Writings on Building and Architecture

by Dr. Cora Angier Sowa

Review of Public Places and Private Spaces

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Pacific Coast Highway

Is this beach-side scene low in arousal but high in pleasure? How does it score on dominance or submissiveness? Albert Mehrabian rated different environments, including highway driving, in his book on the psychology of various spaces.

Illustration: The Pacific Coast Highway in California, photo by Cora Angier Sowa.

Review of Public Places and Private Spaces by Albert Mehrabian (New York: Basic Books), previously published in New York Affairs, Winter 1977.

by Cora Angier Sowa

Times Square rates high in arousal, low in dominance, and its rating on pleasure depends on what turns you on. At Grand Central's Oyster Bar, arousal and dominance are both high, and the pleasure factor is unmistakable. Albert Mehrabian doesn't mention either of these places in Public Places and Private Spaces, but rating environments becomes a habit after reading this study in environmental psychology. Its main message is that our feelings, and ultimately our behavior in a situation, depend not only on what we have to do our plan to do, but on the physical environment in which we do it.

Mehrabian,a professor of psychology at UCLA, creates as systematic framework for describing environments. Like any good theory in psychology, it accounts for examples that sound vaguely familiar, but establishes new connections between them. For example, patients in mental hospitals have hallucinations and prisoners stage riots partly because their boring, unpleasant environments are of such low arousal and low information load that they approach the classic conditions of sensory deprivation. In one anecdote, he tells how a school librarian took most of the furniture out of the library and furnished it with a brilliant red shag rug and pillows; formerly apathetic students began to enjoy reading. Red is an arousing color, but an exclusive boutique might use an uncluttered (low arousal) setting to increase its customers' sense of status.

Response to an environment, according to Mehrabian, can be described in terms of three dimensions: arousal-nonarousal, pleasure-displeasure, and dominance-submissiveness. Arousal means the amount of stimulation the person feels, his muscle tone, his readiness for "fight or flight." Non-arousing environments make a person relaxed or sleepy; in a library they may engender boredom, but they are just right for unwinding after a hard day. Pleasure-displeasure is the amount of happiness the person feels; and dominance-submissiveness has to do with whether the person feels in command of the situation -- whether he can put his feet up on the table, or if he feels awed and restricted by the standards of others. People are screeners or nonscreeners. The screener is selective in his notice of the environment, blocking out stimuli that are less relevant to his mood or train of thought. The nonscreener is the typical "sensitive" person, who is more finely tuned to changes in the environment, more easily aroused both by pleasant and by unpleasant stimuli. Thresholds of arousal differ, but when high levels of arousal have been sustained for too long, the body responds with the GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome) effect, the total refusal of the body to accept more stimulation; which is why the person who drinks nine cups of coffee to stay awake may find that the tenth puts him to sleep.

The book gets off to a slow start, while Mehrabian attempts to define his terms in layman's language -- the book is, at least, commendably low in psychological jargon. But if you stick with him, he works out in often fascinating detail what these principles mean in many different "environments," from clothing to drugs to sex to housing to mental hospitals, bars, restaurants, even books and magazines.

Oddly, Mehrabian omits what many urbanists would consider one of the most important environments -- the street. The implications of applying his yardsticks of arousal, pleasure, and dominance to our urban public spaces could be profound. Yet he criticizes architects for paying too much attention to how their buildings look from the outside, and his only mention of street life is in a discussion of slums! Here, as elsewhere, one is reminded of the book's West Coast origins; the decription of driving an automobile as "low arousal", for example, conjures up the immense boredom of a California freeway. His personal value system leans toward a 1950's style combination of privatism and togetherness. Interaction is one of his major goals -- interaction between apartment dwellers, between factory workers, between patients in a doctor's office; he would like to remove all couches and divans from living rooms, because side-by-side seating discourages interaction -- goodbye to the nap in the living room! "Cities" receive less than eleven pages at the end of the book, "suburbs" only six. The resilience of New Yorkers in the face of disaster is dismissed as peasant stolidity, and his bias agains high-rise living seems based on outdated rat studies.

But although Mehrabian's values are Southern Californian, his principles are sound and can be applied anywhere. If he tells how to arrange chairs or corridors to achieve maximum interaction, the rules can be reversed to build a cozy retreat; low-load situations can be reversed to achieve a high load, and vice versa. Applied to architecture and planning problems, the principles he outlines could lead to a new definition of functionalism. A subway or housing project painted with bright designs is more functional in terms of pleasure, feelings of well-being, and incentives to good behavior than dark gray relieved only by graffiti created in frustration to fill the void.

The later chapters get boring, but mainly because by this time the reader can play the game as well as the author. Using his system, I would rate his style low in arousal, high in dominance, and moderate in pleasure. Perhaps what I miss most in Mehrabian's writing is a sense that he really cares about his subject. I miss, for example, the elegance and affection with which Kevin Lynch approaches his subject in The Image of the City. Perhaps in some circles such non-commitment passes for scientific objectivity, but it dilutes the force of the argument. As the French say, il faut se passionner; surely a subject of such importance deserves some passion. Yet Public Places and Private Spaces offers many new points for debate, and is a valuable addition to the small but growing body of literature on how our physical environment, especially the man-made environment, affects our psychological health and influences our behavior.

Copyright © 2004, Cora Angier Sowa. All rights reserved.

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