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.
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.