On Practicing the Architecture of Empathy

The Architecture of Empathy is an attitude towards the design and building of environments.

Its core is an understanding of the users' full needs, coupled with a desire to meet those needs with kindness.

It understands the built environment as a tool for living. It leads to built environments that help us live as well as we can.

It understands art and utility as different only in their purpose and application, not in kind.

It recognizes that human beings are highly complex and individual. Human activities and needs should not be simplified, isolated, mechanized or defined to simplify the task of architecture.

It recognizes that emotions are real, and are equally important as bodily needs.

It recognizes that the personalities of the designers and builders are obstacles to the success of the built environment.

It defines the success of the built environment as one in which people find no distraction from its use and beauty.

The Architecture of Empathy guides designers to forget themselves in the interest of the user.

Architects of empathy do not hunt shadows, but frame lives. They are good stewards of all that they are entrusted with.


Vitruvius acknowledges the complexity of the architectural endeavor at the beginning of his Ten Books:

...since this study is so vast in extent, embellished and enriched as it is with many different kinds of learning, I think that men have no right to profess themselves architects hastily, without having climbed from boyhood the steps of these studies and thus, nursed by the knowledge of many arts and sciences, having reached the heights of the holy ground of architecture.

Architecture is the practice of giving place to the vast complexity of human needs and pursuits. This task would be daunting even if each aspect of human life could be separated, understood on its own, and defined in a specialty.The Vitruvian architect understands many disciplines, and is also a human being building for other human beings, a steward not just of materials and place, but also human aspirations.

Vitruvius does not say the architect should study the basic human needs for comfort, simplicity, utility, and beauty because he presumes the architect is human, and will naturally integrate his own generic human needs in the task. Of course the architect is going to build a livable home, not a hellhole.

When we design and build without thought or care to the actual use, or towards aesthetic expression at the cost of usefulness, or towards simple profit, we lack a basic empathy for the user. Now, we raise up the architects who use their heads towards aesthetic expression, or praise the astute businessman. Instead, we should raise up those who design from their hearts towards the happiness of the users, who build buildings we want to live and work in.


The architecture of empathy begins with reflection on the experience of designed environments. Where have you been? What was it like? What did you feel? The more comprehensive and insightful this understanding grows, the more capable the designer will become of creating environments that produce the desired results, provided the designer is in touch with his or her own humanity.

Then the designer must understand the user. Who will use this environment? What will they do there? The more comprehensive and insightful this understanding grows, the more capable the designer will become of creating environments that produce the desired results, provided the designer has empathy for the lives of others. This is accomplished through empathy for the work, the lives, the needs of other people.

Then the designer must understand the full range of possible structures, dictated by the location, budget, and construction, towards choosing the right path to a successful solution. This is accomplished with reading, travel, and the listening to the experience of other architects and builders.

Then the designer must understand the individual user, how they live their lives, and tailor-fit the environment to who they are, what they need, and even how they need it -- and in ways that the users may not see in themselves. This is accomplished through listening, watching, and experiencing life with the user before creating the design.
Then the designer designs and the builders build.

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