Underground emotions

The brief for the Paris Metro’s massive new train project cites the emotional well-being of passengers as a fundamental design factor. Mike Evamy calls for an emphasis to be placed on psychological factors when we build new environments.

The Paris Metro is feeling unloved. For the past two years, use of the French capital’s underground system has been in decline. Under the romantic Art Nouveau entrances to many Metro stations, there’s a very unromantic atmosphere.

Metro operator RATP isn’t hanging around. The authority is commissioning one of the largest train-building projects ever undertaken: a completely new set of trains; 300 in all, or 1500 cars. The MF2000 trainsets will have a lifecycle of 30 years.

The MF2000 project is genuinely interesting for reasons other than its scale. One is the emphasis that RATP is placing on emotion, and its responsibility to give back to the passenger a sense of safety and well-being.

On the very first page of the brief handed to the design consultancies invited to bid is the statement: “Design can help to make the Metro loved again.” This isn’t just an expression of Gallic passion. It continues, mentioning the need for “coherence between emotional and functional issues”. Later, these are elaborated upon. The individual passenger is waiting for one thing: to be “pleasantly surprised” by the system.

The brief mentions the use of “all ergonomic possibilities (physical and cognitive)” to bring about personal tranquility, and stresses the importance of giving passengers the choice, either to talk to their friends and neighbours, or to remain in their own private, personal space, free from “territorial conflicts”.

Design Triangle, the only British consultancy asked to pitch, proposed an internal layout which included glass screens enclosing pairs of tip-up seats, where friends could chat in relative privacy, or where a mobile phone call could be taken (possible on the Metro system).

Warm lighting and a light blue palette – proven by psychological research to give the best impression of space – would ease stuffiness and claustrophobia.

Since part of the big attraction of cars for daily commuters is the shell-like privacy they offer, one way to reduce traffic may be to tackle the vulnerability and feelings of intrusion suffered on trains and public transport systems in general.

In so-called post-industrial society, there are opportunities to escape the regimented, dehumanising systems of the past and design environments and equipment that make greater allowance for our psychological well-being. Office systems need to be flexible to offer workspaces that can accommodate both team-working and privacy, and not dull our senses. Manufacturers such as Steelcase, with its Personal Harbour system, and Haworth, whose Crossings “platform” is conceived to “let people have more control over their work environment”, are at the leading edge.

Psychologists claim that space, variety and sensory stimulation are all lacking in modern, urban, working life, and particularly in technology-intensive environments like offices, factories and hospitals. There may be a lot of colour in the cityscape making demands on the eye, but otherwise the built environment is dull, according to Professor Chris McManus of University College, London. McManus, who lectures students from the Bartlett School of Architecture, says: “Think of the kind of complex natural environment we evolved in, such as the forest Britain was covered with 50 000 years ago. It’s a rich, complex, multi-scale environment. Compare that with the side of a building such as Centrepoint, where the same unit is repeated endlessly. That’s clearly a much less interesting environment.”

Complexity and variegation were at the heart of the design theories of Clino Castelli, who pioneered “soft” design, or design primario, at the Domus Academy in the Eighties. Large offices now use colour and light with far more sensitivity than 20 years ago, and Castelli’s work with manufacturers such as Herman Miller was partly responsible.

In other environments, sensory stimulation and the need for control of your own space is still hugely neglected. Rodney Bennett, an architect at NHS Estates, the body that hands out guidance on healthcare facility design, has been compiling research on how human health is affected by certain environments.

According to Bennett, there is a parallel with nuclear submarines, and he has collected research by the US Navy into relieving the stress of sub crews at sea for three months or more. Typically, the longer crew members are submerged the greater the expectation that something is about to go wrong. Design factors such as layout and materials have been found to affect feelings of security. A look through the periscope at the world above water markedly improves stress and tolerance levels.

For people in isolated situations a window on the world is a huge help. In the design for NASA’s original Skylab, two fundamental proposals for the design of the workplace got Raymond Loewy accepted on to the project. One was to provide each crew member with an area to “sleep, relax, read or think in absolute privacy”; the other was to introduce a porthole to allow astronauts a view of Earth.

Back on terra firma, windowless environments are proven to harm people’s health. According to Bennett, this applies even in intensive care units of hospitals, where patients are on the edge of life. “There are far more pressing issues with someone who has taken an overdose and whose liver is about to fail than whether there is a window in the room. But it has been shown that, if there is a window, you increase their chances of survival.

“We seem unaware of the extent to which our senses are alert, all the time, even when we are deeply unconscious and in a life-threatening position.” Bennett quotes other evidence of patients having less need for analgesics and recovering faster when they have a good view through a window from their bed.

What we should have learnt by now is how to accommodate psychological needs for stimulation and personal space when we design new environments. The input of psychologists into major projects might be a start.

And the new Paris Metro trains may or may not turn out to be oases of tranquility. But wouldn’t it be an advance if a few more transport authorities, Government bodies, healthcare trusts and businesses, like RATP, got a little bit emotional?

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