Reflexive Architecture: How We Shape the World that Shapes Us


Design has a huge effect on our daily lives. It is too easy to think of design as static – a final answer when we make it or a fait accompli after it is complete when, in fact, we have a responsibility to constantly re-think the existing designed world and make sure that it is directing us to behaviors and lifestyles that align with our desires and values.  

Today we meditate on the cycle nature of design – we shape our environment and then it shapes us – in so many intentional and unintentional ways.


    denoting a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the clause in which it is used, e.g., myself, themselves.
  2. (of an action) performed as a reflex, without conscious thought.
    “at concerts like this one, standing ovations have become reflexive”

What do we mean by Reflexive Design?  Today we’re pulling from two different meanings – both the grammatical: buildings refer back to their designers and users (and vice versa) and the action: buildings (and designed environments, generally) are too often left unconsidered without analyzing our knee jerk reactions to them.

For Example:

The post last week Reasons to Go Easy on Your AC, got us thinking about just how cyclical is the process of creating, and then existing within, designed environments.  Air Conditioning in the American Office makes for a perfect example – an easy-to-feel demonstration of the feedback loop:

At some point, a decision is made regarding the appropriate temperature for conditioned air in public settings (pretty cool).

People, who don’t have access to the controls but do have to exist within that space make it a habit to dress for that temperature – keeping suit coats on, wearing sweaters and other winter or fringe season wear rather than summer weight clothing.

This is established as the cultural norm and then eventually … becomes an argument against turning the temperature up.

That chilly office temperature setting is an artificial environment – designed – which people then cement into their lives by reinforcing it with behavior patterns in dressing.

Feedback Loops for Every Scale

The same scenario can be seen at every scale and scope.  Buildings both reflect and reinforce the cultural environment they are created in.  Consider the rigidly divided Victorian home in contrast with the more open plan houses favored in the post war baby boom.  Each reflected the social mores but also exacerbated them – isolating turn of the century families from each other and mid-century families from the world around them.

At the scale of entire cities, it is clear that responding to over crowded roads by building additional lanes simply generates a feedback loop of more drivers to fill them.  Don’t believe us? Check out this Wired piece on Induced Demand: What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse. The role of design must clearly be to think outside the cycle and find new ways to deal that sort of  the situation.

And that is why thoughtful, future oriented design is so important.  The future may not be set, but when we’re dealing in buildings and infrastructure, each move carries momentum and correcting or fully changing course can take a great deal of time and effort.  

Considering the impact that our built environment can have on our every day lives means making sure that design should be sending us in the right direction rather than reinforcing the patterns of the past.