Misunderstanding architecture and London’s great expansion

Robert Bevan
Modernist marvel: the Isokon building in Hampstead, designed by Wells Coates as an experiment in communal living, was completed in 1934

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill’s famous phrase was uttered after the House of Commons was destroyed in the Blitz. But is it true? How does architecture affect our moods or behaviour? Certainly, inhabiting a windowless black box is a very different experience from lying on a verandah overlooking a beach, but would, for instance, a horseshoe debating chamber really be less adversarial than Westminster’s facing benches?

A few years ago the popular philosopher Alain de Botton released a book in which he tried to persuade us that better aesthetics make us better people. Tell that to Donald Trump, making decisions amid the perfect proportions of the Oval Office.

Headspace is the latest attempt to link what we build with what we do. It’s an important question — an architectural holy grail, in a way. If you know that designing X will make Y happen that’s really useful. Unfortunately, it is largely illusory beyond some obvious basics.

Paul Keedwell is a celebrity psychologist with a side interest in architecture. His book is full of references to obscure experiments of the following type: 19 students at a university in Jordan were shown photos of interiors and more women than men preferred the smaller windows, which “proves”, apparently, that women want homes that are more secure. Another test on 67 men found that they were calmer in the presence of paintings of trees and bushes. These are a mash-up of the actual experiments quoted, but you get the drift.

There is a fashionable view that, in evolutionary terms, we are hard-wired to react in certain ways. To some degree this is a throwback to postwar rat-crowding psychology experiments that blamed human aggression on overcrowding (conveniently overlooking the real-life differences between dense and pacifist Tokyo and spread-out but gun crime-blighted LA). Psychologically, Keedwell argues, our brains evolved while still living in the natural world.

Yet, like architecture itself, we are more than the sum of our parts — we are not simply rats in a labyrinth or cavemen with online banking. The oversimplifications that try to prove otherwise are the undoing of books like this. Architecture can influence behaviour but the relationship is complex and subtle. Social cohesion can be hindered by poor design — blocks arranged so that neighbours don’t easily meet, for example. Factors such as politics, climate, social structure, development, economics and technology mean that we live in myriad ways. Architecture is no more destiny than is biology.

How these many factors came together to create outer London is the subject of Metroburbia by expat professor Paul L Knox of Virginia Tech. Look past his ugly neologism to the fascinating story of the ballooning capital, from the Victorian period to the present, gobbling up villages and market towns in the process, and terraforming them as high streets with commons and reservoirs, semis and tennis clubs.

There are some wonderful photographs of suburbia’s architectural gems which demonstrate that there is architectural life beyond Osbert Lancaster’s Bypass Variegated.

Elsewhere there’s a good argument to be had about whether some of his examples are innie or outie in London terms. Manor House? The Isokon building in Hampstead?

Weirdly, Knox talks of the “cocktail” rather than “stockbroker” belt, appears to have an obsession with Clapham, and seems to dismiss most of the east. Thankfully, he brings us relatively up to date with subjects such as decentralised offices and shopping centres ignored by more nostalgic writers on the suburbs.

Look past his errors of judgment (and some of fact) and we see the forces that have truly shaped how we live. The Cheap Trains Act of 1883, for instance, helped turn places such as north Tottenham from retreats for wealthy gentlemen to working-class suburbs. These are decisions not driven by a hard-wired preference for living in N17.

Headspace: The Psychology of City Living by Dr Paul Keedwell

£15.90, Amazon, Buy it now

Metroburbia: The Anatomy of Greater London by Paul L Knox

£35, Amazon, Buy it now