Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't Live So Close To Me

I've always had a passing interest in Ergonomics, the study of designing work spaces to lessen bodily strain. The irrepressible drive within science and scientists to tinker, uncover and fix-what-ails-ya is most impressive, to me, when it zeroes in on things like the angles of chair backs and the dimensions of cubby holes. When I think back to offices and conference rooms I felt happy in, the feeling had litte to do with people around me and everything to do the sense of the space, the light and the order of things. Spaces can seem to influence mood, and the longer we spend in comfortable places or in uncomfortable places, the more strongly our moods will tend.

Can extremely uncomfortable spaces cause unrest? Psychologist Collin Ellard thinks so. Ellard, who directs a program called RE.L.I.V.E (Research Lab for Immersive Virtual Environments), recently came out with a book called You Are Here, explaining how over centuries of navigational innovation we've lost the ability to instinctively "find our way."

In a section titled, "City Space," Ellard discusses the 2005 riots in Clichy-sous-Bois, a predominately North African Muslim suburb of Paris, and what may have caused them. As was widely reported, two teenagers of North African descent were accidentally electrocuted as they hid from the police. This incident may have ignited the riots, Ellard suggests, but one key element that received little press was the "built environment occupied by those who participated in the violence -- that is, the ability of buildings or even neighborhoods to shape collective or individual human behavior."

"At the time of the unrest," Ellard continues, "Clichy-sous-Bois was occupied by almost 30,000 people, among them some of the most impoverished in all of France." The area was isolated from the rest of the country due to a lack of access to public transport; the streets were flanked by high, concrete buildings; intersections and pedestrian traffic were rare. Furthermore, this cloistered setting couldn't have been more different from Muslim urban centers, "with their houses that face away from public thoroughfares and their graceful courtyard designs [that] emphasize privacy, family hierarchies, and clear lines of separation between public and private space."

Photographer Nico Oved, in an exhibition called "L'Habitat marginalisé," documented the gloomy, concrete confines of Clichy-sous-Bois. In a caption to the photo at bottom, Oved underlines the failure of this type of regimented, highly modern design: "What were designed to be open public spaces have ended up becoming havens for all sorts of crime. With little or no traffic moving through these places, they become hidden enclaves that protect drug dealing and other nefarious activities from the eyes of police patrols."

The mood-altering dwelling isn't an implication, or an excuse. But the suggestion is strong, and not to be ignored.

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