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.
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.