Book Review


Colin Ellard’s wide-ranging and absorbing book is both an exploration of how human beings currently use physical spaces, and how space and place may be transformed by technology in the future. Ellard observes that we hardly notice the places we inhabit unless they are beautiful or dreary, but between these two poles are vast networks of human interactions within physical spaces. The examination of such places is the central theme of Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life.

Ellard explains that design of place has always existed from the earliest age of our species, through the rise of agricultural settlements, the industrial age, and the birth of megacities. People have been designing their world all along, even if motivations were often subconscious. The creation of the wall, for instance, brought on a revolution in human self-conception and behavior. Before walls, people lived with little or no notion of privacy. After walls, the concept of private and public, of the inner and the outer space, developed into a paramount human concern.

Ellard establishes the problem of our ignorance of space at the beginning of the book:

Almost everyone in the world experiences built space on a daily basis—in our homes, our workplaces, our institutional buildings, and our places of entertainment and education . . . even though we all feel and respond to the design of a building on an emotional level . . . we don’t have the time or the inclination to dissect our daily responses to make sense of them.

He argues that a nuanced sense of our surroundings is not only a necessity for individual psychological wellbeing, but even holds the key to the future existence of our species: “Urbanization, crowding, climate change, and shifting energy balances are challenging us to rethink our environments” and our design of place and space can help “to ensure our survival.” According to Ellard, design is one of the building blocks for constructing a successful future for humanity.

Just as the wall rearranged human reactions to place in ancient times, the great innovation of our age, in Ellard’s view, is the utilization of technology to enhance our understanding of the human encounter with place. Through virtual reality technology, we are on the cutting edge of a revolution in how we utilize place. Until recently, scientists had rather limited tools to examine how people used their built environments, but with the arrival of detailed brain imaging, hand-held GPS devices like smart phones, and virtual reality chambers, psychologists, architects, and city and urban planners can study and map how people use space, and then employ that data to build accordingly.

Ellard cites studies that show people respond favorably to natural, curving spaces, and negatively to straight lines and sharp contours:

We are attracted to certain shapes and colors, especially those that contain some of the same elements found in nature . . . We gravitate to shapes of spaces that provide some privacy and feelings of security.

If nature is the primal place of both comfort and discovery, we can use virtual technology to introduce natural characteristics into our rooms and places of work. Such spaces should, the argument goes, increase well-being. Whether it is something as low-tech as a TV screen broadcasting natural scenes in a windowless office, or as high-tech as virtually projected, organically shaped objects in our environment, technology can satisfy our yearning for nature, even when we live in a city.

Ellard also demonstrates that even “boring” spaces, such as long, featureless walls along city streets, actually cause depression; he cites a study that found “a good city street should be designed so that the average walker, moving at a rate of 5 km an hour, sees an interesting new thing about once every five seconds.” It turns out that people seek novelty and stimulation from their places just as much as they do security and comfort. Of course, taken to extremes, vibrant places can cause anxiety. This is especially true for those living in urban areas. Cities, while stimulating, are also hothouses of anxiety. Ellard proposes technological solutions to this problem, such as using smartphones to warn people to avoid those areas of town that cause stress.

The sensitive design of spaces can even help us come to terms with our own mortality.  In what Ellard calls “places of awe,” people are both confronted with the certainty of their own death, and also provided a path to eliminate the anxiety of that mortality. Such massive building projects as Angkor Wat, the Great Pyramids, and Chartres Cathedral are built both to manage and minimize the constant reminders of our own death. The design of places that inspire awe stabilizes individual human life by placing it in the content of the wider collective social or religious values of a culture. Such places help people transcend their psychological and physical limitations.

Ellard cautions that the brave new virtual world may also be used for electronic spying, but he believes the benefits will outweigh the costs. “[It] would take the most miserable pessimist to see no good in this.” Ellard asserts that technological transformations in our use of spaces are as inevitable as the creation of the wall–and have the power to make us happier, kinder, and less anxious.

Places of the Heart is powerfully and comprehensively written. For most readers, this book will be their first exposure to the study of place. As such, it is an exceptional introduction to a vital part of the human experience. Ellard’s work is also a challenge to his readers—it takes to task our well-worn notions of place and puts them in crisis; after reading this book, we can no longer take place for granted.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel and short stories.