What Is a Safe Space?

January 30, 2020
MA Design

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst and the father of analytical psychology, believed that unconscious instincts – gut reactions – could be explained with an understanding of what he called archetypes. An archetype is an underlying universal thought-pattern that subconsciously influences our behaviors and actions. Jung identified numerous archetypes that are cross-cultural and are understood on a level that goes beyond language. They are the filters that inform the way you are—the way you talk, act and live your life.
Archetypes also are responsible for your subconscious reaction to people and places—the instant comfort in a maternal presence of a mother, the instinctual fear at the sight of a person in power with a demanding presence. They are powerful enough to affect our day-to-day behaviors but are located so deeply in our unconscious that we are completely unaware of them.

Today, I’m making the argument that there exist similar “architectural” archetypes for the ideas of safety and of home. Each of us have different ideas about what makes a home, but these archetypes can evoke subconscious feelings in all of us. Imagine where you feel most at home. Now think about how that place makes you feel. It’s feeling loved, cozy, and above all, safe. A place where you can let your guard down—where you don’t have to be “on” and aren’t afraid of being judged. That’s the Platonian “ideal” home. That’s the ideal of a “safe space.”

Having tuned into your own understanding of Jung, imagine the alternative—a space that induces fear, unease, discomfort. Notice the shift in your thoughts, and in the feelings this exercise induces.

Architects have a responsibility concerning the feelings of safety and belonging within the buildings we design. And today I’m here to ask a question – How do we build more safe spaces?

Early Years

With a Bachelors in Psychology, I was an uncharacteristic applicant for architecture school. But that became my distinct differentiator which served as the catalyst for my acceptance into the program and the driver of my design career moving forward.

My most obvious underrated competitive advantage was sought as a tool to be shared with my peers who had taken a more traditional architectural route—one with an isolated education in the discipline of design. Quickly, I learned that while they seemingly knew everything about designing a building, taught through theory and absorbed through lectures, they didn’t necessarily have an understanding of how people would experience those spaces and live within them.

With this background, I am always concerned with the experiences and feelings of the end users of architecture. So, how do you create a safe space? I turn back to Jung, considering archetypes and architecture.

A prime example of the way architecture evokes emotion can be found in the various religious buildings around the globe. Even people who are not religious can have psychological and emotional experiences when standing in the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral or viewing the mesmerizing beauty of the mosaics inside Hagia Sophia. The grand scale of the buildings, vaulted ceilings or the play of light can arouse feelings within people of something greater than themselves. It took generations of laborers to build some of the most historic churches and cathedrals, with years of human energy dedicated to incredibly ornate details and beautiful features. It is hard not to be humbled in spaces such as these, and the architecture itself is enormously responsible for those feelings.

To say that people are responsible for their own emotional reactions and architecture is simply a stage upon which people live their lives is to willfully ignore the subconscious, archetypal power of the built environment. Architecture absolutely has the power to elevate human experience through its use of materials, methods, proportions, hierarchy and design. Architects have the power to create spaces that draw from the archetype of “home”—that are safe and comforting, welcoming and inclusive. On the other side of the coin, architecture can also be responsible for feelings of oppression, hopelessness, loss of individuality, and fear.

Most of the history of architecture and design can be told through the parallel history of advances in materials and methods. The advent of the use of steel as a tensile element in concrete construction opened up a whole world of new styles and designs that gave birth to modernism. The fact that building ornamentation, once a structural necessity, was no longer necessary led to the complete removal of detailing which completely changed the historical sense of scale and led to more and more massive buildings that no longer related to the scale of the human being. This led to the era of the brutalism movement, including radical architectural experimentation in developing third-world countries.

A lot of ideas for designers of how to deal with institutional care, abuse victims, prisoners, hospitalized, came during the brutalist and modernist eras. At that time, it was expensive to build, drive designers and construction costs to work with a lot of concrete. The result was modern and brutalist, and once the newness of the concrete and steel wore off, it took very little time to realize they weren’t comfortable spaces. Brutal facades, sterile facilities and lack of warmth drove the archetypes associated with the spaces, driving associated feelings of discomfort and creating undeserved stigmas.

Architects need to consider the psychology of space and architecture’s ability to influence how people feel in a space. It’s become commonplace to have this conversation around new public buildings, but much less often do we as architects ask how people will feel inside of a bank, or inside of their homes, or until recently inside of hospitals.

These questions became the drivers of the design of the award-winning Little Fork Family Advocacy Center, which is an institutional space for abused families that manages to function as an institution while still being sensitive to the needs of each of the user groups that experience the space. Whether the user is a victim, an abuser, a law-enforcement officer, an attorney, a family member, or an employee of the facility, the design needed to respond to all of them in a way that was thoughtful and responsible and helped to mitigate some of the stress and anxiety of being inside such a facility. The design attempts to re-write the stigmas associated with facilities for the victims of abuse. It is an example of a way to revolutionize the built environment to embrace human-centric design, and make these facilities spaces that are not isolated but integrated into the way we live our lives.

Once your eyes are open to the influence designers can have on the well-being of the end-users of a space, then it becomes callous to not design with that in mind. A lesson beyond architectural school is an acknowledgment of how materials and spaces can subconsciously invoke feelings within people and how as designers, it is our responsibility to design in such a way that we design for the needs of people and also anticipate how they will react and feel emotionally within a space.

The industry is on the brink of a paradigm shift – one in which people become the focus of the design to an extent not seen before. It’s a huge opportunity for those that are building the future to embrace this new responsibility and become conscious directors of change. The materials you choose, the circulation, the massing and volume, the amount of airflow, white noise, colors and patterns. These are not independent and separate design decisions. We now have the emotional intelligence to recognize they all work together to create a visceral response to the places we experience.

This is a chance for change, and an opportunity for those that are building the future to embrace this new responsibility to acknowledge that everything can invoke those feelings.

What can you do to build a safe space?