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Mental Mapping Architectural Experience – by Donna Wheatley

How is architecture perceived and what impact does it have on inhabitants. Architects tend to have their own thoughts about this and communicating about this abstract entity between inhabitants, client, developer, and architect is an almost inexistent field. However Donna Wheatley, a PhD researcher form the University of Sydney has developed her own approach to the problem. She is using mental maps and network analysis to bring light on this problem.

Guest Post by Donna Wheatley for urbanTick

One of the features of the mapping technique developed in the PhD is that individual and consensus conceptions of designed environments can be generated. This can then be used to compare the mental maps that the architect has towards the environment they designed with that of the user group. As a designer I am familiar with the expectation to incorporate specific abstract values into architectural designs, but it is difficult to know if these efforts are successful or in how far this has been achieved in previous cases. In response, I undertook this study at half a dozen new corporate headquarters in UK, Germany, China and Australia, where attempts have been made to attract and retain employees by communicating particular values.

Image by Donna Wheatley / The user group mental map. Each connection in the network refers to concepts that were also syntactically connected in interviews. Edges and nodes weighted by the number of participants mentioning it and metatopics found with cluster algorithms.

The data for the maps is derived from in-depth interviews with users, architects and clients using metaphor elicitation. The interview transcripts are coded by extracting identifying keywords and grouping them in pairs. These pairs form semantic networks which are read as the mental maps.
Determining what thematic clusters or topics emerge (called ‘metatopics’) from the networks is a primary aim. The networks usually contain 4-7 metatopics. A range of network analysis algorithms, calculating measures such as centrality and proportional strength of ties are applied to identify important constructs and help identify metatopics (I will now apply additional analysis procedures on advice from CASA researchers – thanks!!). These metatopics can also themselves be ranked and compared through network analysis indicators.
Through these tools, new observations on the structure of collective mental representations of built environments are gathered.

Image by Donna Wheatley / The architects mental map. Metatopic ‘freedom and choice’, the most prominent one for the users, has not been anticipated – and ‘seriousness’, disconnected and minor for the users, is the largest metatopic from the designer’s point of view.

I visited CASA at the beginning of 2010 to discuss the analysis and interpretation of mental maps of architecture in my PhD at The University of Sydney. I gave a presentation called ‘Mental mapping architectural experience with network analysis’ at one of the weekly CASA seminars which can be found on their website. These maps are visualised using social network analysis software Pajek.