I've been thinking about ceilings today. Browse through real estate listings, especially those for trendy urban spaces, and you will notice that these advertisements often trumpet fantastic ceiling heights - the higher the better it seems. Has the old square foot equation for domestic spaces been replaced by a linear foot equation that reaches upward rather than outward? Do we really want to live at the bottom of mine shafts? One might think that those of us who choose to trade the square footage of the suburban bungalow ranch style for the denser lifestyle of the city loft might want to make sure that every scrap of our premium priced space has a use. But is a 16 foot ceiling really functional at all? Unless your urban condo comes equipped with a pair of anti-gravity boots, half of your square feet are in space that is unattainable and, in colder climates like those in much of North America, expensive to heat. The space is there to look at (and possibly to listen to) but not to use. So what attracts us to tall spaces?
Historically, high ceilings in old houses were pragmatic rather than functional. Before the advent of efficient indoor lighting, the only way to get decent light into a house was through windows, so the taller the windows the longer the indoor "day" could be. Although we don't really need windows for working light anymore, it's very likely that the quality of the light that enters a room from the outdoors exerts considerable impact on our emotional state. My dearly missed friend the architect Thomas Seebohm once made a powerful demonstration to me of the impact of what was outside a window -- in effect what the window was able to "see" -- on the chromatic makeup of the light inside a room. And there is ample evidence from colour psychology that the interior colours that bathe our minds can change how we think and feel.
But what about the height of the ceiling? There is surprisingly little psychological evidence that can be brought to bear on the question. Some fairly straightforward ideas from the psychology of perception of distance and size would suggest that the way that a room is scaled will influence our impression of its spaciousness, and there is one very interesting and heavily cited study that shows that different ceiling heights can encourage us to engage in different styles of thinking: high ceilings may encourage more abstract thinking and lower ceilings might encourage us to focus more on the fine details. High ceilings may make us feel spacious and creative and lower ceilings more cramped and constrained.
Ideas from the field of environmental psychology suggest that the shape of a living space might affect our feelings for reasons that connect us with the prevailing concerns of our evolutionary ancestors. Spaces that embrace and contain us offer the comfort of refuge -- protection from threats such as predators or aggressive human competitors. Spaces that offer grand vistas offer us the power of prospect -- the ability to see what's coming -- whether that be bounty or threat. So given this, we might expect that a high ceiling wouldn't always offer commodious psychological comfort -- depending on the context and perhaps our personality, just the opposite in fact.
A final perverse possibility is that we are attracted to high ceilings precisely because they are useless. Just as the peacock's tail advertises the fitness of the cock by signalling honestly that the bird is able to stay healthy and avoid catastrophe while also looking after an enormous but useless appendage, the 16 foot ceiling may advertise the healthy economic status of they who rule the urban roost.