/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?