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June 10, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Can you build a place that makes you want to kiss?

On a panel at the LSE in 2010 the architect Will Alsop described a visit to Lyons, France, where a new art gallery and historical district had transformed the city centre. Sitting in the town square, he continued, he noted there were many young kissing couples, cuddling obliviously to the other passers-by. Was this the effect of architecture? He asked; can we create a place that encourages people to kiss?

Experiments in pyschological priming often reveal unexpected connections between ourselves and the environment. In another example, a group of people were asked to walk along two equal walkways: along one walkway were displayed pictures of old and infirm people; on the other, images of younger, more vital models. In every study, people moved faster along the second walkway. Priming is the study of how external stimulus can influence behaviour or responses, but how far can this go?

We now know more about the way that the city impacts on our lives than ever before. Environmental psychologists have studied how the shadows of tall skyscrapers affect the happiness of those on the ground, why people prefer to sit on moveable seats in public places, and why people tend to hang out right in front of the doors just as you are trying to exit. These minutes urban moments have been used to change our everyday lives incrementally and has resulted in schemes such as the pedestrianisation of Time Square, the presumed successes of the Broken Window theory, down to the uses of lighting a music in shopping malls, and how to create a safe environment in gay areas of the city such as Canal Street, Manchester. But if we can make places that make us buy more, behave, and feel secure can we not also create a space that so works on the emotions that it instantly encourages spontaneous public displays of affection?

Perhaps it is not a single design but rather a process. The urban thinker Scott Burnham has been involved in numerous schemes to get people to think about the city and in particular how one builds trust. He has discovered that rather than a work of architecture, trust is a process, a collaboration – it is not a question of what you build but how it is constructed. As he comments: To use a software analogy, the designs were installed in version 1.0, and it was up to the public to develop them into version 2 through individual and collective creative intervention.’

This was proven, in 2008, during a project in the IJ neighbouhrood in Amsterdam, when Burham included the artist Marti Guixe’s Sculpt me Point, which saw a large structure of concrete breeze blocks left in the middle of the street, to be used by passers- by anyway they wanted. Intially he watched as people started by scracthing swear words and rude symbols into the surface of the concrete, as if the shock of being allowed to do whatever one wished forced people to deface and rebel. But almost immediately, there was another impulse and he watched as a group of young skateboarders came along and spent a number of hours working together spontaneously on carving an elegant elephant into one of the faces of the block.

Design may not trigger the erotic impulse but this example proves that we need to look at more than just the finished construction in order to create urban spaces that excite, nurture and turn us on.

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