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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Nonyelum Anigbo

‘Demand interestingness’: Thomas Heatherwick rails against boring buildings

John Lewis store and car park
The John Lewis store (left) and car park in Leeds: an example of an ‘interesting’ structure, according to Heatherwick. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Boring, soulless buildings are making people stressed and lonely, according to Thomas Heatherwick, the British designer behind the 2012 Olympic cauldron.

The designer is embarking on a crusade to persuade architects and developers to create buildings that inspire feelings of joy and stimulation.

He is also calling on the public to send him photographs of particularly dreary structures in their area to help him create a new “Boring Building Index” of Britain’s worst offenders.

Calling for “a national conversation” about halting the spread of depressing architecture, he said: “We need to fearlessly demand interestingness. We need to rebel against the blandification of our streets, towns and cities, and make buildings that nourish our senses. Human beings deserve human places.”

On Thursday, Heatherwick, also known for the reimagined Routemaster buses in London and the Vessel attraction in New York, launched a campaign and book, both called Humanise, intended to prompt the replacement of grey, dull structures with designs that elicit pleasure.

He praised “interesting” structures built since 2015 such as the Arches development in north London, the John Lewis department store in Leeds, and the Diamond at the University of Sheffield.

But Heatherwick also praised the aesthetics of the Liberty department store in London, built in 1924, and the splendour of Royal Crescent in Bath, built in 1774.

The designer cited Colin Ellard, a research psychologist and professor at Waterloo university in Canada, who has said that there was growing evidence that showed “the profound impact that the design of buildings has on how we feel, how we treat one another, and our overall psychological wellbeing”.

Diamond building
The Diamond building, University of Sheffield. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

He said: “Humans simply cannot thrive without psychologically sustainable environments.”

Ellard’s lab has carried out research that found a link between architecture and people’s mood.

Ruth Dalton, a professor of architecture at Northumbria University, said: “Current research provides undeniable scientific support of the life-changing potential of attractive and appealing environments.”

Dalton, an architect who has worked for leading practices including Foster + Partners, added: “We’re calling on everyone to harness this knowledge and shape a future where our cities resonate with humanity.”

A review commissioned by Heatherwick of the evidence around the hypothesis that buildings influence mental health, undertaken by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) thinktank, supported his concern about the negative psychological effect of soulless structures.

“A diverse body of research indicates that external building design affects mood and stress levels; mutual trust and willingness to help strangers; exercise and mobility; as well as people’s happiness and their physical and mental health,” it found.

But, the NEF added, while “our emotions are directly affected by specific architectural qualities … there is no robust evidence linking any specific architectural style to better or worse outcomes”.

Liberty front
The Liberty store in London. Photograph: Bailey-Cooper Photography/Alamy

In 2015 the University of Warwick conducted a study asking Britons to rate 200,000 pictures of urban, suburban and rural areas across Great Britain based on their “scenicness”. Over 1.5m ratings were gathered. When compared to the self-reported health of residents in the areas, the study found better health outcomes in areas with pictures that were rated as more scenic.

In polling for Heatherwick, 76% of a representative panel of 2,029 respondents agreed that the appearance of buildings had an influence on their mental health. In addition, 54% said that walking in areas with boring buildings had an impact on how they felt, and 69% believed that more investment was needed in how buildings make passersby feel.

In Heatherwick’s new book, Humanise, he lists what he regards as the seven characteristics of a boring building:

  • 1. Too flat.The flatness and lack of depth found on modern buildings prevents surfaces that light and shadows can play on.

  • 2. Too plain. A lack of ornamentation leads to boring buildings. Even everyday buildings should incorporate intricate designs.

  • 3. Too straight. Straight lines at scale create repetitive horizontality, at odds with nature, where nothing has straight lines or right angles.

  • 4. Too shiny. Smooth, flat materials like metal and glass become desensitising when used too densely, providing nothing for our senses to latch on to.

  • 5. Too monotonous. Modern buildings that take the form of rectangles made up of smaller rectangles appear both monotonous at a distance and closer up.

  • 6. Too anonymous. Buildings with no sense of personality or place. A far cry from buildings that used to tell a story and celebrate their surroundings.

  • 7. Too serious. Buildings that are too intimidating, evoking negative emotions.

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