‘Spatial orientation’ is fundamental to the organisation of purposeful behaviour and has both physiological and psycho-social spatial dimensions which are profoundly affected by architectural structures. At a physiological level, spatial orientation is necessary for the organisation of sensory-motor tasks such as ascending a staircase, whose appearance and structure must reflect the perceptual abilities and climbing capabilities of the protagonist. Psycho-social determinants structure physical space in terms such as permitted versus forbidden zones, and appropriate proximity to other people.
Accordingly, disorientation may cause multi-factorial dysfunction, malaise and disruption of social behaviour patterns. In addition to the more obvious impact of architectural disorientation – such as impaired traffic circulation, location, work task, acro-, agora- and agero-phobias – disorienting environments may also have less obvious consequences. These may involve ‘low level’ autonomic responses including a form of motion (or ‘building’) sickness, as well as the disruption of ‘higher’ psycho-social behaviour patterns and challenges to individual sensibilities, which cause distress. Examples will be given of famous buildings and installations which, intentionally or not, are disorienting in ways which impair the ability of occupants to function effectively, can offend sensibilities and even make people ill.
Following a degree in Psychology and Sociology and a doctorate in Physiology, Michael Gresty trained in human factors with the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine and thereafter held a NIH Fellowship in the USA. Returning to the UK, he worked for the Medical Research Council at University College and Imperial College London until recent retirement. He is presently Honorary Visiting Professor at Imperial in the Division of Brain Sciences, where he lectures and works on spatial disorientation and motion sickness. His main interests include Romanesque and mediaeval art and architecture, classical and mediaeval history, sailing his yacht in the Golfe du Lion and astro-navigation.