These environments both define our boundaries and reveal hidden aspects of our inner selves. The ever-increasing abundance of books, magazines and television programming on interior decoration and home improvement reveal our growing fascination with every aspect of our self-created environments.

A recurring theme in all forms of modern art is the attempt to reform civilization through art. In the first half of the twentieth century, this idea was taken quite literally in the realm of architecture. The architect saw himself as a potential savior for mankind. The father of the International Style, Mies Van der Rohe, focused on ideal, purified forms with rectangular shapes.

International Style by Mies Van der Rohe
The Barcelona Pavilion by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1929)

© Alice Wiegand / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Universal Forms & Architectural Psychology

These intersecting planes of the International Style in architecture were free of ornamentation and challenged the traditional notion of buildings as mass and weight. Steel beams and large panes of glass were increasingly available due to the emerging industrial technology.

These materials could be used to create impersonal, universal forms. Through architecture, the proponents of the International Style claimed, man would experience a more egalitarian, rational way of living.

The insanity and horror of World War I had demonstrated that man was in desperate need of rational thought and action. Although appropriate for corporate structures, the new style proved to be too impersonal and unaffordable for the common man.

Frank Llyod Wright Home Studio
Frank Llyod Wright Home Studio

Library of Congress, Historic American Building Survey
Prints & Photographs Division, ILL 16-OAKPA, 5-2May 1967

Frank Lloyd Wright & Natural Forms

Do architectural structures really have deep symbolic meaning? We shape our environments and in turn shape us. Frank Lloyd Wright, the most famous of modern architects, emphasized the relationship between buildings and their natural environments.

Responses to the International Style also included the more organic forms, irregular shapes and textured surfaces of the architect LeCorbusier. Other Post-Modernists such as Charles Moore returned to utilizing references to tradition to create delightfully ornate structures.

The attempt to focus on rational forms extended into the realm of interior design, fine art and applied crafts. The Bauhaus, a school of modern art formed in 1918, produced designs with simple forms and clean surfaces which could be mass-produced. These prototypes were intended as low-cost alternatives which would be both attractive and utilitarian.

Instead, some critics interpreted them as anti-human. Responses to these designs included the organic, decorative Arts and Crafts movement in England and Art Noveau in general. Ironically, the rationalism exemplified in the sterile forms of the International Style was eventually replaced in both architecture and fine art by movements such as Surrealism. Surrealism was a conscious exploration of man’s hidden, irrational nature.

Architectural Psychology in Healthcare Facilities

The role of architectural psychology and art in healthcare facilities goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians. Apparently aware of the fact that images of nature are healing, the Egyptians painted murals of nature in their healing temples, usually with blue ceilings to represent the sky and green floors to represent the earth. Likewise, the Greeks decorated their hospitals with beautiful paintings as well as statues of healthy athletes to inspire the ailing. In the Americas, the Navajo Indians used art in the form of sand paintings to aid in healing the sick.

Architectural Psychology and Healthcare Facilities
Interior of Heiligen-Geist Hospital, Lubeck

“Martyrdom of Ten Thousand,” Photo Credit Kritzolina

Types of Art in Healthcare Facilities

There are four types of art generally used in interior design in healthcare facilities:

Religious Art: Religious art has often depicted the glory of heaven and the trials of earth. This type of art has questionable value for someone whose assumed goal is to remain on earth.

Honorary Art: Honorary art depicts donors and has little or no meaning for patients.

Medical Art: Medical art originally depicted actual medical procedures including surgery and autopsies. For a patient, these images were likely to have been distressing, frightening and even horrifying.

Charitable Art: Art donated by individuals or charitable organizations. This art may or may not be in keeping with the principles of healing art.

Medical Art in Healthcare Facilities

Medical Art in Architectural Psychology

Although the emphasis in the medical field has shifted to patient-centered care, remnants of some of these types of art remain in almost all healthcare facilities and doctors’ offices.

Posters donated from pharmaceutical companies often hang on the walls of examination and treatment rooms. These may depict various stages of disease or give information about the medications or antibiotics that can be prescribed.

In addition, posters depicting medical procedures such as the anatomy of knee replacement can still be found in many medical offices. Other common images in healthcare facilities include anatomical charts of the muscular or skeletal systems.

Fortunately, art depicting medical conditions and anatomy, which have no value for healing, are rarely found in patient recovery rooms.

Hospital Interior
Reception Area of Keynsham Hospital

Photo by Rwendland

Examples of Healing Art in Healthcare

The benefit of positive art, usually scenes of nature, has been studied in depth by Roger Ulrich, Ph.D. Studies conducted by Ulrich and others indicate that “healing art” images affect the autonomic nervous system, hormonal balance, brain neurotransmitters, the immune system and the blood flow to all organs in the body.

Roger Ulrich Healthcare Design

Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., EDAC

Neurophysiologists have further determined that art connects us to the worlds of imagery, emotion, visions and feelings. This connection can be critical in the healing process. Hospitals and medical practitioners have tried a variety of innovative approaches to using art for healing.

For example, a dentist’s office commissioned an artist to create a mural of the underside of a pond on the ceiling in their treatment room. This lighthearted mural included the bottom half of a duck complete with feet sticking out into the room. The mural served to distract and amuse patients during dental procedures.

At the University of Maryland, an Enchanted Forest was created for the children’s ward. Trunks from enormous trees were used as the theme for a place for children to play, doctors to relax and families to unwind.

For patients who must lie on their backs for extensive medical tests, some hospitals have installed painted or stained glass covers on their overhead lights. The colors chosen are generally cool and relaxing and the images are gentle, curvilinear patterns similar to ripples on a pond or clouds in the sky.

These projects demonstrate the wonderful role that art and creativity can play in healthcare facilities and in the lives of patients, just when they may need uplifting and inspirational influences the most!

Feng Shui and Architectural Psychology

Architectural psychology and feng shui share many principles. Although the two approaches often come to the same conclusions, they differ in their foundations.

Feng shui practice generally relies on a combination of tradition and intuition. Architectural psychology generally relies on a research model. It could be argued that feng shui is a right-brain approach and architectural psychology is a left-brain approach.

Perhaps a combination of these approaches with equal measures of common sense and practicality will yield the best solutions. The goal is for architectural environments to meet both the basic psychological needs and the aesthetic desires of their inhabitants.

Feng Shui and Architectural Psychology
Photo Credit Andrew Karlsen

Indoor Air Quality & Essential Oils

The mounting public awareness of the health issues involved in our indoor lifestyles is evident in a number of emerging trends: the emphasis on improving indoor air quality in both public and private buildings, the movement towards “natural homes” and non-toxic building materials and the growing interest in alternative approaches to enhancing interior environments including feng shui, biogeometry and aromatherapy.

Americans are estimated to spend an average of 80-90% of their time indoors, whether they are at home, at work or at school. In colder climates, the time spent indoors is even higher. Unfortunately, the concentration of individual air pollutants that lower indoor air quality typical buildings can easily be 100 times higher than the level of contaminants in outdoor air.

Essential Oils and Indoor Air Quality
Cinnamon Essential Oil for Indoor Air Quality

Essential oils are a practical and cost-effective solution to offset many of the detrimental effects of poor indoor air quality. And the delightful fragrances of aromatherapy are beneficial for the mind and spirit, too.

Psychologists report that aromas penetrate deeply into our unconscious and emotional worlds because we react instinctively rather than intellectually to the vast array of scents in our environment. Knowing this, we can enhance our moods and physical health by improving indoor air quality with oils that are wisely chosen and properly diffused.

Create a Safer Environment

On the physical level, essential oils help combat biological contaminants by binding to the airborne molecules of fat that typically carry unpleasant odors. Citrus oils are great air fresheners in offices, schools and public places and very few people object to the smell. Synthetic air fresheners, on the other hand, only mask the undesirable odors.

Essential oils also have well-documented antiviral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties to further improve indoor air quality. Some powerful and relatively inexpensive “bacteria busters” are cinnamon, clove, lemon, eucalyptus, lavender and pine oils.

Lavender Flowers for Essential Oils
Lavender Fields for Essential Oils

Choosing Essential Oils for Your Home

You can also pick your oils in relation to the time of year. In spring and summer, light, refreshing essential oils are the most appropriate for optimal indoor air quality. These include geranium, lavender, pettigraine, lime/lemon and sandalwood. Oils appropriate for autumn and winter would be warming scents such as cypress, benzoin, nutmeg and frankincense.

Different areas of your home can also benefit from specific scents. Relaxing oils like clary sage, bergamot, rose and jasmine work well in the living room. To rouse yourself from winter lethargy, improve the indoor air quality with stimulating oils like mints and forest blends!

For bathrooms and kitchens, the “bacteria busters” mentioned above along with lemon grass and citronella are excellent. In bedrooms, sleep enhancing oils like valerian, chamomile, cinnamon, hops and lavender are good choices.

Essential Oil Diffuser for Indoor Air Quality
Essential Oil Diffuser

Air Quality: Diffusers, Candles & More

Essential oils can be diffused through a wide assortment of clay, glass and metal diffusers commonly sold through essential oil and herb companies. There are lots of styles and options on the market for essential oils diffusers. Some easy homemade approaches work just as well, like putting several drops of oil into a pan of boiling water.

You can also add a few drops of oil to a cup of warm water in a standard spray bottle. Or add some drops to your humidifier (check manufacturer’s recommendations). Note: be careful not to spray the mist on wooden furniture to avoid discoloration. 

If you prefer the methods your grandma may have used, look for perfumed pillows and sachets, potpourris, scented soaps and scented candles. However, make sure you are getting the real thing. For purity and health, the best options are beeswax or soy candles with natural fiber wicks.

Lower quality candles, for example, can emit pollutants such as acetone, benzene and soot, which actually decrease the level of indoor air quality. Some imported candles even have wick cores made of lead. Make sure to get god quality essential oils and related products to experience the full physical and psychological benefits of aromatherapy. 

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Author Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.


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Architectural Psychology Article Summary

Architectural psychology has been practiced by designers and builders for millennia. Using architectural psychology along with interior design, the science of proxemics, color theory, feng shui, improved air quality and modern research into healthy environments holds great promise for more comfortable and inspiring homes, hospitals and classrooms.

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