By Michael Mehaffy
The experience is all too common. We see an ugly building – perhaps an eyesore from a few decades ago, or a photo of a bizarre new proposal that is supposed to be the next great thing – and we find ourselves asking, “What were they thinking?” Insights from cognitive psychology and related fields are providing intriguing answers to that question. It is not just that people vary in what they consider beautiful, or that some forms of fine art are an acquired taste. The evidence is growing that the problem is, quite literally, in the architects’ heads.
In a widely cited survey of other research, psychologist Robert Gifford and his colleagues reported that “architects did not merely disagree with laypersons about the aesthetic qualities of buildings, they were unable to predict how laypersons would assess buildings, even when they were explicitly asked to do so.” The researchers pointed to previous studies showing cognitive differences in the two populations: “Evidence that certain cognitive properties are related to building preference has already been found.”
The researchers stressed that architects do not simply disagree aesthetically with non-architects: they literally cannot see the difference between their own aesthetic preferences and those of non-architects. “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.”
Of course, every profession has its own biases and cognitive limitations, and it’s unfair to suggest that architects are unique. Every profession is a bit like the proverbial “carpenter with a hammer, for whom every problem looks like a nail.” We see the world through the lens of our own training and experience, and sometimes our specialized concerns become detached from the concerns – perhaps even the common sense – of our own clientele.
In social psychology, this well-known problem is described by what is known as “Construal Level Theory.” The more removed we are from the concrete experience of, say, how buildings affect real people in ordinary life, the more we must construe our work and its goals in abstraction – and the more remote those “construals” can become from human beings and their needs. Of course the same is true for planners, developers, business owners or anyone else working in the built environment.
But in the case of architects, the research is helping to explain a particularly consequential way of seeing the world. It seems that, where most people see objects in context, architects as a group (and, we should add, their art-connoisseurs and media boosters) tend to focus on objects in isolation from their contexts. Where most people look for characteristics that help buildings to fit in and to increase the overall appeal of their surroundings, architects seem to focus narrowly on the attributes of buildings that make them stand out: their novelty, their abstract artistic properties, their dramatic (even sometimes bizarre) contrast.
Some researchers have concluded that this peculiar way of seeing comes from architects’ unique studio education. Students must stand out in a highly competitive environment, and they do so by winning praise for the clever novelty of the art-objects they produce. In the abstracted world of studio culture, those objects are usually very far removed indeed from their real-world contexts – as anyone who has taught studio, like me, can readily observe.
But of course, this training turns out to be useful preparation for the role that architects must too often play in the modern development process: they must “brand” their buildings, their clients and themselves as attention-getting novelties, the better to compete as commodities with others.
This focus on the design of novel art-objects is a historically exceptional development. Up to the 20th century, architecture was by necessity a close adaptive response to its human and natural context. On that concrete foundation, architecture explored its more abstract expressions.
As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs pointed out, this is a healthy relationship between life and art: namely, life serves as the foundation upon which the art is an enrichment of meanings. But as Jacobs warned, when this relationship is confused – when abstract art seeks to supplant concrete life – the results are very bad for life, and probably bad for art too.
But as Jacobs also observed, this is precisely what professionals allowed to happen – even encouraged to happen – in the 20th century. The marketing allure of their fine art was used to rationalize, even glamorize, a toxic industrialization of the built environment. The results of this malpractice are evident today in ugly, dysfunctional cities and towns all around the globe.
Of course many architects blame others for this degradation of settlements: developers, engineers, or the non-architects who design a large percentage of structures. But architects occupy a singular leadership position, whether by action or inaction. It is architects whose influential ideas about cities and buildings profoundly shape what others can do in the built environment – perhaps by deeming certain kinds of designs “fashionable” or “edgy” – or conversely, “reactionary” or “inauthentic.”
Historically, it was also architects who helped to shape the most beautiful, enduring, well-loved cities, towns and buildings of human history. As we enter a time of unprecedented urbanization – on track to produce more urban fabric in the next five decades than in the previous 10,000 years – it is architects who now have an urgent responsibility to lead a humane, sustainable form of settlement for the future.
But the new research findings make it clear that this will require some major soul-searching. Outmoded ideologies and practices must be fundamentally reassessed. The distorted conception of architecture as fine-art novelty, in dramatic contrast with its context – with its environment, and with its history – must be reformed. In its place we require an architecture of life – one responsive to human need, and to the patterns of nature and history.
Michael Mehaffy is executive director of Portland, OR-based Sustasis Foundation, and a founding board member of INTBAU-USA. He studied architecture in the graduate school at UC Berkeley, and qualified to register as an architect in 1996. He has taught architecture, urban planning and philosophy in five graduate schools in four countries. He is indebted to Nikos Salingaros for assistance with research that led to this article, and to several other co-authored articles.
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