Architecture, Instinct and Activity

I figured I’d need some guinea pigs for this experiment, so I went out and bought some. Actual guinea pigs. I bought them from a cavy fancier, one of those salt-of-the-earth ladies who breed pedigree guinea pigs and take them to shows. I was part of “the fancy” when I was a kid, and wonder sometimes if the elaborate hutches I built for my cavies might have prepped me for a career in architecture.

So, I have procured a few guinea pigs, craftily disguised as pets for the kids—even though my kids don’t do a thing to look after them and wouldn’t know if they had been dead for a week.

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Call me an evil genius with no animal ethics clearance for what I am doing, but I am changing these little guinea pigs’ living environments every few days and monitoring changes in their behaviour. Specifically, I am looking for optimal built environment conditions to increase their physical activity. I have observed the effect of 48 hours of light, 48 hours of dark, confinement verses free range, and numerous configurations of moveable breeze-blocks that I use to make places for them to climb on and hide in. I have put their food where they would most like to find it, down on the ground, and I have put it up high where they have to battle their instinctive fear of birds overhead to go source it.

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My dilettantism in the empirical sciences is born of a genuine frustration with the designing-for-fitness trend sweeping architectural institutes in Europe and North America. The only real recommendations forthcoming have been welcoming stairs, ping pong tables where statues should go, and a bike share station outside the front door. Get those in place and voila: your clients and their staff will all look like Posh Spice in no time. Well where is the evidence? Is it in the instincts of humans to choose welcoming stairs over lifts that we know are hidden somewhere? Is it natural to be drawn salivating like Janette Sadik-Khan to that bike share station outside the front door? Do we crave ping pong even more than the sweet cake left out in the lunch room?

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The nice thing about Guinea pigs is their instincts aren’t well disguised. All the males want to do is fight for dominance, the winner running himself ragged chasing the females, the losers retiring to the bachelors’ quarters like Guinea Pig Land’s alcoholics. The females are remarkably like females of our own species if you have ever watched the later in a five star hotel with a posh buffet breakfast, only instead of guarding that giant pavlova as though there could not be another out in the kitchen, female guinea pigs will fight over one blade of grass from a stack of grass towering over their heads. Their eating and bickering is only interrupted by Alpha male there, or their instinctive duty to scurry for cover from possible birds overhead—creatures they have been raised with no direct knowledge of whatsoever. These guinea pigs have been raised indoors. The only thing swooping down and picking them up is my hand, relocating them for the purposes of my experiment.

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Guinea pigs love being under things, eating. I get more activity from them, I find, if I separate their shelters and leave food at each. I get even more activity if I introduce small level changes. They don’t like being exposed from above, but will run 2 or 3 meters to the next point of refuge and they will climb to food so long as their climbing does not leave them completely exposed from above.

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Cavy fanciers know the built environments I’m creating for these cavies of mine will make them fitter and lean. Their keep their best-in-breed champions in small, featureless boxes specifically to fatten them up.

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Buildings and cities that gratify peoples base instincts to eat and lounge, without any effort, will make overweight populations as surely as small cages will make a fat cavy. If you have a functional house, in a well serviced city, where everything you ever want is right at your fingertips, you have a house and city that are killing you slowly.

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Some of our fittening instincts as humans are to show off while playing, to have sex, to try to get sex (on the dance floor for instance), to fight or to simulate fighting through sports… I’m sure there are more. A fit city, to my mind, would be one where fattening instincts are physically hard to have satisfied. We would all be forced to walk up stairs to find a lounge chair, for instance, or be forced to ride bikes to find food. Dance clubs, boxing rings, love hotels and anything fittening would be in all the most accessible spots. And everything would be separated by soft sand, stairs, bicycle trails, or any other surface requiring effort to move on.

I’ve only had these guinea pigs for 10 days, so will admit my thinking is thus far undeveloped. No, they don’t run on treadmills like mice. Thanks for suggesting that though.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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2 Responses to Architecture, Instinct and Activity

  1. 7homask says:

    I’d like you to do this properly.

    Weigh them all at the start, then split them into 2 groups in either a fattening or fittening environment.

    Then devise some cognitive tests for the 2 groups to complete as well – get the kids’ friends to do the testing and blind them to the group. Good tests include a Y-maze for memory, and elevated plus maze for anxiety. (Some good bonding time there during the woodworking too).

    Report back.

    • Steven says:

      I’m torn. On the one hand these are my furry little friends we are talking about, and even the thought of depriving a control group seems cruel. On the other hand, it would be illuminating to dissect them and measure their hearts. How about a phenomenological study, where I ask them all the same questions?

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