Visual Arts Commentary: Reordering Design Priorities Through Biometrics Research

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By Mark Faverman

The approach to cognitive architecture adopted by the Human Architecture and Planning Institute applies a welcome new paradigm that responds in a new way to the built environment.

The Palladium, eye tracking with iMotions software that creates heatmaps that glow red where it has detected humans look the most. The green spaces show the statues which also attract people’s attention. Courtesy of Human Institute of Architecture and Planning, Inc.

In what now seems to be the antediluvian era of the 70s, when I was a graduate student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), my favorite classes were environmental psychology and the sociology of design. Given changes in technologies, methodologies, environmental concerns, as well as economies of scale affecting all levels of urban policy and policy, these areas of focus seemed to have changed the least over the past half-century. century. What I learned then is the only thing that I still apply today in my practice of urban design.

By the mid-1980s, these “softer” courses had been dropped from the GSD curriculum. Of course, we were told that the study of architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning readily incorporated these ideas into more rigidly structured programming, which involved studios. Harvard’s GSD is generally ranked as the #1 design school in the world, so many others model their programs on what they do. This approach has become standard worldwide. And that’s unfortunate, because this loss of environmental design and designers has come at a huge cost.

However, in recent decades, a few thoughtful, albeit marginalized, voices have complained about this structured lack of human – and even human – sensitivity regarding environmental design. One of them is the Human Architecture and Planning Institute (theHapi.org), an organization based in Concord, MA. In a strategically interesting way, this group takes on a valuable task: trying to subvert the more conventional methods of teaching and practicing architecture and planning.

Founded by architect and educator Ann Sussman, HAPI’s mission “is to promote evidence-based design, using biometric and other tools to reveal the hidden aspects of human experience that guide our behavior in the environment. built”. The intention is to draw on cognitive science and emerging methodologies, particularly biometric research, to understand how design actually impacts people. The goal is to use this research and its findings to create happier, more rewarding, and healthier public and community experiences.

Biometric thermal mapping of the Harvard Lampoon building. Courtesy of Human Institute of Architecture and Planning, Inc.

The Institute attempts to provide access to information, education and research that increases our understanding of the psychological impact (on viewers) of how places are designed. This research involves the use of eye tracking, heat detection and other current biometric tools, and is conducted in collaboration with research universities in different parts of the world. These investigations are at the intersection of science and the built environment; a number of studies by the Institute attempt to understand why modernist designs elicit more negative reactions than older, traditional designs. Sussman suggests that, at their most primitive, human beings were primarily animals seeking to maintain and defend themselves in the savannah. Thus each environment triggers an immediate and instinctive visceral reaction. From studies, it seems that humans react the most positively to face-shaped facades.

For example, using mobile and lab-based eye-tracking tools, HAPI’s Sensing Streetscape study examines how people experience the streets of Amsterdam and Boston. Using researchers from Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the study seeks to reveal how dense, newly developed residential areas cause different experiences than in the past.

One of the close-to-home studies, carried out in collaboration and with the support of the University of Amsterdam, compares how individuals react to Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay and nearby Boylston Street. Among the questions asked: Why do we prefer one type of streetscape over another? What kind of environment makes us happier and therefore we feel better? Through the application of heat mapping, the study reveals how stimuli, when entering the human brain and body, subliminally direct our experience.

A particularly exciting study was recently carried out in New York. By incorporating tools from brain and cognitive sciences, researchers sought to understand how people perceive and experience the built environment. The results provide invaluable information on plans involving urban design and architecture. The study monitored how various facades in NYC implicitly caught the eye without the viewer being aware of it.

The study, which involved Tufts University, worked with 63 college students who were given a selection of photographs of public buildings in New York to look at. They all wore eye trackers as they viewed images displayed on a monitor in front of them. Half of the visuals displayed the design characteristics of traditional neighborhood design. These included narrow streets, intricate facades and bilateral symmetry. The other images contained contemporary sites, mostly glass and steel skyscrapers. Subjects tended to show greater eye fixation on building fenestration in older environments, as opposed to larger-scale non-traditional facades and structures.

The most provocative aspect of the HAPI approach is its ‘missing link’ theory. The contentious argument is that modern architects were influenced by major trauma, such as World War I and child abuse, and the resulting PTSD shaped the ideas of the founding fathers of modern architecture, including such luminaries as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, etc. Trauma alters the brain, carrying out the controversial claim, distorting the survivor’s perception of “reality”. Abuse survivors will conceive, unconsciously, in a way shaped by their experience of the past.

Entrance to Gropius House in Lincoln, MA. Image courtesy of Historic New England.

For Ann Sussman, this theory explains why modern architecture was so different from that of the past. It was a reflection of the horrors of the First World War, with its gas attacks and terrible trench warfare. Why has modern architecture become so empty and faceless? For her, the proof is provided by looking at the house in Lincoln, MA, built by a “founding father” of modern architecture, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus. For her, her house, built in 1938, evokes a First World War bunker.

Building on this theory of the influence of PTSD, Sussman brings his belief in the impact of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome on modern architecture. She points out that most individuals relate positively to “faces” on facades and not to curtained or walled glass and metal structures. She suggests that many modernist design practitioners suffered from autism or a form of Asperger’s, which is why their architecture is so difficult to visually embrace.

These are challenging ideas, but the precursors to modernism began decades before World War I. The elegant austerity of Japanese design was introduced to the West after the mid-19th century. The minimalist American Shaker functional style also developed throughout this century. Hancock Shaker Village’s iconic Round Stone Barn (1826) is a spectacularly attractive circular structure. Christopher Dresser, a pioneer of English industrial design at the end of the 19th century, specialized in the creation of minimalist, practical and decorative metal objects. Some of Dresser’s ironwork designs are still in production and are now manufactured by Alessi.

Pioneering German architect/graphic artist/industrial designer Peter Behrens had a long career designing significant objects, typefaces and buildings in a range of styles from the turn of the century to the 1930s. names in modernist architecture worked for his firm in its early days, including Mies, Le Corbusier and Gropius.

Biometric heat survey image of the “M” Street block in Washington, DC. Courtesy of Human Institute of Architecture and Planning, Inc.

Another figure in the transition was Belgian architect/designer Victor Horta. He began as the founder of Art Nouveau in Belgium, but he is also considered an essential precursor of modern architecture. His later work moved away from the organic thrust of Art Nouveau towards more geometric and formal approaches. He made very original use of open floor plans, steel frames and skylights to bring light into the structures.

Blending Sussman’s provocative theories with the various other components – Wiener Werkstatte, Dutch De Stijl, Russian Constructivism, Prague Cubism, German New Objectivity, French and American Art Deco – will likely bring us closer to the actual foundations of Modernist architecture.

Despite some of its questionable theoretical premises (at least as far as history is concerned), the approach to cognitive architecture adopted by the Institute for Human Architecture and Planning applies a welcome new paradigm that responds in a new to the built environment. The evolution of biometric tools will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of human behavior, meaning that professional practitioners will increasingly be able to design more human-like built environments. Now if only the established schools of architecture and planning would start teaching it seriously.


Urban planner and public artist, Marc Faverman has been deeply involved in branding, improving and creating more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of artistic fuse.

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