Our buildings, our selves

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Details of Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston. (Photo by David Brussat)

Ann Sussman, author with Justin Hollander of Cognitive Architecture, has an article in Planning magazine, “Planning for the Subconscious,” that suggests that the millennia-long evolution of how we shape buildings and places placates the inner urges of our minds and bodies (and hearts).

Or at least it used to. Modern architecture ended that. But now, she writes, advances in our understanding of biology through biometrics “means we can record how people see and feel about their surroundings, not as machines, but as animals keen on connection and ruled by anxieties.” She adds:

Imagine being able to collect real-world, real-time data about emotional habits in the built environment and to definitively answer perennial questions such as why people enjoy walking through miles of a dense urban settings like Manhattan but consistently shun barren landscapes like Boston’s infamously empty City Hall Plaza.

The eye-tracking experiment that Sussman describes demonstrates how human-centric our eyes are (via our brains). It showed, she says, that at Boston’s Copley Plaza test subjects’ eyes focused most intensely on an art installation of a man on a raft high up on the “infamous” Hancock Tower.

Yet it also shows that the intensely detailed façade of Trinity Church received the first and the most eye contact. The seeming contradiction might perhaps be explained by the oddity of the man on the raft high up the skyscraper (whose original windows popped out and had to be replaced). It is new to most viewers, whereas Trinity, though much more alluring, and with plenty of human figures in its ornament, is a sight they are used to. The Hancock is interesting only from the angle where it looks like a razor blade standing on end, and where Trinity may be seen in its otherwise tedious reflective glass.

If that’s what the various techniques Sussman describes of monitoring what the eye and brain are telling us, then perhaps these techniques are really just more examples of how science is helping us to belabor – oh, excuse me, to describe – the obvious. Yes! We do prefer places embellished with eye- catching detail to barren, banal settings.

But the world we live in today has banished embellishment and, when it comes to how we create where we live, it has put banality in the catbird seat. (What is a catbird seat, anyway?) We need to have science tell us what we already know because ideology has tried to smother our intuitive grasp of nature. What we once knew must be forced out into the open by science.

To confront the forces that suppress our ability to believe what our own brains tell us is not the purpose of Sussman’s article, but in her email urging me to read it she writes:

It turns out the subconscious rules – are we surprised? And it will also turn out down the pike that more intuitively designed traditional, vernacular, classical architecture fits our subconscious predispositions the way most modern architecture – from the outside at least – does not.

As I have said many times, Nikos Salingaros, Christopher Alexander and other theorists are already out there making that case, as Sussman herself has pointed out in other writings. Science must continue to flush out the truths suppressed by modern architecture. That’s what science is for.

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Razor blade “Wow factor” of the Hancock Tower, Copley Plaza. (Photo by David Brussat)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Our buildings, our selves

  1. Reblogged this on Architecture Here and There and commented:

    In lieu of my report on last night’s lecture in Boston by Ann Sussman, hosted by the New England chapter of the ICAA, I am reposting my “Our buildings, ourselves” from last year, which concerns Sussman’s research.


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