Architecture Here and There

The headache of modernism

Modernism vs. nature, or stripes vs. nonstripes. (Top: Sam Beebe/Flickr. Bottom: Tsaiian/Flickr)

CNN has run an article called “Looking at buildings can actually give people headaches. Here’s why.” Its author, psychology professor Arnold J. Wilkins of Essex University, in Great Britain, is right. Modern architecture can give you a headache, and it is great to have CNN putting its imprimatur behind that very important but widely ignored (indeed suppressed) idea. Journalism in the service of humanity is rare these days.

Wilkins cites the theory of French mathematician Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) that the brain interprets what the eye sees as patterns of stripes that please or displease. Fourier is better known for discovering what is now known as the greenhouse effect. His stripes, referred to as “Fourier components,” may or may not be the most accurate description of visual activity, but there is no doubt that something happened in the last century to sharpen the distinction between rural and urban landscapes.

[O]ver the last 100 years, the design of buildings has been departing further and further from the rule of nature; more and more stripes appear decade by decade, making the buildings less and less comfortable to look at.

Too many “stripes” in the form of straight lines and blank spaces are unnatural. The result leads to headaches. Wilkins explains:

Put simply, scenes from nature have stripes that tend to cancel each other out, so that when added together no stripes appear in the image. But this is not the case with scenes from the urban environment. Urban scenes break the rule of nature: they tend to feature regular, repetitive patterns, due to the common use of design features such as windows, staircases and railings. Regular patterns of this kind are rarely found in nature.

Perhaps Fourier was on to something, but Wilkins, writing some three centuries later, is being a little bit sneaky about “windows, staircases and railings” as the repetitive patterns that rub the brain in the wrong direction. All buildings have those and always have, but only in the past century have those features, not to mention entire buildings and cityscapes, become far more uncomfortably “striped” in the Fourierian sense. Tsk, tsk!

More recent experiments cited by Wilkins suggest that the brain’s difficulty with repetitive patterns uses up oxygen, the lack of which causes headaches. Why the brain is disconcerted by regularity more than by irregularity is not addressed by Wilkins.

Perhaps this theory of Fourier’s is compatible with the more recent theory of University of Texas mathematician Nikos Salingaros that the brain prefers complexity to simplicity. Wilkins writes of how “the human brain evolved to effectively process scenes from the natural world. But the urban jungle poses a greater challenge for the brain, because of the repetitive patterns it contains.”

Salingaros believes that the primitive brain relied on detail in order to, say, warn of a lion lurking nearby. The absence of detail could spell danger for primitive man, and so most people’s preference for detail over repetitive patterns in architecture today may be an atavistic reflection of obsolete instincts of self-preservation.

Salingaros’s broader theories of architecture, associated with those of Christopher Alexander, author of A Pattern Language, express traditional architecture’s natural qualities as springing from its evolution over centuries of trial and error in search of best practices, which are then handed down from generation to generation. The neurology of biological reproductivity had much in common with the evolution of architectural discourse over the centuries up through, say, 1950. Modernism kicked all of that aside and relies instead on an experimentalism that abjures precedent and hence is incapable of developing any coherent language of design. For centuries, architecture reveled in its abundance of detail, an efflorescence that came to an end with the advent of modern architecture. Modernism vs. nature and nurture.

Another recent theory that ties into this, developed by Massachusetts architect and researcher Ann Sussman, is that the most influential pioneer of modern architecture, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, was autistic, and led a revolution that purged from architecture the kind of detail that unsettles those on the autistic spectrum.

Wilkins’s article did not specifically mention modern architecture as the culprit. He tiptoed through the tulips. Had he fingered modernism more directly, his article might have ended up in the circular file.

Some people get headaches from modern architecture and others do not. One thing’s for sure. Today the world has a migraine, and nobody seems to know why. Maybe a big part of the reason is hiding right out in plain sight.