By: Hunter Wilson
I am Hunter Wilson, a student currently studying in the Southern Illinois University Masters of Architecture program. I began my education at Vincennes University located in my hometown of Vincennes, Indiana. After receiving an Associate’s Degree in Architectural studies, I transferred to SIU where I earned a Bachelor’s Degree and still study today.
Recently, in our Global Traditions in Architecture course, we were given the task of reading about a certain phenomenon that occurs in humans known as Thigmotaxis. This phenomenon is known as the evolutionary trait in multiple species that acts as a protection device. Examples of specific protection devices used are the act of gravitating toward walls while walking along a corridor, keeping away from open space that is completely surrounded by activity, or posting up with ones back side to a surface with all activity visible in front. As thigmotaxis deals largely with the human interaction within their environment, it can be said that this phenomenon is highly related to architecture. The root of thigmotaxis is protection. That may be why this trait has been survived through time. Species protect themselves better with this trait.
When designing space for humans, this trait can be taken into consideration. The feeling of safety in a space allows the user to have a better experience. The feeling of safety also adds to the list of things that would want a person to visit this space even more. This would especially be important in urban settings. Positioning a lounging area or seating area in a manner that gives a user protection from the rear and a view of activity to the front would be ideal. You’ll notice in many restaurants that the booths along the edges of the room are the first to be commandeered. Naturally, the patron does not want to sit at a table seated in the very middle of a dining area. They may feel surrounded with no shield. In addition the view of activity from the center outward is not as concentrated and minimal compared to a seat along an edge. The seat along an edge provides a view to a larger portion of the room. The want for a larger view may be so the user has a better sense of defense.
In terms of urban design, thigmotaxis can help make an urban retail area more active. Providing structure on two sides of a pathway helps with the sense protection, though the view of activity is limited. To help with the limited view of activity, windows at pedestrian level may be used. This provides an almost television-like experience for the pedestrian as they walk along a path. Walking along, each pedestrian gets a new scene to view through a window. This technique is obviously used in indoor shopping malls with retail on either side. The windows are filled with items for sale. Although one may not be interested in shopping at that particular establishment, the window items provide a new scene to be viewed. In urban areas that are largely open, such as a plaza, it is important to provide foliage throughout that acts as barriers instead of structure. Posting up at a bench with a shrub to your backside is nicer than posting up at a bench that is surrounded by open space.
So next time you enter a shopping mall, urban plaza, downtown, etc., just take a quick glance at how the pedestrians are walking. It gives an idea as to how we are wired and where our real motives lay….surviving.