Take Sussman’s fish test here

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Image from Ann Sussman’s fish test (which you may just have taken).

Ann Sussman, the Concord, Mass., architect and researcher, asked me to take a test a few days ago. I was to look at a set of illustrations of fishes and note what my eyes do. I took her test, and my eyes did what they wanted to do. Please, reader, take the test – very brief – and then return to this post.

Pausing while you take the test

Welcome back! The test results affirm the idea that our eyes instinctively seek faces in everything we look at. This idea has been central to Sussman’s pathbreaking research. If a face can be found in a picture of a fish or in the façade (root: face) of a building, our eyes will find it and focus on it first. That’s what the fish test is all about. The basic facial configuration can be manipulated, for example by turning it upside down. Your eye will see it as a face, but if a rightside-up face sits next to the upside-down face, your eye will always go to the more traditional face first.

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Harvard Lampoon Building. (Wikipedia)

The fish test is one of many explanations of why people, led by their eyes and their brains, prefer traditional architecture to modern architecture. Traditional buildings are far more likely to have windows, doors and other features that manifest as faces. A building beloved of many visitors to Cambridge is the Harvard Lampoon, in which the configuration of a face is even more obvious than in most traditional architecture. Or just look at any drawing of a house by a child.

Sussman uses eye-tracking computers to carry out the experiments that have led her to her conclusions. Pictures of traditional buildings draw the eye to windows and doors in patterns that resemble a face. Pictures of modernist buildings generally draw the eye to windows and doors as well, but not first, because the patterns do not generally resemble a face. In pictures of modernist buildings, in fact, the eye often does not even focus on the building itself, which can seem blank, but rather it focuses on its edges or a nearby street lamp or traffic light, as if the eye really couldn’t be bothered with it. Read what you like into this, but for most people the phenomenon reads as a preference for traditional architecture.

For more information, visit Ann Sussman’s website, The Genetics of Design.

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How eye tracking interprets the features of modernist and traditional buildings. (Sussman)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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6 Responses to Take Sussman’s fish test here

  1. Nikos Salingaros says:


    And this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Ann Sussman and I are working on revolutionary new software-based experiments that will create a huge stir in the community…

    More on this after we all get out from under the virus threat. At the moment it’s hard to concentrate on design; anyway, building more monstrosities has temporarily stopped.

    Best wishes,


    • I look forward to those experiments, Nikos. Meanwhile, the developer of the monstrosity planned for Providence has asked for leniency in some of the deadlines he faces. Is this good news? Trouble for him cannot hurt Providence!


    • Moussaoui Taha Yacine says:

      Du fond de l’Algérie profonde je ne peux qu’être d’accord au sujet de votre dernière réflexion. Bonne chance. (Translation: From the depths of deep Algeria I can only agree on your last thought. Good luck.) [Google translation supplied by editor.]


  2. LazyReader says:

    And Modernism takes away the human proportion……….?


    • Yes. Because the ‘founding fathers’ had never-diagnosed PTSD (from WWI) which distorts perception and made buildings blank and face-averse. Remember ‘reality’ is a construct between eye + brain – you can ‘see’ their internal brain disorder by the unusual way they constructed externally. More at: The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture, Common Edge.


  3. Pingback: Do the ‘Fish Experiment’ to ‘See’ What We’re Built to See | The Genetics of Design

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