I was watching a fantastic series of programmes by Tom Dyckhoff called The Secret Life of Buildings on Channel 4 recently. The series, only 3 programmes in total were entitled; Home, Work and Leisure, and dealt with different common issues raised by each type of building.
His premise for the series is that architecture effects us deeply in all kinds of ways, some immediately obvious and others less so, from the way they effect us physically to the emotional effects of the different types of buildings.
The main over arching argument was that Architects have so much power over the way we live are no longer building for the people who will inhabit and use their creations, but are slaves to developers and their own egos.
Dyckhoff is an experienced architectural critic with a very enthusiastic presentation style and has made a very well crafted series rammed full of ideas and a few very enjoyable illustrative experiments. Picture Dyckhoff in an old stripy bathing costume in a bath full of ice, Dyckhoff attached to an EEG machine whilst people argue in an office, and more sober interviews with an array of professors and star architects.
If you can track it down, watch it. Entertaining and enlightening, it is well worth 3 hours and I highly recommend it.
How are mice relevant to town planning?
In the programme entitled Work he interviewed Professor Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in San Diago who is studying the development of mice in relation to their environment. According to the good professor mice have very similar brain structures to humans, and Professor Gage could as a result of his experiments show that the brains of Adult mice grew up to 15% when kept in a stimulating environment, as opposed to the control group who were kept in empty cages.
The enriched cages were filled with a static running wheel and plastic tubes that will be familiar to anyone who has ever owned a pet hamster. From the snatch of footage that we saw, the mice in the enriched cages seemed very active and inquisitive, making full use of all the available amenities. Having a run in the wheel, then maybe an explore in the tubes, or a drink from the giant metal teat etc.
So if the professor is right and Tom Dyckhoff asks professor Gage in the programme. Could the results be replicated in us?
What kind of an environment would we have to build to fatten up our brains?
Well the first caveat to this process would be that the mice were constantly physically active and exercise has numerous health benefits both psychological and physical. So the utmost has to be done to engineer positive promotion and ease of physical exercise, making the natural choice be to walk and cycle over the car or bus. I am sure that the physical activity is needed before any extra effect can be measured as a result of the stimulating environment. I seriously doubt a fat lazy mouse that sat on its bum all day would have any brain growth no matter how funky its cage if it just looked at it.
Plastic tubes for all.
If winding coloured plastic tubes are an essential part of the environment, then I demand an immediate roll-out on a national scale. It turns out that I am not the first person to want plastic tubes to fill our towns and cities. Carsten Höller is one such person who in 2007 installed 4 gigantic Centre Parks-esque slides Tate Modern’s turbine hall. Tubes as a mode of transport is also a features of science fiction, my favourite example is in the hilarious cartoon Futurama.
Carsten Höller’s idea is that the world would be a happier and more fun place if it included a regular dose of sliding and I entirely agree with him. Using the slides was great fun, I can personally vouch for them because I was working at Tate Modern at the time and frequently used them as a short cut to the offices. I wasn’t the only person who thought so, in fact the exhibition was so popular that it was extended.
If the plastic tubes turn out not to be a literal necessity?
Then it would be deeply sad that the world of 1950′s sci-fi will never be realised. Instead I suggest what we can learn from the mice is to create a rich and varied environment that can be explored with the same amount of glee that a mouse runs through an empty toilet roll.
I feel that we should aim for an urban environment where you are able to explore different types of spaces and scales within the same city. Experience a variety of street and building types, with opportunity to change course, a variety of materials, textures and scales instead of a dull inhuman uniformity.
I love the feeling you get when winding through the skinny medieval sections of Brighton and York where you can turn a corner into a new and are confronted by new textures of the buildings.
What do I mean by texture change? It is the sensation you get when you have in Venice when you round a corner to discover a canal with a bridge over it or discover a small town square or park breaking up your journey by adding different sensations to the journey.
Edinburgh is a another place that I find fascinating with its multi-level streets that criss-cross over each other and edged with buildings that on one face have 3 floors and on the other have 6. The sweeping alleyways of stairs connecting areas and creating short cuts is another example of a fun place to navigate.
Texture needs to vary and not just in the building materials and road surfaces, total texture change of frequent pockets of green space in varying sizes need to be accessible. The benefits of having even just a view of greenery has its self been proven to be beneficiary and is apparently worth £300 a year.
All of these elements could be hard to contain within one navigable place without feeling like a live in Disney land with heavy handed jump cuts between scenes. If your environment actually actively encouraged you to exercise, explore and helped you grow some extra brain cells, it would be a very good start indeed.