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On "Architectural Myopia"

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 23, 2011 09:02 AM

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Image by John Pettit, via Flickr.

Why is modern architecture so often ugly and alienating? Writing in the online journal Guernica, Michael Mehaffy, an urban development consultant, and Nikos Salingaros, a math professor, argue that the problem is, quite literally, "architectural myopia":

Laboratory results show conclusively that architects literally see the world differently from non-architects. Not only do architects notice and look for different aspects of the environment than other people; their brains seem to synthesize an understanding of the world that has notable differences from natural reality. Instead of a contextual world of harmonious geometric relationships and connectedness, architects tend to see a world of objects set apart from their contexts, with distinctive, attention-getting qualities.

There are many such confirming studies. For example, Gifford et al. (2002) surveyed other research and noted that “architects did not merely disagree with laypersons about the aesthetic qualities of buildings, they were unable to predict how laypersons would assess buildings, even when they were explicitly asked to do so.” The researchers traced this disagreement to well-known cognitive differences in the two populations: “Evidence that certain cognitive properties are related to building preference [was] found.”

The problem starts in architecture schools, where students compete for the attention of their professors by sketching buildings which are interesting-looking rather than functional. As their careers progress, architects must focus more and more on the visual aspects of their craft. Their buildings tend to be set back from the street, so that they can be better seen in their entirety; they rely on big, dramatic, simple shapes (rectangles, squares, planes). They're billboards, in effect, for architectural firms, and therefore they're intentionally designed not to fit into the city around them.

Because they're driven by visual rather than practical goals, architects, Mehaffy and Salingaros argue, have lost touch with city life. They have "no idea of how a living city functions: namely, that it operates not through the power of abstract imagery but through networks and connectivity, information exchange, and energy flows on different scales.... People will connect only if a city’s human-scale geometry creates shared spaces with the right complexity." Case-in-point: The huge brick plaza around Boston's City Hall. It makes the building easier to 'appreciate,' but at a huge cost, essentially creating wasteland in the heart of the city. More at Guernica: "The Architect Has No Clothes."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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