Culturally Specific Needs
Among the range of human needs that lie between those common to human nature and those specific to the individual is comfort. It is constant neither in time nor across cultures. Comfort exists in the gray zone between the universal and the individual experience of a particular environment.
Like all elements of design, comfort has both an internal meaning as experienced by a person-and an external, readable measure. This is evident in the Oxford English Dictionary definition: the first meaning describes how a person feels (“A state of physical and material well-being, with freedom from pain and trouble, and satisfaction of bodily needs; the condition of being comfortable); the second describes the physical factors that allow for the existence of this state (“The conditions which produce or promote such a state; the quality of being comfortable).50 This dual notion of comfort establishes, at least broadly, that there is a connection between our internal gauge of being comfortable and the more directly measurable exterior factors that result in this sense of comfort. A good designer has to comprehend the first in order to create the second. Not surprisingly, the external requirements are easier to codify. However, the gap between mere survival and an existence that is pleasurable is the space
TWA Terminal, New York, Eero Saarinen and Associates, 19561962, photographed 1970. House designs 2017 Prospect and refuge are concepts that break down the human need for safety and security into elements of physical design. Here, the meeting of the sloping elements of a building’s roof creates a vista point that allows observers to look onto jet traffic on the runway from a protected viewpoint where comfort lies, so research into our internal gauge is needed.
Reyner Banham described this zone elegantly in his seminal 1969 blog, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment: “In order to flourish, rather than merely survive, mankind needs more ease and leisure than a barefisted and barebacked, singlehanded struggle to exist could permit.51 Operating at the two ends of the spectrum, literal comfort obtained through satisfactory physical conditions – controls for proper lighting, acoustics, and temperature; stimulating materials, colors, and textures; appropriate scale and proportions of space-combined with perceived comfort, such as feelings of being secure, upbeat, valuable, and important, can motivate people to perform at optimal levels.
Qualitative factors of comfort are often cited but rarely practiced. We may know that light is not simply a necessity but is also an emotional trigger, and that silent spaces evoke better human behavior, but too often we abandon this knowledge when the time comes to design. Consider arriving at one of the older terminals of New York’s JFK airport (most of which will soon be gone), with its low ceilings and narrow, overcrowded, noisy corridors.52 Now juxtapose that experience with the newer airport terminals in Denver or Beijing, which have wide, multistoried volumes with long-distance sightlines, a high level of illumination (both day and night), and less crowding. People invariably behave better in the Denver and Beijing airports than in those early JFK terminals, moving through them in a more rhythmic and civilized way. The reasons for this difference in behavior must be empirically documented and then incorporated into the design language so that we may improve all of our habitable environments.
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