Psychogeographer Colin Ellard on architecture that can make us happy, sad or even sick

Mapping the places that provoke an emotional reaction

Mumbai Street - Colin Ellard

"This market street in Mumbai generated this kind of delicious shock for me.” (Colin Ellard)



Ever notice that a certain part of the city can change your mood? Maybe part of your school or office building makes you feel sickly. That "vibe," urban psychologist Colin Ellard would argue, is quite real. We're affected by the environment we inhabit in a dizzying number of ways, and with the rise of condos, technology that keeps us staring at our screens, and slowly disappearing green spaces, even the way we think may be changing.

As he argues in his new book Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, thinking about our environment, the sights we pass as we make our way around the city (or country) make us more aware. Eventually, supportive, emotion-sensing technology may even lend a helping hand. Here, Ellard offers up a few places that have made an indelible emotional mark on him.

Market street in Mumbai, India

Mumbai Street - Colin Ellard

“One of the things I enjoy the most about travelling is the kind of spatial culture shock I experience when I find myself in an environment that is entirely new to me — I don’t know what’s around me, don’t understand the flow of the people or traffic — I’m completely disoriented and I have to piece things together on the spot. This market street in Mumbai generated this kind of delicious shock for me.” (Colin Ellard)

Lake Victoria, part of the Avon River in Stratford, Ontario

Lake Victoria, part of the Avon River in Stratford Ontario

“I really enjoy well-designed green spaces and I think they’re very important to one’s mental health. …It’s hard to beat a stroll along Stratford Ontario’s Avon river on a Sunday afternoon. The green, the winding path beside the river, all embraced by some pretty architecture makes for a stunning setting.” (Mike McGregor, via Wikimedia Commons. License: )

University College quad, St. George Campus, University of Toronto

University College Quad, St George Campus, University of Toronto

“The quad at University College Toronto is one of my favourite places on the planet. In part this is because of its design. I love the long, stone corridors with the wooden columns and arches overhead. I also resonate to the feeling of refuge around the edges of the quad and the views out to the plantings and the trees. But what’s just as important as what I see here is what I remember when I’m here. It takes me back to student days in Toronto, starting out as an adult and even falling in love.” (User: eduardozarate, via Flickr. License: )

"The Boardwalk," Kitchener

The Boardwalk, Kitchener, Ont.

“I hate this area. It’s a typical monster box store mall with endless confusing traffic circles, boring generic buildings for all the usual corporate chains, very little landscaping. Blah! It’s also built next to a landfill so the smells there can be a little unpleasant. I’ve always been amused that it was called “The Boardwalk” because the developer saw it as a setting where people would like to take a nice stroll and eat an ice cream. I admit I’ve shopped here from time to time. Dashed in. Dashed out. No ice cream.” (Colin Ellard)

Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology building (PAS), University of Waterloo

Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology building (PAS), University of Waterloo

“I’m so sorry to say this, but one of my least favourite buildings in this area is the building where I work at the University of Waterloo. Generally, it’s a pretty campus (though recently all the development has made it look a little like condo-crazy Toronto) but my building, this brutalist monstrosity fails to work for me on almost every level. On the outside, it’s forbidding, impenetrable and sad-looking. There isn’t really even a proper entrance to the building. The inside of the building is so illegible that it almost guarantees that a visitor will become lost. When we have guests come to visit, we have to post a greeter at the door to pilot them to their destination. Otherwise we won’t see them for days. (Colin Ellard)

The Kitchener downtown strip

The Kitchener downtown strip

“Kitchener-Waterloo are paired cities but each with a distinctive feel. Waterloo is called 'Uptown' by locals and the main street (King Street) has an upscale, gentrified feel to it. Kitchener’s King Street is 'Downtown' and though it’s undergoing a transformation as Kitchener shrugs off its industrial roots, the area still has a grittier edge that attracts me. The facades are chaotic, complex and interesting. I resonate to the mix of old and new and the slightly risky feel of the area. The proportions of road width and building height make for a nice sense of enclosure without being oppressive.” (Colin Ellard)

Colin Ellard lives in Kitchener, Ont. and is the author of You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon. His new book, Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life, is available now from Bellevue Literary Press. 

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