Salus journal

Healthy Planet. Healthy People.

Cities / Healthy Cities

Healthy City Design 2019

Designing in the age of anxiety – shaping space through affect

By Abbie Galvin 25 Nov 2019 0

This talk asks what role do our cities, buildings and spaces play in contributing to – or, more importantly, in – addressing what can be described as the current age of anxiety?

Download the slides for this video presentation


In 1944, the poet W H Auden began work on The Age of Anxiety, a six-part verse highlighting human isolation in the modern age. It explores the spiritual emptiness, loneliness, and anxiety-ridden purposelessness of four characters’ lives, ending at dawn on the streets of the city.

Today, it appears disturbingly prophetic, as anxiety appears to have become our everyday milieu and is being considered not only as a medical but also a sociological condition. What role do our cities, buildings and spaces play in contributing to – or, more importantly, in – addressing this new age of anxiety?

The most important characteristic of our built environment is whether it meets the needs of its occupants, residents and visitors, both material and psychological. These needs, so important to our lives, are often at the periphery of conversations about the future of design. Architectural criticism and discourse have historically been shaped by interpretation and narrative, with its currency of meaning, while those who commission and fund our built environment tend to focus on consideration of cost, profit, speed of construction, risk and, at times, ‘marketability’.

The modern imperative to design something individual tends to override considerations of how it might shape the behaviours
of those who will live with it. Likewise, the relentless pursuit of economy at the expense of experience, rather than co-existing with it, has led to landmark projects that fail to recognise basic aspects of human behaviour.

This paper analyses a number of spaces in our portfolio of built projects and environments – from hospitals to campuses, workplaces, schools and libraries – to investigate the impact of shifting the lens of our combined critique and approach to design from meaning/narrative and cost/efficiency towards ‘affects’, ie, how we’re shaped by mood, atmosphere and feelings.

From this foundation, with anxiety, isolation and loneliness in our societies on the rise, we could reframe our approach to rethink what and how we build, and equip ourselves with the framework and tools to design healthier environments that address the complex range of human individual and social needs.

Organisations involved