“The Psychology of Living in Skyscrapers”

What are the effects of living in a very tall building?

Why should we even think that high-rise living has an effect on us? One does not, after all, see detailed psycho-architectural studies of ranch houses. The primary reason may be sheer novelty. “Given the age of our species, living more than a few stories up is a very recent phenomenon,” writes Robert Gifford in Architectural Science Review. “This tempts one to conclude that high rises are unnatural, and some would argue that what is unnatural must be, in some way, harmful.”…

So how to square this with a body of research that seems to conclude that most people find high-rise living less satisfactory than low-level living; that tall buildings seem to breed more crime than their lower-situated counterparts; that small children seem to develop (by reading and other measures) less quickly the higher up they live; that tall buildings might even invite suicide? Could an architectural form really do all that? Architecture is never more than a container for social relations. And so high-rise sociology is troubled by larger factors—who is living in the high-rise, and under what conditions? Pruitt-Igoe became synonymous with the problems of high-rise housing; it was considered the death knell of modernist social planning and modern architecture all at once. The backward, revisionist look has been more nuanced…

Much of the research about the problems of tall-building living is really research about, as the sociologist Gerda Wekerle put it, “the problems created by concentrating multi-problem families in housing stigmatized by the rest of society.” Other studies have looked at the populations of places like dormitories, which are themselves hardly representative. The high-rise form is endlessly skewed by social extremes. As Wekerle argues, “Pruitt-Igoe is no more representative than is the John Hancock Center of high-rise living.” And then there’s context. In places like Singapore or Hong Kong, tall-building living is not only the norm, it is considered socially prestigious. A friend who grew up on the 19th floor of an Upper East Side New York City apartment building (and who, interestingly, grew up to be an architecture critic) finds nothing odd, in retrospect, about his upbringing; most of his friends, after all, lived in similar circumstances, if not in the very same building. Why would you need a suburban lawn, he suggested, when Central Park was five minutes away? In terms of building height, he notes: “I don’t think it really had much effect one way or another, perhaps because so many of the neighboring buildings were of relatively equal height, so there wasn’t a sense of vertigiousness.” For the record, he seems to read very well…

One wonders what psychological effects there might be to this earthbound living in the sky. As the architecture critic Joseph Giovannini observed, “Living on the 60th floor is different. There are no earthly sounds, no close-up details outside, not even trees—just the long view and then the drop.” Astronauts on NASA’s space shuttle Discovery, asked to draw three-dimensional cubes, drew them with shorter vertical dimensions when in the zero-gravity of space. Might living in the sky also subtly influence one’s perspective of space, distance, and height? Studies have shown that children, at 25 months of age, can transmit information gleaned from aerial views to make ground-level wayfinding decisions; at 21 months, however, they cannot. Would children whose homes come equipped with aerial views have an edge? It is known, for example, that people with a fear of heights—or even those without when shown images of people falling—will overestimate actual heights.

Some interesting speculation yet the final paragraph ends with this summary: “For now, we must still rely largely on anecdote.”

A few other thoughts:

1. While these buildings may seem normal now, it is important to remember that they are relatively new in human history. For thousands of years, people barely got off the ground, let alone flew in airplanes or lodged or worked 600 feet up.

2. If an academic thought something was here, it doesn’t seem that difficult to design some experiments to see if there are differences.

3. If there were differences, how would architects, residents, and others adapt tall buildings?

4. There are a number of ways these buildings could have a psychological effect. You don’t have to live in them to be affected if your sunlight is blocked or you are consistently walking in concrete canyons in places like Manhattan. Even in the world’s biggest cities, there are still spaces relatively close that allow one to get away from skyscrapers and get back to a more normal sense of scale.

5. As a sociologist, I tend to agree that the differences in living in such buildings is probably due more to social interactions promoted by such buildings rather than the architecture or design itself.

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