Facing the faces in facades

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Heat map of  carriage house in Cambridge, Mass. and new library in Queens. (Ann Sussman)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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