How buildings become symbols

A building has a very important function as a symbol. According to the psychological perspective cognitive psychology, a big part of the thoughts we have is a consequence of the constant sensory input we experience through our senses of hearing, taste, seeing, smelling and our sense of touch. Therefore, the world we live in is constantly interpreted by our fast thinking minds. This is something architects are well aware of when they design buildings.

Since our brain learns by comparing and connecting already learned information, our associative ability is very good. That associations is a big part of our psychology has long been known, for example before world war 2 when Sigmund Freud used the method of ”free associations” to treat patients through mental illness. Advertisers and marketers know this too and frequently use the power of association for their products. For example, the British juice and smoothie brand, innocent. When we hear the name and see their logo representing a orange with a halo, we subconsciously make the conclusion that this brand is humane, kind and eco-friendly. All thanks to the power of association.

If an architect has in aim to design a courthall, a strong, sturdy building with white marble pillars at front, gives the feeling of trust and power. But why is it this way? Why can’t a bungalow built in pure palmtrees give the same impression? This is all because of our powerful ability to make associations – throughout life we learn how to understand and interpret the metaphoric symbols that are around us. The earlier mentioned strong, sturdy marble-white building takes inspiration from ancient greece; the modern civilisations birthplace, where things like democracy, philosophy and modern science were essential parts of society. You can probably guess where this is going. Because of the associations we have with ancient greece, the courthall that has it’s inspiration from there, gives the exact same reaction.

Architects have on several occasions tried to replicate and reuse old symbols, often with great success. Our psychology makes this associations at the blink of an eye and therefore these buildings talk to us. Take one of France’s most visited places, the Louvre, which today is the worlds most visited museum and global center for culture and art. Just by looking at the building, we can draw the conclusion that it indeed is interesting, although we often miss to notice that it’s geometrical form is identical to the shape used to design the first pyramids of ancient egypt.

Sources: Why the buildings of tomorrow will be shaped by … you made by Marc Kushner for Ted Talks


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