Date of Award

Spring 6-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Architecture (MArch)



First Advisor

Jess Myers

Second Advisor

Ijlal Muzaffar


This thesis aims to examine the role environmental factors play in people’s experience of the built environment, with a focus on the ongoing debate between individual freedom and collective responsibility of masks in the COVID-19 era. This thesis will argue that a middle ground that balances the relationship between individual and collective pursuits is necessary and can potentially be enabled through design. The project will articulate these ideas by using the debate around mask-wearing as a starting point to develop a broader manifesto forshaping the built environment.

During this ongoing global pandemic, we can’t deny that human behavior has been changed either voluntarily or involuntarily. Decisions we make every day play an important role to protect each other in society. How can we as architects find ways to encourage people, from politicians to the general public, make sensible choices not from a polarized position but in weighing perspectives of individual freedom and collective welfare.

The simple act of wearing a mask to protect others during a pandemic has become a political and cultural flashpoint. When the establishment of the mask-wearing policies and whether to follow those policies are no longer a consideration of social safety and welfare, but instead have become statements around individual freedom and political inclination

The idea of freedom is central to American culture, yet it is not a fixed or permanent thing. Like the United States Constitution itself, the definition of “freedom” is the subject of persistent conflict and debate. “You can’t pick and choose what freedoms you are going to give people.” This is a strong statement made by Oklahoma’s Republican governor Kevin Stitt, whose ambivalence shows that, when it comes to mask wearing, the government does not have the power to restrict people’s freedom. He, like many, believes that individual freedom is more important than collective welfare. From this perspective, creating a law to make wearing a mask mandatory is not a right way to regulate citizen behaviors.

Reflecting on the concept of freedom as inherently defined by the power of choice, this project aims to reframe the importance of design decisions to rethink individual and collective values in any given society by bringing one of the behavioral economics concepts into a built environment, nudge theory. As a designer, how can we influence individual decision-making without limiting the choice set or setting up a policy?

Cues in our environment have always influenced our actions. Changing how drinks were arranged in the hospital cafeteria can drive the patients with better dietary habits. Designers made stairs easier to find than lifts to influence people taking stairs more. In the built environment,the decisions we make as architects can offer a nudge of better decision-making or healthier behavior. We are not only capable of changing an experience through space, but we can influence how people think and what they choose.

How can architecture change human behavior so as to can lead to balance points of the individual and collective pursuits in a society?


View exhibition online: Karen Kuo, Balance the conversations

Included in

Architecture Commons



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