Architecture & Psychology

Editor’s note: This is an interview with kopvol. Learn more about them and their work here.

kopvol - architecture & psychology

During the Indesem ’09 seminar, I met Gemma and Tanja from kopvol – architecture & psychology. I was immediately interested in their office when I learned that they run an architecture office together – an architect and a psychologist. I’d never heard about any office doing that before. The fields of architecture and psychology working together – designers and researchers. This is unheard of… This could be interesting, I thought. Additionally, they are also interested in the experience of architecture and its users, like me. So, we had some nice discussions about that during the seminar. When I told them about Experiencing Architecture and the things we try to accomplish here, they were willing to grant me an interview. Here it is:

1. Could you please introduce kopvol for those of us that don’t know you yet?

kopvol – architecture & psychology started as a think-tank in New York City in 2006. At that time, Tanja Vollmer, psychologist, was visiting professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial-Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC and Gemma Koppen just finished the Temporary International Criminal Court in The Hague as designer and project architect. We were both fascinated by the synergetic potential of the two disciplines and founded kopvol – architecture & psychology, an office for architecture and research, at the beginning of 2008 in Rotterdam. From the early beginning human perception is one of the steering themes of kopvol’s concepts and designs.

2. Could you tell us a bit more about what it exactly is that you do and what kind of projects you do?

It is very complex what we do because combining two disciplines results in a 100%-increase of arguments and methods. And so far there is no good example of such a dense co-working of an architect and a psychologist to learn from. Therefore we had to develop our own tools and language. We combined hard core scientific methods from psychology and biology – like structured interviews, mental mapping and stress-analysis – with architectural tools of space measuring or morphing. Nevertheless, in the beginning we were often mixed up with Feng-Shui dogma’s and had to fight prejudices. After three years of hard work and the successful publication of our book Die Erkrankung des Raumes (sickness of space) in 2010 we could show that integrating psychology into architectural practice enriches the quality of any design. Psychology deals with the deep understanding of human feeling, thinking and behavior, which and creates the only serious ground for an architecture that wants to evoke more-dimensional experience instead of one-dimensional effects. Thus, in our combination we see architecture as an intervention in human life – sometimes leading to just a small change in the awareness of a single individual, sometimes shaping a whole society.

In one of our recent projects, initiated by SKION (Stichting Kinderoncologie Nederland), we analyzed e.g. the spatial needs of children with cancer who are actually isolated for more than 2 months on a ward room of 17 m2, including a bed for parental overnight stay. The users themselves were too young, too sick or too much adapted to the hospital surrounding to precisely express the burden of the architecture that distressed them additionally to their cancer therapy. With a daily-rhythm analysis we provided evidence that the existing space and its fixed scale disable the healthy child development. To provide a space that supports healthy child development in the future cancer center, we had to transform these findings into design criteria and a sub-structural design. It is the unique kopvol combination that enabled us to so in a very short time period and prevents the disappearance of the results in a dusty drawer of a university library. The NKOC, Nationaal Kinder Oncologisch Centrum, will open its doors 2013 in Amsterdam.

Another ‘healing environment’- to be honest we are not too fond of this term – we designed in Essen, Germany was a one-man hotel for burned out managers. We convinced the client to not build the project in a rural, tranquil environment, but on one of the rooftops right in the middle of the city. This way an exhausting trip to the countryside, getting stuck in the usual Friday night traffic, was avoided. It enabled the mentally and physically exhausted city worker to literally lift out of the daily routine, creating a complete new and free perspective over the city. At the same time the interior of the new space was equipped with all possible comfort ensuring a pleasant and energy saving stay. The shape of the space wraps around one man’s body like a cocoon with just enough space to stretch the limbs and walk 5 steps. This is exactly the space needed for an individual to regenerate.

3. How is it, as an architect, to work with a psychologist? And how is it, as a psychologist, to work with an architect? Do you speak the same ‘language’?

How you work together is always more a question of personalities than of professions. But if you refer to the professions, you can compare the encounter of architecture and psychology with the genesis of a new world starting only with the north and south pole. These poles have a similar exterior but deep inside they are totally different. And interestingly it is their difference that holds them together. So we had to realize that it is a question of distance between the two disciplines if ‘this new planet’ would be fruitful or not: If the disciplines would come too close we would lose the potential, if they would remain too separated, they would lose their attraction.

It was a long way to find the right distance in our office, spatially and in the development of an effective communication. And we are still not there. We all became good listeners but a visitor of our office still knows immediately who the psychologists are: The ones without headphones.

4. What advice could you give architects that would like to focus more on the experience of architecture and its users?

We see it also as our task to sensitize more architects and to educate them. So, if you are really interested, you should intensively study the project below and start to experience and analyze your own environment:

In the project Wortwandlungen (triple meaning: 1. Changed by words, 2. Wandering through words, 3. Walls formed by words ) we created a virtual exhibition. Walking through the exhibition the visitor is literally taken plan-less. Words that stick out of the walls in huge types are the only signs that mark the observer’s way. Behind every word a space is hidden that is not necessarily visually perceptible, but is to be experienced with different senses and can only then be cognitively opened. In the encounter of these various spaces the question keeps recurring, whether architecture, in the attempt to create experiences (in the sense of Erlebnisse), denies human experience (in the sense of Erfahrungen). The heartbeat that accompanies the visitor through the virtual exhibition both visually and audibly, throws him almost unbearably back on himself in his search for answers, feelings, thinking and behavior. The whole pathway through the virtual space mirrors the symbiosis of the human psyche and the real believed space around us.
Read more about Wordwandlungen

For further reading:

  1. kopvol – architecture & psychology
  2. No more starchitects
  3. The Importance of Digging in – Environmental Psychology and Architecture
  4. Emotion in architecture – Indesem ’09 prepublication (p.12-13)
  5. [S!MPL] Environmental Psychology and Architecture

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