Our preference for detail? It’s by design

The case for basing buildings on biometrics

A developer caused a minor uproar late last month when he criticized the Boston Seaport’s “uninspiring architecture.” Of course, it’s common for ordinary citizens across the country to air complaints about plain, boxy towers—for example, Curbed readers rated their choices for the ugliest buildings in San Francisco and New York. But in the February incident, an audience of architects found it jarring to hear an industry insider speak ill of their work.

Yet nobody seemed to notice back in November when architect Ann Sussman made even stronger comments about the corridors of glass boxes built lately in the Seaport, which is sometimes called the Innovation District. People just don’t like sheer walls, Sussman said in a talk at last fall’s ABX conference. “That’s one reason why the Innovation District fails. Too many blank facades.” The district’s streetscape even poses a “health issue,” she said. “Our cortisol level goes up” in such bland environments.

Maybe builders and designers should start paying attention to this argument. Sussman wasn’t merely expressing an opinion. A growing body of research suggests that humans are hard-wired to prefer lush details over clean lines, thanks to millennia of evolution in the wild. And Sussman says there’s nothing architects can do about that preference, except design to it.

Mind over matter

When she lived in Paris for a time, amidst the Mansard roofs and street-level cafés, Sussman noticed that her fellow visiting Americans walked everywhere. Back in the States, the same people would rather drive everywhere. She began to wonder: Why is that, really?

Sussmann sought real data on why people seem to prefer some kinds of buildings over others. Last year, relying on biometric-measuring software, Sussmann and co-researcher Justin Hollander analyzed eye movements and unconscious response to a variety of images. Their findings were eye-opening.

In one test, two sets of volunteers were shown two different photos of the Stapleton Library in Staten Island, New York—one with the windows Photoshopped out, and one unretouched. See the images side by side below. The dots indicate what parts of the building one subject looked at in each. (The human eye can make four to five rapid movements between fixation points per second.) Notice that the de-windowed walls got hardly a glance.

Stapleton Library

The researchers found the same preference in test after test. Subjects barely registered the blank or sheer walls of a library in Queens and a museum in Brooklyn, focusing instead on billboards, cars, and pedestrians.

This raises two immediate questions: First, how the heck does the eye-tracking software work? And why do people unconsciously avert their gaze from plain facades?

Programs that measure people’s reactions to images have been around for years, Sussman pointed out in her ABX talk and in a later e-mail exchange. At multi-billion-dollar companies, the designers of packaging and automobiles use the insights they gain from biometric testing to determine a look that will have mass appeal.

Fortunately, the cost of such software has come down recently, to the point where curious architects can get in on this research. For her study, Sussman used a program called iMotions to measure eye movement as well as facial recognition—e.g., picking up on our barely perceptible lip and forehead movements that indicate joy, fear, or surprise. (Other features of iMotions include tools to measure heartbeat and electromagnetic activity in the brain.)

As a test subject looks at an image on a computer, an infrared light shines on her eye. A high-resolution camera records the eye’s rapid movements, capturing the flashes of infrared as the light bounces off the eye. If the eye is looking up and to the left, a burst of red will appear on the lower right part of the eye. (At least, that’s the broad-strokes explanation.) That data is linked to the photo being shown, and the software spits out a graphic representation. For example, the below video shows the gaze path of one subject viewing an image of the Villa Rotunda in Italy.

The Eyes are a Window to the…Subconscious

As to the why? Sussman and Hollander say our preference for detail can be explained as anthropomorphism, or our tendency to attribute human characteristics to objects. A flat, blank facade has no lifelike features to latch onto.

Indeed, we unknowingly look for all kinds of biological forms in our environments, and for a long time builders obliged—from the leafy flowers atop Corinthian columns, to the gargoyles on medieval churches, to the eagles on Art Deco buildings. Seeking a break from the past, modern architects began to avoid the “fussy” or “busy” styles of earlier eras. However, the neurological research Sussman has begun to tap into suggests that the human eye gravitates naturally to busy scenes.

This is a predisposition we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. It was a matter of survival. In the jungle, our unobservant forebears died. The proto-humans who lived to pass on their genes were the ones looking around, alert to the possibility of friend, foe, or food. If that rock looked to you like a mushroom or a fallen fruit, you might investigate and, sure enough, score! And if you thought that crooked stick looked like a snake, you might be right again and, by avoiding it, spare yourself a poisonous bite on the foot.

“We’re designed for visual variety,” said Sussman. “Half of the sensory information going to your brain is visual.” And above all, because we’re social animals, the human brain is fundamentally oriented to pick up patterns of faces in everything it sees. Check out the “heat map” representation of how test subjects viewed a 19th-century carriage house, at left.

Cambridge school vs Queens library

Note, too, how much less subjects bothered to look at the spare, modern Queens Library, on the right. (Not that Sussman argues all modern architecture is bad. She cites, for example, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles for its great use of repeating patterns.)

Now you know

It’s time, Sussman said, for architects to catch up to the designers at Nissan and Apple, who already design to the subconscious. “It’s for us as building designers to understand these [evolutionary] constraints and build within them. It won’t make us less as a designer; I’d argue it makes us more successful.”

For unlike the assembly-line products of Nissan and Apple, each building constructed is a single, stand-alone product. The eye-catching buildings that people will want to preserve a hundred years from now are those which they can see themselves in (literally).

Sussman acknowledged that her message may not be easy for architects to hear, but she is predicting a paradigm shift. Architects will have to adapt to the science—and builders should adapt along with them. Perhaps we can use CAVE presentations to test how people react to a building in its virtual design stage. Perhaps biometric data will lead to a resurgence of detailed facades, a boom in craftsmanship. Maybe in another century, people will gaze with fondness at the ornate high-rises of the 2020s and say, “Those buildings were built to last.”

People Look Graphic

More resources

This post was a collaboration between Suffolk Construction’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis and Content Writer Patrick Kennedy. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com and Patrick can be reached at pkennedy@suffolk.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

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