Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The physiognomy of buildings

Another point that Victoria  Haines' made in her Ecobuild presentation on research for CALEBRE on user barriers to retrofit has been rattling around in my mind. This was the observation that windows are particularly cherished as features that define the character of their homes. When people are considering improvements they are often concerned about the impact that alterations to windows will have on the character of their homes and are reluctant to change them, often knowing more about them than 'the experts'.

Is this just sentiment or an indication of something deeper? The observation highlighted an issue that has been intriguing me for a little while - the emotional connection between people and the appearance of a building. Not so much the building as a whole, but specifically the composition of the facade. Our former partner Jonathan Hale's probings on the relationship between architecture and the body suggest this area is under researched. We are used to thinking about this in aesthetic or performance rather than psychological terms.

There's been a lot in the news recently about the autism spectrum and Asperger's syndrome - even the recent dramatisation of the novel 'The curious incident of the dog in the night-time' drawing attention to it.  Sufferers have difficulties developing empathetic relationships with other people and have  impaired non-verbal behaviour such as poor eye contact or a total inability to read facial expressions.  

Whilst physiognomy - the practice of assessing a person's character by interpretation of their face - might be seen as pseudoscience, an appreciation of the importance of understanding body language or 'kinesics' in communication, leadership and successful group work has become mainstream. We make constant conscious and subconscious readings and judgements about people's character and mood by their appearance and gestures which we do well to recognise. 

I think there is a useful parallel with buildings, and that reading the facade in anthropomorphic terms can help develop a richer narrative about it - a new physiognomy of buildings.  As well as analysing a facade in functional and cultural terms, we should listen more closely to our emotional response. 

By ignoring or seeing as irrelevant the potential for this reading, we are in danger of suffering from a kind of Asperger's syndrome of architecture.

People often talk of windows as being the eyes of a building. Knowing how important eyes are to communication between people, it would not be surprising if windows added more to its character than other elements of the architectural composition.  As we demand more of our building envelopes to improve thermal comfort and control energy flows, we must not lose sight of those emotional responses that make us comfortable in our environment.  The CALEBRE research suggests the great retrofit mission might founder unless these too are recognised.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Colin - I enjoyed reading your piece. And thanks a lot for mentioning my blog. Yes, there's certainly a link with my own interest in 'architecture and embodiment'. One connection is around the idea of anthropomorphism in architecture. Marco Frascari has written about it in 'Monsters of Architecture', and the philosophers Lakoff and Johnson have done something similar in relation to the anthropomorphic source of many metaphors in language (in 'Metaphors We Live By'). On the question of emotional connections with architectural form, the late 19th Century German idea of 'empathy' is a good source. Harry Mallgrave has translated some of this material and written a nice summary of it recently in 'The Architect's Brain' (Wiley, 2010). There is a suggestion that we 'read' all three-dimensional forms intuitively by some reference to our own bodies, perhaps because we initially develop the internal 'body schema' that helps us get around in the world out of a three-way relationship of self, other and the objects we encounter (and see others encountering) from an early age. But as you suggest, the face does seem to have a peculiarly powerful place in all this - perhaps because the face of the mother is the first thing (more or less!) that we all see when we first open our eyes on the world. And neuroscientists have also apparently identified a dedicated place in the brain where the recognition of faces is processed and stored - the 'facial fusiform area' – and which also responds to some face-like objects. And there’s also the famous 'Jennifer Aniston Cells’ in the medial temporal lobe that respond to the name as well as the image of specific individuals, as described by a Leicester University professor: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/engineering/people/academic-staff/rodrigo-quian-quiroga

    To drill down further - from faces to eyes - may be a bit more difficult, although as you say, eye contact is clearly an important indicator of emotional connection. The best architectural example I can think of right now is the comedy house in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle with the ‘eye-balls’ moving in the windows – probably not a very useful reference in this particular context..!