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How Your Architecture Can Help Occupants to Remember

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © Al&Koko | Flickr

As an architect, you are in the business of creating “scenes”. And a scene is defined in the dictionary as “a place where an action or event occurs”. But your goal isn’t necessarily to create only one scene, but instead is to create a sequence of scenes in time. You see, with a sequence of scenes, you can guide occupants toward what they are looking for, you can help them navigate as they get oriented, and you can help them remember their experiences within your architecture long after they have left.

So, how can your architecture help occupants remember?

Well, creating the notion of a “scene” in your design is a good place to start. Within a scene, you can emphasize color, size, or shape which, through narrative, may take on deeper meaning about why it is present. Just as a store’s signage can create “place” in a street-scape, the scene which you create out of architectural features will call upon occupants to remember because of three reasons: placement, context, and mental image.

You see, in a recent study, participants where said to remember because of the following:

“The study focused on how well participants could remember the locations of common household objects. The memory-building strategy involves three steps. First, participants focused on a feature of the room that stood out and was close to the object, then they learned a short explanation for why the object was in that location. Finally, they created a mental picture to tie the information together.” (1)

First, notice how the place and its features are a part of what helps to form memory. Second, notice the importance of context (the explanation) and mental image in the formation of memory.

As an architect, you can use this information to your advantage. If you think in terms of designing “scenes”, then you are designing for the events and actions that will occur — and these are usually times when memory is important.

So, in your designs, create a sequence of scenes to orient your occupants. Also, provide a place for people’s interactions and for the placement of their things — this makes it easier to answer the “why there” question. And finally, design towards a mental picture by reverse engineering the mental picture you want your occupants to create. Remember the mental picture is what ties the scene together in your occupant’s mind. To help with this, you may want to try aligning architectural features with room objects.

In the end, you may ask why it is important for your occupants to remember. Answer this by knowing that it is though memory that they function — by engaging, interacting, and learning.


(1) Training Can Improve Memory and Increase Brain Activity in Mild Cognitive Impairment. Science Daily. March 12, 2012.


what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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