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Old Posted Oct 10, 2015, 7:30 PM
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M II A II R II K M II A II R II K is offline
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Cognitive Architecture, Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment

Making the Case for Symmetrical Cities

Oct 8, 2015


Read More: http://www.citylab.com/design/2015/1...cities/409690/


The symmetry of red brick, perfectly positioned front doors and 12-pane windows has a soothing effect. It tells us all is well in the world, that there is order, and indeed that we’re connected to that equilibrium. In evolutionary terms, we sense a friendly environment; we’re going to have food, and we’re not going to be eaten. Survival of the tidiest.

- Can so much really be wrapped up in what we see? So says the architect Ann Sussman, co-author with Justin B. Hollander of Cognitive Architecture, Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment. “The brain sees the symmetrical faster,” she said at a talk recently at the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston. “We see what nature wants us to see.” --- Over time, mammals have developed a way to prioritize visual processing, to make split decisions about friend or foe. One of the most instantly processed images is the symmetrical face—eyes, nose, and mouth—and we feel better when we see it (this is true even though, researchers now posit, facial symmetry does not appear to be connected to good health).

- For whatever reason, our brains seem to have symmetry pre-ordered, in copy and paste, on auto-dial. The pre-set brain is “at the ready to perceive upright face-like input instantaneously,” Sussman wrote recently in Metropolis. “We create our worldview via this evolutionary ‘scrim’, or blueprint, subconsciously seeking out faces everywhere, all the time.” --- Understanding the dynamic of that instant satisfaction, she says, could lead to better architecture, urban design, and placemaking. It has long been established that well-tailored design is pleasing not only to the eye but the soul, though the reasons for that have always been somewhat mysterious.

- What’s different about the gospel that Sussman is spreading is that it’s backed up by neuroscience. And, she says, entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs have long since figured out how to monetize our built-in preferences in what we see. It’s no accident the iPhone is a golden rectangle. --- “Your subconscious is the gateway to your pocketbook,” says Sussman, who is fascinated by the cottage industry of where the consumer’s eye goes first, whether looking at an advertisement, a website, or an app. “Computer scientists are living this. They're obsessed.” It is the design professions that could really use some of this focus-testing, she suggests.

- Modernists in the era of urban renewal missed the mark in anticipating the human response to places and spaces, and the result is millions devoted to the retrofitting of barren sites like City Hall Plaza in Boston. To get it right on the first go, just take a trip, virtual or otherwise, to Palladio’s Villa la Rotonda, the 1567 structure in Vicenza, Italy, that has inspired hundreds of monumental public buildings, including the White House. --- There’s something a bit triumphant and scolding about this, inherent in the neo-traditional and classical approach to design. The bottom line seems to be, why bother trying anything new, when we’ve already figured out what constitutes good design?


A symmetrically pleasing edifice in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

The classical Villa la Rotonda, designed by Andrea Palladio, in Vincenza, Italy. (InavanHateren / Shutterstock.com)

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Old Posted Oct 11, 2015, 8:42 PM
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I used to be very interested in proportioning systems (I still am for that matter) but years later all I've learned is that proportion systems have no scientific basis, despite the nearly universal scientific/rational justification for their use.

The golden ratio specifically has been debunked repeatedly. People do not prefer golden rectangles over other rectangles, etc. You can inscribe golden spirals on as much as you want and all you'll prove is that you're a conspiracy theorist.

Certainly composition and proportion are outgrowths of human psychology, but to say that symmetry is the preferred arrangement is contradicted by reality. We enjoy asymmetrical natural landscapes, for example. If symmetry was the most preferred then every photograph of a person, building, or landscape would be a straight on shot with the subject centered in the frame, but in the overwhelming majority of circumstances we prefer "dynamic symmetry" (aka "asymmetry"). We consider symmetric objects to be static, and when we apply human characteristics to them we usually use words like imposing or cold. Meanwhile asymmetric objects and compositions are considered to be friendly, rich, and lively. Faces are symmetric in real life and yet when we draw cartoons we almost always make them asymmetric. This is not to say that we do not enjoy symmetry as well, we frequently do. Symmetry is a form of visual order that gives coherence to an environment, but there are all kinds of completely chaotic environments, like forests, outdoor markets, and slum cities that we also enjoy. We like our symmetrical buildings but we also like our symmetrical buildings covered in fire escapes and neon signs. The reality is that different cultures, different places, and different times, enjoy a wide variety of visual compositions, which should not be possible if either our biology or the underlying structure of the universe says a certain thing is supposed to be the "truth".

And throughout history that is what proportion systems boils down to. It's not so much about the proportions themselves as it is about expressing a world view. For a very long time it was thought that mathematics and geometry and all of the related fields (music) were the at the heart of nature, and thus the heart of god, and so in order to make godly architecture that is harmonious with divinity you had to use a certain proportioning system (there were several ideas and they changed over time). Gothic architecture uses geometric constructions (using a compass and inscribing shapes and stuff) while renaissance architecture uses harmonic proportions (whole number ratios, like 1:2 or 1:3). Non-christian religions have also had similar relationships with proportioning systems.

Eventually secular forces took over. It was still thought that underlying nature were proportion systems. However instead of thinking that nature was the creation of god, it was emphasized more that humans were a part of nature. And since we were biologically (inspired by recent advances in science) linked to nature, we needed to employ certain proportion systems that are supposedly found in nature in order to create harmonious environments for ourselves.

In the 1950s as the prewar modernism was faltering there was a resurgence in the comforting rules of proportion systems. Different people had different reasons for their new found interest. Le Corbusier got really deep into it and create his own system, Le Modulor, which combines the Fibonacci sequence with the golden ratio, and scales them to human dimensions. I personally found it to be the most rigorous system created. It combined all of the common elements of past systems and was completely internally consistent.

This article is very obviously written by the current camp of proportion believers. New urbanism, neo traditionalism, Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Palladio... you're waiting for the requisite jab at Boston City Hall, and it finally shows up, followed by a brief mention of Bath.

All of these groups throughout history have used the same handful of ingredients for their magic proportion systems, each with different motivations and justifications. How can that be?

(There are also some interesting arguments against proportion systems that are especially related to the symmetry argument. Human perception does not exist in flat 2d elevations, it exists in 3d perspective, so except in head on views we never actually perceive any of the shapes as how they're drawn. Symmetrical buildings are always lopsided and golden rectangles are always skewed. Rectangles are always trapezoids, and so on.)

All that said, everything needs to have a shape, and if you want to make that rectangle a golden rectangle you're welcome to. Just don't think that it has supernatural powers above all other rectangles.
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