By Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros
This is the third post in a series about recent lessons from the sciences for historic preservation and compatible new development. The authors—a physicist and mathematician, and an urban researcher and philosopher—explore emerging scientific findings about historic structures, and discuss lessons for generating more sustainable and resilient human environments.
In our previous post in this series, we discussed recent findings from the sciences that illustrate the complexity and “collective intelligence” embodied in traditional built heritage. The knowledge encoded into these heritage structures offers us an important resource for addressing the many challenges of built environments in our own time. Those include insights on how to build durably and sustainably, how to meet ordinary human need for beauty and delight (important for health, not just aesthetics), and how to create buildings that ordinary people will care for and reuse. This knowledge will be needed to create a satisfying contribution in our own time to “tomorrow’s heritage.”
Yet there are barriers that prevent us from effectively applying these invaluable resources today. In particular, an earlier post noted the historically peculiar prohibition against “copying the past”—the radical idea that no building must even look anything like a building from a previous era before about 1920. This pervasive and largely unquestioned idea closed off the great resource of documented collective intelligence embodied in heritage structures. The argument for this prohibition was not based on evidence, but on a particular theory of modernity that looks increasingly outmoded in light of new scientific developments. Yet the old habits of thought persist, especially among many architects.
Here we take up another related issue—namely, the way that professions (like architecture) sometimes become isolated from the needs and wants of ordinary people, and begin to over-focus on very narrow, insular objectives. In the terminology of organizations, they become “siloed” within their own disciplinary perspectives on the world. As a consequence, they may produce results that are maladapted to long-term human needs and actually preclude the kinds of satisfying, robust designs we all need and want around for tomorrow’s heritage.
This problem is certainly not unique to the architecture profession. Similar over-specialization occurs in engineering, real estate development, law, and many other fields. But enlightened architects are in a better position to lead the way out of this problem, and into a new era of more humanly satisfying buildings—a heritage of robust, enduring, and adaptable structures for today. In order to do that, we in the architecture and design professions need to recognize, and compensate for, the problem of over-specialization in our own work.
Two recent research findings illustrate the nature of the challenge for architects in particular: one from environmental psychology, and one from social psychology.
A “good” building—says who?
Research results in environmental psychology show a glaring divergence between what many architects perceive as a “good” building and what almost everyone else does. This is the condition we previously referred to as architectural myopia—that is, some architects are literally unable to see what their own users judge to be an inadequate, ugly, or even unhealthy design. Most people would agree that architects have a duty to make buildings that are not only pleasing to themselves as works of art, but pleasing and satisfying to users in regular operation. Therefore, it seems, this problem needs a remedy.
As a starting point, here are several excerpts from research reports in environmental psychology (with embedded links for further reading):
There is abundant evidence that architects’ aesthetic evaluations of buildings differ from those of laypersons... It would seem that many architects do not know, from a lay viewpoint, what a delightful building looks like. If we are ever to have more delightful buildings in the eyes of the vast majority of the population who are not architects, this conundrum needs study and solutions. (Gifford et al., 2002).
[Our research showed that] 1. There is an aesthetic dissociation (a ‘design disconnect’) between most of the architecture community and most of the general public. 2. The aesthetics of housing does not follow just theoretical aesthetic trends, but are influenced by historical models with symbolism acquired through time (Contreras Chávez and Milner, 2019).
The building most liked by one group was the building most disliked by the other. As we expected, architects rated ‘high’ residential architecture as more pleasant and more relaxing, and non-architects rated ‘popular’ residential architecture as more pleasant and more relaxing… For the public, clarity and coherence increased with the ‘popular’ category, centered entries, framed windows, ornament and more materials. (Devlin and Nasar, 1989).
Boston City Hall and Plaza fail to attract the public because the building and surrounding spaces don’t provide the fixation points, or places to maintain visual gaze in the first 3-5 seconds the brain needs to see, to most easily regulate, feel at its best, and effortlessly move us forward. It was astonishing for us to ‘see’ how difficult it was for people to actually look at, or ‘fixate’ on any part of the building (Sussman & Ward, 2019).
This divergence has important implications, and is not only due to personal preference. Research evidence is accumulating that the same structures that most users find ugly or unpleasant can also have serious negative impacts
on human health and well-being. Harmful effects include higher levels of stress, along with the problems that such stress can trigger or elevate (higher blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and so on).
By the same token, research is showing that environments most people find beautiful provide important restorative benefits, including rest and healing, through what is called a parasympathetic effect (or relaxation response). Beautiful places, it turns out, are notably healthier places. However, ugly or discordant buildings trigger a so-called sympathetic (fight-or-flight) effect, which is about seven times stronger than the parasympathetic effect on our body. (We need instant arousal to deal with threats, but take our time to return to a relaxed state).
There are other potential impacts too. For example, walking and recreation become less attractive around ugly buildings, resulting in lower levels of both activities, with further negative impacts on health and well-being (including lack of outdoor movement). The desire to use and maintain a building over time is diminished if people find it ugly and unworthy of maintenance. One of the requirements for building sustainably is that a structure will maintain enough aesthetic appeal that people will want to use it over decades, and not merely discard it as a passing fashion or a momentary artistic whim of an elite sub-culture. This robust aesthetic durability seems especially important in more compact neighborhood settings, which are increasingly being understood as an essential means to more sustainable urban development.
The research also produces another set of findings that point to a potential solution: that the characteristics of historic buildings often score well on the same criteria for most people. Of course, these are the very places where many of us choose to vacation and to spend our time and money. Moreover, these buildings provide a baseline of evolutionary, traditional knowledge that can help us to overcome today’s problems with professional blinders in design.
So why do some architects seem so intent on prohibiting this kind of pleasing building in new construction? This brings us to our second research finding.
Architects impose their “construals”—and everyone loses?
The second insight comes from social psychology in what is known as “construal level theory,” developed by researchers Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman. When there is a psychological distance between a given person and a given situation, that person is forced to deal with abstractions in place of more concrete responses to the actual situation. Individuals are therefore pushed to impose their own “construals” about what is important based upon these abstractions.
In the case of architecture, the factors that shape judgment for architects can be vastly different from the factors that actually affect the people who live in or around their buildings. The architects may “construe” that what is important is not the daily comfort and visceral delight of a building, but its artistic merit as a form of abstract expressionism (and perhaps other abstract technical and functional requirements). Meanwhile, the people who must live there may well feel forced to live inside a giant impersonal sculpture or ugly machine. They judge first and foremost with their emotions.
Interestingly, when designers and users were asked to judge aesthetic properties from the same degree of psychological distance (for example, when looking at a building from the perspective of a user walking into the entrance), the findings began to match more closely. We can see, then, that the problem is not that architects have decided to behave with cruel disregard, but that they have been put into a situation in which their perspective is distorted by cognitive distance. This cognitive separation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to make sound professional judgments about what people actually need and want from buildings for their health and well-being.
To remedy this problem of “architectural myopia,” it seems that something rather like “corrective lenses” will be required. Here is where heritage environments offer us an invaluable resource to meet this need. The healthy, positive characteristics of existing historic structures are readily available, measurable, and, moreover, widely tested. An architect employing these characteristics is drawing on a graspable reality that helps to overcome the problem of psychological distance, unlike the architect who relies too heavily on technical formalism and visual novelty created through abstract expressionism.
Validated by a growing body of research, the lessons for architects and other specialists is clear: We need to be attentive to the best lessons of the past, and also to the ordinary needs and desires of our buildings’ users. Of course, we can indulge our own prerogatives as avant-garde artists and technical specialists up to a point. However, to maintain professional ethics, we must ground our work fundamentally in the broadest possible criteria of humanistic, evolutionary, adaptive design. And there is no better instruction — and no better guidance out of the perils of over-specialization — than the collective intelligence embodied in heritage.