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.
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.