Most architects don’t get it. The brain is hardwired to prefer traditional buildings over modernist buildings because building facades with more things going on – windows and doors clearly marked, ornament and detail at a range of scales – make it more likely that the brain will be able to do what it really likes to do. And that is find a face in the facade.
Ann Sussman has a new post on her blog The Genetics of Design where she hones in on this fact. “We See Like an Animal … and that Matters” shows computer “heat map” images of buildings that track what the eye looks at in a building and for how long. In her blog post she writes, “Our brain evolved to anthropomorphize things, a trait which turns out to carry a survival advantage. From our brain’s perspective, the carriage house [which gets the most attention] appears to be looking at us, and in so doing, orients us, and puts us at ease.” In an email Sussman expanded on this point:
This is why the palazzos in Venice or streets in Paris work so well – even if, as a visitor, you don’t speak the language. Subconsciously, your brain feels “seen” by these old buildings, or “regulated,” as your analyst might say. So they let you have happy thoughts. You are not scared or on alert the way you are walking around glass-box business centers such as the Innovation District in Boston or other typical office parks. Our brain can’t regulate to feel safe around these buildings. They weren’t around when we evolved, so Mommy Nature doesn’t really “see” them. Therefore, walking near them we feel isolation: we feel on alert, unhappy, disconnected.
And as we all know, you can’t fool Mommy Nature – though the modernists have been trying for almost a century. But they are proving that even if you can’t fool Mommy Nature, you can fool societies that leave their brains in park. Now, at long last, science is fighting back.