Sussman on Corbu’s autism

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Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier. (Archiobjects)

One reason people prefer traditional to modern architecture is that their eyes literally refuse to look at blank walls. Shown a picture of a building with a blank wall, the eye of an observer will linger anywhere – on a side street next to the building, on a red light in the foreground of the building, on a lady walking down the sidewalk in front of the building – anywhere but on the building itself. The entrance (if visible) might catch some attention.

This is the growing evidence from biometric tools that track and time the focus of the eye on pictures of architecture, according to architect and researcher Ann Sussman, co-author (with Justin Hollander) of Cognitive Architecture.

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Eye tracking shows normal focus on kitten in top photo, with attention on face; in bottom photo, autistic focus shows attention avoids face.

The neurobiological nullification of modern architecture was one of two major revelations from Sussman at a talk last week in Boston sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. She addressed the chapter in February of 2015, revealing the mind’s preference for symmetry and for buildings whose windows, doors and other features seem to read like faces. (See my post “Edges, shapes and patterns.”)

Since then, she has continued her pathbreaking research on how the eye perceives its environment – via an intuitive defense mechanism that harks back to prehistorical times when primitive man needed data to protect himself from lions and tigers and bears. Today, the need for data that enhanced our safety is satisfied by ornament that we seek for our enjoyment. Buildings that lack such details don’t speak to us. Literally.

Sussman states that:

It appears that blank building façades actually cause more release of cortisol (the stress hormone linked to cancer and heart disease) when we’re surrounded by them. If you look at Boston City Hall the cortisol may rise in your cheek cells; whereas when you look at neighboring Old State House – you can’t help but feel happy, and consequently will  have more oxytocin (the hugging hormone) in your blood stream. Yes – how modern architecture by not providing the fixations our brain is set out to see (such as windows that seem like eyes) increases stress response, crimping community relations – and since we are the most social species on the planet, biologists say – undermines our health and social well-being, virtually killing us.

Mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, has long contended that modern architecture not only makes people dizzy but causes illness. I have tended to suppose he overstates the case, but the research has caught up with his prognosis. In speaking of buildings that “virtually kill us,” Sussman may well herself have committed exaggeration. But on sober reflection, maybe not: “Our ancient brain sets limits on our modern brain.” To the extent that modern architecture has inflicted Corbusier’s “tower in a park” model on public housing around the world, it may indeed be responsible for the social and behavioral descent that has resulted in the deaths of who knows how many thousands of people.

We may like to think of ourselves as beings who think, and we are, but our thoughts arise from our feelings, which are largely linked to our primitive past. If we are to thrive in the 21st century, humans must come to grips with that.

And now Sussman has added a bold stroke to her conclusions. How, she asked her listeners last week, did modern architecture become the dominant style if people don’t like it? She answered her own question: Because modernist founder Le Corbusier was autistic.

Sussman deduces from Corbu’s big head, his social inadequacy, his penchant for blank walls, and other factors, that modern architecture’s most influential founding theorist occupied a dire place on the autistic spectrum. This suspicion has been confirmed by biometric studies. Eye tracking shows that people on the autistic spectrum track very differently from most people. Sussman explains:

Le Corbusier, we now know, had a genetic brain disorder and because of it, he actually “saw” the world differently than neuro-typical types, and could “fixate” on blank façades – indeed, more readily sought them out to emotionally regulate.

During the question and answer session, an audience member pointed out that thousands of other modern architects who have practiced since Corbu were not all autistic. I sought to correct him – Sussman was contending not that all modernists were autistic but that the modernism propounded by Corbu was influenced by his autism, and that many other modernists since have baked Corbusier’s autistic insights into the practice of their craft.

More and more literature is emerging that backs up Sussman’s research linking Corbusier’s architecture to his place on the autistic spectrum. No doubt the architectural establishment, which still considers him a hero, will greet the news with silence – the typical reaction of a cult to facts contrary to their world view. Eventually, however, the drip-drip-drip of the truth will have its way.

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Eye tracking follows typical person’s focus on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. A person on the autistic spectrum is more likely to focus on the few blank spaces. (geneticsofdesign.com)

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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9 Responses to Sussman on Corbu’s autism

  1. Pingback: Classicism’s relevance today | Architecture Here and There

  2. Michael Tyrrell says:

    David, My apologies for the radio silence. I was in Manhattan most of the weekend soaking up its contrasting reality; the old & the new that is ‘Delirious New York”. Alas, we’re closer to a middle ground here. Citing General Motors as a major culprit is consistent with my argument, and the better target against which to inveigh. Madison Avenue (let’s toss in Sear’s Catalogue while we’re at) popularized Modernism, with agents such as Moses, and the NY World’s Fair playing a huge role (Indeed my late Mother would reflect excitedly on the 1939 World of Tomorrow; ‘So streamlined!… cars painted different colors?!.. Wow!”)… Yes, there was propaganda and seduction, and no sooner those teeming masses (of veterans) yearning to breath free. Alas, Mass-market Modernism and the drive to suburbia -regardless of its origins- had popular appeal. Shopping for Modernity was part of the package. Now that paradigm is shifting (we should hope) toward greener common territory.
    My issue is two-fold:
    1. That the Modern Masters should not be pillaged for the sins and sinners of Commerce and Industry. (Remember, the latter ginned up a whole lot of sub-par “Classicism” as well).
    2. The lecture was very good, however more background on how we arrived to the present condition seems warranted -ie what did Corb mean when he referred to “Eyes which do not see”?… include Loos’ lamentation and drive away from ornament -and why. Let’s explore the historic context first to better appreciate “how we observe” now.

    Lastly, as an advocate for classicism (such as one can be in modern times) my passion for craft, tradition and classical language does not preclude mine or anyone’s appreciation for the history and meaning of Modernism, including it’s rise and controversy. Again, the best Modernists are Classicists (have classical training). Love it or loathe it, Modernism is part of the picture.
    Cheers.

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    • We could go round and round on this forever, Michael. I cannot disagree that the history of modernism must be considered in its context. But I see a lot more villains out there than you seem to see, and in the context of trying to bring about a better world, I believe it is important to name names. The modern masters do indeed bear a large portion of the blame because they not only invented the obvious and indefensible malarky upon which the Modern Movement was based but collaborated with those in commerce who embraced it (GM, etc.) to turn American society into an unsustainable money-making machine. I refuse to let these people lie peacefully in their graves, with their legacies trashing the entire world, yet burnished by apologists who do not see the forest for the trees. As for its “popularity,” it was a function of sophisticated but unwise propaganda and commercialism. There are no modernists who are classicists, only modernists who have rejected classicism despite knowing its principles or rejected it in ignorance its principles. Which are more culpable? I will leave that to others. Yes, Michael, love it or loathe it, modernism is indeed part of the picture. But those of us who concede that a classical revival will require a governing structure that can bring about a fairer disposition of architectural commissions must point fingers rather than make excuses for a cult that is not merely one part of the picture but tries to suppress other parts of the picture. I see I’ve “gone on” again. Cheers and apologies!

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    • Mikko says:

      Modern “art ” is all garbage purposefully created by nati western civilization people to destroy the minds of the people of the west. All those works should be destroyed with extreme prejudice.

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  3. Michael Tyrrell says:

    David, Yes, respectfully:

    I don’t claim “right or wrong” on society’s disposition toward architecture’s style wars, but we can agree on a broadly held fatigue with mass produced, machine-manufactured architecture. Such is the result of our expedient, petroleum induced economic culture. I too applaud Ms. Sussmann’s effort too better understand how we’re “wired” to observe and respond to this environment. However, her presentation also compels me to consider the inverse: that the Modern Movement, albeit architect led (when isn’t it?), was one that sought relief from observing centuries of design custom -much of which could be overbearing and thirsting for simplicity.

    Again, technical breakthroughs posed new opportunities for creativity. In this context the early Modernists sought to protect craft and encourage a more disciplined consciousness for composition and detail. Lets agree to disagree: The Modern Masters are not culpable for the expedient, rapacious pathos behind much contemporary design. Setting aside the socio-aesthetic impacts of the World Wars and Madison Avenue, we should rather look to the patrons and clients who fail to sustain the craft ethos that Architects, Tradesmen and Traditional Designers represent (and Kudos to the ICA&A in its mission to reverse that trend!).

    The point is the Modern Masters are not the sinister or defective bunch some portray them to be. : ) LeCorbusier was young once to. His thrusting forth a city plan that seduced a generation of planners would cause much damage; I won’t debate that, autism or not. However its but one part of LC’s legacy. Like Peter Behrens before them, Corb, Gropius, Asplund, Allto, Scarpa -the list is long- all worshiped composition and quality construction, and sought to preserve trade-craft through its inevitable application to -and potential bastardization from- industrial technique. They foresaw how mass markets could weaken the cult of craft and devolve into tacky “TPP Consumerism”. Indeed the Bauhaus was a hothouse for this synthesis, working against decay through “the process of selection as applied to a standard”. Sound familiar? ; )

    One cannot deny that Modernism; substantive, stylistic, or however broadly defined, had popular currency. It liberated the masses from the yoke of traditional and imperialist dogmas over extended periods of great social turmoil. Alas, times, tastes, and techniques evolve. Its arc of popular success is faded. Sussmann’s research is timely, and much desired. Her important message can benefit from a deeper preface on the historical context from which Modernism and its adherents emerged. Cheers.

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    • We’ll have to agree to disagree on almost all of this, Michael. Granted, most of today’s modernist architects are unfamiliar with how their aesthetic developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So today most architects can merely be faulted for conforming to obviously wrongheaded design and planning theories developed years before their time and perpetuated by a cult-like resistance to history and diversity. I reject the idea that there was a groundswell of public irritation with ornament in buildings and public spaces. That is a fiction of architectural historians whose field is equally resistant to a variety of voices and narratives. The average man (and woman) in the street did not seek relief from a culture of embellishment in architecture that publics had been marinated in for many centuries. The modern movement in America did not reflect any popular feeling beyond the extent to which it was constructed by a successful propaganda campaign generated by General Motors. Again, certain elites might have sought a movement toward simplicity in design, but their rejection of traditional taste built over centuries was not an act of benevolence or foresight – far from it. The idea that the public resisted ornament in reaction to a distaste for social upheaval, world war and “imperialism” is a labored nonsequitur. Your positive reaction to Sussman’s lecture is inconsistent with your belief that there was a natural and humane component to the modernist rejection of centuries of our Western culture. Of course, an open discourse (unlike that preferred by modernists) is embraced by the ICAA and by classicists in general, so I have no problem with your holding and expressing these beliefs after having spent so many years on the chapter’s board. I just find it very difficult to understand.

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  4. Michael Tyrrell says:

    I attended this talk. Sussman’s presentation was compelling for its analytics, confirming what many sense: that contemporary Modern Architecture is cold, insensitive and lacking in human nuance where centuries of human habitat and culture are thrown to the wind. However her mention on the relevance of LeCorbusier’s possible autism seemed unnecessary. Corbu, whether afflicted or not, was responding to a desire to reign in the 19th Century obsession with ornament at a time when material achievements in science -mechanics and structures- yielded wholly new ways to express civilization. The Modern Masters were not looking to cast craft (or detail) to the wind. Rather they sought relief from the overwhelmingly kitsch & slavish embellishments in building where none be required. Show me an old school Modern building, crafted by skilled and conscientious tradesman, and I’ll show you Traditional Architecture.

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    • With all due respect, Michael, you are entirely wrong here. The early modernists were indeed seeking to cast craft and detail onto the trash heap of history and never let it in again. Out with any “let a thousand flowers bloom” theory of architecture’s wonderful diversity. There was no widespread desire for relief from “kitsch and slavish embellishment,” except maybe among architectural historians, who also bought into the bogus “wholly new ways to express civilization” – we got the machine metaphor without the machine efficiency. If there were any “old school” craftsmen building modernist architecture, they later found they had been hoodwinked by their employers, who were part of a campaign to kill off their livelihoods. There was no “obsession” with ornament. Material achievements in science did not require an end to traditional concepts of beauty – that was ideology pure and simple, nothing more, and with absolutely zero basis in science, philosophy, logic or common sense. The exclusion of diversity from architecture has been enforced with the iron fist. Corbusier, who was a totalitarian as well as autistic, is one of a small number of individuals who, without literally killing people, have had a devastating effect on our world. That is true whether he was ill or not. And today we all suffer from the cultish cartoonishness of the built environment he and his colleagues inflicted on us, which would be hilarious if it were not so sad and pathetic. Sussman is both wise and courageous to speak these truths to power.

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  5. David,

    Let me re-emphasize that Ann Sussman is one of the most important researchers investigating the foundations of architecture and its profound impact on the health of human beings. Her findings will help to establish a new, healing architecture for future generations. When will this happy event begin to happen? Unfortunately, not as long as cult worship continues to override scientific data.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

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