five times a

analyzing architecture at any angle

Month: November, 2013

/txt/ Do these buildings turn you on? The strange psychology of curvy architecture

Zaha Hadid's design for the Qatar 2022 World Cup stadium attracted criticism for its resemblance to a certain part of the female anatomy. She says that it was inspired by the sail of a dhow, a traditional Arab fishing boat, but we leave it to you to decide.Zaha Hadid’s design for the Qatar 2022 World Cup stadium attracted criticism for its resemblance to a certain part of the female anatomy. She says that it was inspired by the sail of a dhow, a traditional Arab fishing boat, but we leave it to you to decide.
  • There has been a flurry of ultra curvy building proposals of late
  • New research suggests our attraction to soft lines rooted in psyche
  • One design expert believes it’s all related to sex

(CNN) — Are things looking a little wavy to you?

From London’s “Gherkin” to the “Marilyn Monroe” Towers in Ontario, when traveling through most of the world’s major cities, you’d be forgiven for thinking that town planners had tried to baby-proof new buildings by imposing a strict ban on right-angles.

Indeed, if a flurry of new landmark building proposals are anything to go by, things are about to get a whole lot curvier.

Last week, Zaha Hadid unveiled her design for the 2022 World Cup soccer stadium in Qatar. Inspired by the dhow, a traditional Qatari fishing boat, its sensual roof curves and bends, like a free-flowing sail in the wind.

At the same time, the Cupertino city council gave Apple final approval for Apple Campus 2 — its massive new headquarters designed by starchitect Norman Foster. With an ultra-orbital shape and curving glass exterior, the building resembles a shimmering spaceship that has landed delicately in the fields of California.

And these are just two examples plucked from an ever-swelling list of proposed major structures with curling, sinuous and twisting features.

Nature vs nurture

It’s tempting to think that this wave of wavy buildings merely reflects the dominant fashion of the age. But a growing body of research suggests that a strong preference for curvy shapes may in fact be hard-wired into the human brain.

Psychologists have been toying with the idea that we respond to curves more positively than sharp lines for at least a century.

“Curves are in general felt to be more beautiful than straight lines,” announced psychologist Kate Gordon in 1909. “They are more graceful and pliable, and avoid the harshness of some straight lines.”

Now, more than a century later, a psychologist at the University of Toronto has put this conjecture to the test.

Oshin Vartanian and his colleagues slipped a group of people inside a brain-scanning machine and flashed hundreds of interior designs — some curvy, some angular — in front of them. They then had the choice of describing each room as either “beautiful” or “not beautiful.”

Some of the rooms had a round style like this

The study found that participants overwhelmingly preferred interior spaces with curving coffee tables, meandering sofas and winding floor patterns to rooms filled with angular furniture and rectilinear design.

But here’s the really juicy bit: Vartanian’s brain scans showed that curvy designs led to a burst of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region of the brain known to contribute to emotional experiences — whereas rooms filled with sharp corners and perpendicular lines did not.

Others had a rectilinear form, like this

In other words, it looks like our brain circuitry comes pre-installed with an emotional attachment to rounded forms.

But why?

Paul Silvia, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, believes that a positive response to curves may spring from our relationship with natural environments.

Between vast rolling hills and gently contoured flower petals, right-angles are a rarity in the great-outdoors.

“Curved buildings can point to nature, whereas angular buildings contrast with it,” he says. “Instead of blending into the environment or evoking natural themes, they stand apart from it by using one of the few shapes you never see in nature—a perfect box.”

Silvia also points out that we’re all born attuned to human faces. As anyone who’s ever held a baby knows, their large round eyes frequently trigger uncontrollable feelings of warmth.

“Curved and rounded objects are so much more familiar that they seem more natural and ‘right,'” he says.

On the other hand, sharp objects can appear decidedly wrong.Research from Harvard Medical School found that the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, is significantly more active when people view angular objects, such as a sofa with sharp corners or a square watch, than when looking at curvier alternatives.

Rules of attraction

Hadid’s soccer stadium in Qatar has been compared to a vagina, a description she has distanced herself from. But Stephen Bayley, a British architecture critic and the former chief executive of London’s Design Museum, is convinced there is a sexual element in our response to curves.

“For reasons hidden in the foundations of the brain’s architecture, a curve, because it suggests warmth and well-being and harmony, touches a more profound part of the psyche than a parallelogram,” he says. “Maybe this is because a woman’s breasts are generally not right-angled.”

The instinct to appreciate curves may be hard-wired, but that doesn’t mean architects will follow the instinct indefinitely. Fads tend to fall out of favor, only to re-emerge years later.

Bayley remembers how, several years ago, Norman Foster constructed an “unapologetically square building” for his London headquarters. A few years later he built a “wantonly curvaceous” residential building right next door. There is a clear lesson. “At this historic moment curves get a high approval rating,” Bayley says. “But, as the rule of taste suggests, that will change again soon.”





/txt/ Cognition & Architecture

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, which some posit makes domestic bliss impossible – due to its lack of a psychological ‘hearth’ space and private space.

The roots of modernism lie, according to many, in a desire to transcend the ‘ornament’ that characterized traditionally middle- to lower-class aspirations towards the aristocracy (or at least a life of greater net-worth). The dawning self-awareness that excessive ornamentation reflects a desperation for social and financial success may have spurred the drive towards austerity and minimalism in design. Who hasn’t looked at someone wearing a crystal-encrusted Ed Hardy shirt and promised themselves they would never buy anything except MUJI t-shirts, ever again?

But: to what extent does science validate the idea that modernism is evidence of evolution?

Highlights from Unhappy Hipsters, the tumblr lampooning the atmospheric glamor shots found in modern design magazines.

Psychology has long played a part in the discussion on modernity. Take Adolph Loos: in “Ornament and Crime,” he posits that ornamentation and decoration are symptoms of psychological weaknesses (my personal favorite quote from that infamous essay:“Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.” YIKES!) Anyways, the idea that a minimal life means a more meaningful life is a symptom of this value system, set up to promote the notion that human evolution will favor simplicity for excess.

Turns out, the angular, stark geometries that may seem ‘free’ of the psychologically-loaded baggage that, say, a rococo drawing room brings with it actually trigger negative stimuli in the brain. A 2007 study in Neuropsychologia proved that unusual, angular geometries activates your amygdala – the part of your brain associated with emotional memory and fear. There are many ways to explain this – for example, your reptilian mind may associate bleak, stark landscapes with inhospitable spaces your ancient self wouldn’t be able to survive. The study suggests that our conscious and unconscious minds have very different ideas about what a ‘good’ space is – and that we may train ourselves to believe that minimalism is spatially pleasing.

OMA’s Seattle Public Library, which a study suggests confuses users because of the complexity of its form. Image (c) lmna architects.

But to what extent this value system actually does engage a “higher plane” or evolutionary instinct in humans is.. uh, debatable. In fact, some argue that the modernism at what is mostly considered its “best” is actually pretty worthless to anyone without an education in space and, generally, architectural history.

Case in point: A new study suggest that that architects – who, unsurprisingly, tend to have highly developed spatial reasoning – may often design spaces difficult for normal brains to conceive of – resulting in the psychological distress that comes with getting lost all the time. You see, we assume that what sets designers apart from the general populace is what qualifies them to shape our spaces. And to a certain extent, that reasoning holds up. But on the other hand, a brain that can easily process complex spatial ideas can’t anticipate what would confuse a person with less of a grip on 3D reasoning. So we end up with buildings that make life, in some regards, more difficult than it needs to be for most of the population.

Polshek Partnership’s Brooklyn Museum of Art addition, which has been cited by many as an example of architectural cognitive dissonance. Image (c) StructureHub.

Obviously, Loos’ Prussian over-excitement about minimalism was only an early chapter in the narrative about modernism – critical regionalism and phenomenology got real and brought human comfort and the organic back into the discussion decades later. But it’s an interesting problem – does pop-psychology help or hurt architecture and, by extension, the public?




/vid/ Paula Scher: Great design is serious, not solemn

Paula Scher looks back at a life in design (she’s done album covers, books, the Citibank logo …) and pinpoints the moment when she started really having fun. Look for gorgeous designs and images from her legendary career.




/vid/ Jinsop Lee: Design for all 5 senses

Good design looks great, yes — but why shouldn’t it also feel great, smell great and sound great? Designer Jinsop Lee (a TED Talent Search winner) shares his theory of 5-sense design, with a handy graph and a few examples. His hope: to inspire you to notice great multisensory experiences.

Jinsop Lee

A former professor of design, Jinsop Lee founded the firm Uncle Oswald Is My Hero, which produces clever iPod speakers from old telephone handsets. And we’ll let him take it from here:

“My design background began when I was 5 years old. My mother cruelly refused to buy me a Star Wars X-wing fighter, so I built my own from Lego. Yes, I was the traumatized little boy in the corner of the playground holding the multi-coloured Lego X-wing fighter. However, this did teach me an important lesson: You don’t have to follow the instructions that come with the box.

As an adult, I started my career as a suit-wearing design consultant, designing stuff and strategies for large companies. I then spent a mandatory two years in the Korean Army without killing anybody. Then I began teaching English, which eventually led to a job as an associate professor of industrial design. Being a professor means you’re designing the most important thing of all: students and the type of designers they will later become.

“Now I am working on a series of short videos about industrial design. Each video follows a simple formula: the viewer must learn something new about design while laughing (or snickering) an average of two times per minute. It turns out the second criteria is much harder than the first.”




/pic/ Integrative Transparency: Louvre-Lens by SANAA

The decentralisation of French cultural institutions continues. After the Centre Pompidou in Metz, the most frequently visited museum in the world has also opted for expansion in a provincial area. The annex of the Louvre in the northern French city of Lens is intended to revitalise the structurally weak Nord-Pas de Calais region –- but without blatantly imposing on it. The new museum was officially inaugurated by the President of France on 4 December 2012.

Architects: SANAA Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa, Tokyo
Location: rue Paul Bert, F-62300 Lens





/book/ Ways of Seeing

How do we see the world around us? The Penguin on Design series includes the works of creative thinkers whose writings on art, design and the media have changed our vision forever.

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

“But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the (London) Sunday Times critic commented: “This is an eye-opener in more ways than one: by concentrating on how we look at paintings . . . he will almost certainly change the way you look at pictures.” By now he has.




/book/ Environmental psychology: principles and practice

A comprehensive, current resource for the growing field of environmental psychology.A complete view of research and practice in Environmental Psychology, this book clearly explains the complex nature of person-environment interaction, and each chapter offers several real-life design applications based on research in the field.






/book/ Inquiry by Design: Tools for Environment-Behavior Research

A lively, non-technical explanation of how, to integrate research and design and how to carry out research on people and groups that is useful to designers. The book explains how to tailor sociological, psychological, and anthropological methods for the study of environment behaviour issues such as how to prevent tourists from getting lost in a city or how to build low income housing projects that will not be vandalised. Social scientists, designers, architects, and planners will appreciate this practical account of how and when, in programming, design reviews, and evaluation, to undertake environment behaviour research.






Can a Norwegian firm solve the problems of Times Square?


ANNALS OF ARCHITECTURE about Snøhetta, a Norwegian architecture firm, and its plans to redesign Times Square. The firm, whose first American commission was for an entrance pavilion at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, was chosen by New York City to, in effect, redesign Times Square—one of the city’s most famous landmarks and, for residents, perhaps its most despised one. A third of a million people pass through the square daily, yet the visitors are mainly tourists and their predators, and when the big theatres let out on summer evenings the human crush can seem cataclysmic. Among Snøhetta’s goals is to reconfigure the space in such a way that city residents will stop walking blocks out of their way to avoid it. Construction is expected to begin this summer. Snøhetta is named for an object (a mountain in central Norway) rather than for a star partner or partners. There are two principals, both in their fifties: in Oslo, Kjetil Thorsen, who is Norwegian; and in New York Craig Dykers, who is American but has spent most of his life in Europe, including sixteen years in Norway. Both downplay their personal contributions to the firm’s designs, and neither has an instantly recognizable style. Dykers described Snøhetta’s approach as “collectivist,” and said that “anyone can suggest anything about anything.” Thorsen called the firm’s ethos “open, direct, accessible, egalitarian—strange value words that don’t mean anything until you see what they do.” Describes a number of the firm’s other projects. The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, in Oslo, resembles a glacier that’s calving great wedges of glass and white marble, and its roof—which slants upward from the harbor and seems to emerge from the water—has become a busy public square. Parents push baby carriages to the top; tourists pull suitcases from the train station; swimmers, sunbathers, kayakers, and swans treat the western edge as a beach. During the building’s inaugural performance, a young couple were discovered making love above the auditorium. One of the architects says he considered their act both a compliment and the building’s “consummation.” Describes the firm’s design for the new Library of Alexandria, in Egypt; for the new World Trade Center Pavilion; for an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and for the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center Pavilion, in Hjerkinn, Norway. Discusses the firm’s approach to crowds: much crowd behavior is predictable, Dykers said, but it isn’t perceived consciously by the crowds themselves; this informs Snøhetta’s sense of how people move through unfamiliar spaces. Mentions Dykers’ brother, who suffered a cerebral aneurysm and, as a consequence of surgery that was intended to repair it, lost his ability to remember new things. He has inadvertently helped Dykers in his work as an architect, because his brain injury, Dykers said, makes him a perfectly naïve test subject. “He can’t rely on memory to navigate through spaces…. So I watch him, and try to understand what clues he’s using to move through unfamiliar surroundings.” Writer walks with Dykers through Times Square, and learns about the changes the firm plans to make.




/txt/ The Psychology of Architecture


We spend our lives inside buildings, our thoughts shaped by their walls. Nevertheless, there’s surprisingly little research on the psychological implications of architecture. How do different spaces influence cognition? Is there an ideal kind of architectural structure for different kinds of thinking?

At the moment, I think we’re only beginning to grasp the relevant variables of design. Christian Jarrett, for instance, highlights a new study on curved versus rectilinear furniture. The study itself was simple: subjects viewed a series of rooms filled with different kinds of couches and lounge chairs. The results were bad for fans of high modernism – furniture defined by straight edges was rated as far less appealing and approachable. Sorry, Corbusier.

Or consider this 2009 experiment, published in Science. The psychologists, at the University of British Columbia, were interested in looking at how the color of interior walls influence the imagination. They recruited six hundred subjects, most of them undergraduates, and had them perform a variety of basic cognitive tests displayed against red, blue or neutral colored backgrounds.

The differences were striking. When people took tests in the red condition – they were surrounded by walls the color of a stop sign – they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory.  According to the scientists, this is because people automatically associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware.

The color blue, however, carried a completely different set of psychological benefits. While people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on those requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy out of simple geometric shapes.  In fact, subjects in the blue condition generated twice as many “creative outputs” as subjects in the red condition. That’s right: the color of a wall doubled our imaginative power.

What accounts for this effect? According to the scientists, the color blue automatically triggers associations with the sky and ocean. We think about expansive horizons and diffuse light, sandy beaches and lazy summer days. This sort of mental relaxation makes it easier for us daydream and think in terms of tangential associations; we’re less focused on what’s right in front of us and more aware of the possibilities simmering in our imagination.

Lastly, the psychologist Joan Meyers-Levy, at the Carlson School of Management, conducted an interesting experiment that examined the relationship between ceiling height and thinking style. She demonstrated that, when people are in a low-ceilinged room, they are much quicker at solving anagrams involving confinement, such as “bound,” “restrained” and “restricted.” In contrast, people in high-ceilinged rooms excel at puzzles in which the answer touches on the theme of freedom, such as “liberated” and “unlimited.” According to Levy, this is because airy spaces prime us to feel free.

Furthermore, Levy found that rooms with lofty ceilings also lead people to engage in more abstract styles of thinking. Instead of focusing on the particulars of things, they’re better able to zoom out and see what those things have in common.  (It’s the difference between “item-specific” versus “relational” processing.) Sometimes, of course, we want to focus on the details of an object or problem, in which case a claustrophobic basement is probably ideal. However, when we need to come up with a creative solution, then we should probably seek out a more expansive space. Especially if it has blue walls.

Needless to say, we’re only beginning to grasp how the insides of buildings influence the inside of the mind. For now, it’s safe to say that tasks involving accuracy and focus – say, copyediting a manuscript, or doing some algebra – are best suited for short spaces with red walls. In contrast, tasks that require a little bit of creativity and abstract thinking benefit from high ceilings, lots of windows and bright blue walls that match the sky. The point is that architecture has real cognitive consequences, even if we’re just beginning to learn what they are.