Apr 16 2018
Posted by Peter Wislocki

Objective Aesthetics

Neuroscience has a place in architectural design

Whilst my architectural solutions business has an excellent record of playing by the rules of the planning system - maximising the density and value of real estate assets, without causing harm to any adjoining owners or occupiers - our failures have tended to occur when planning officers or, much more frequently, elected counsellors, bowing to the noisy protests of their angry but ill-informed electors, rejected our proposals because they were perceived as being out of character. In other words, whilst our design may have satisfied every single objective criterion under planning policies, a handful of people, with no formal training in architecture, art, urban planning, philosophy or any other relevant discipline, simply decided that it diverged from the comfort zone of familiar styles and appearances too much to be acceptable.

Can aesthetics be objective?

So is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Should planning decisions – which affect not only land values and developers’ profits but wider social and ecological agendas – be down to ‘this looks nice’ or ‘this looks ugly’? The reality is often depressingly close to this absurd formulation of the issue.
Aesthetics are a branch of philosophy, which (with humble apologies to my philosopher friends) tends not lend itself to objective, quantitative measures – but I’d like to challenge this. The key discipline is neuroscience; and the starting point is proportion. In Classical art and architecture, and particularly since the Renaissance and right up to Le Corbusier and beyond, the golden section – a rectangle whose height and width differ (in either direction) by a ratio of approximately 1:618 – has been regarded as the most beautifully proportioned. Squares and circles have also been seen as having not only innate beauty, but being embodiments of the divine (without getting into too much neo-Platonism for this blog) but the golden section stands out because it is less ‘pure’ yet equally, if not more attractive. Or so the theory goes.

It’s not what we say we like, it’s what our neurons respond to

Thanks to the generous support of Professor Rafał Ohme of Neurohme, Warsaw-based neuroscientist with an international reputation, we’ve managed to subject the theory to a very rigorous test. Taking windows as prime elements of building designs, we showed a range of photographs of windows of varying proportions to a statistically representative sample of people, and studied their neurological responses to each of these windows. Whilst our methodology was crude – further tests are planned, which should produce more scientifically credible results, which we hope to publish in refereed journals and present at conferences in due course – we have already found that people tended to be stimulated, and positively aroused by windows with proportions approximating to the golden section more than to windows with other proportions.

Neuroscience and urban design

As architects, we can therefore be assured that what we were taught as architecture school about the golden section being intrinsically, transcendentally beautiful is true – and that, all other factors being equal, we would do well to design our buildings with windows of this shape. But the application of neuroscience to the composition of architectural elevations could potentially have much more impact. Imagine a design toolkit, design manual and set of legally enforceable planning policies promoting approaches to design which are not based on the random prejudices of small numbers of local politicians and disgruntled neighbours, but the scientifically measured responses of a much more representative sample of disinterested human subjects. Who do you trust more to determine the outcome of a planning application? A planning committee, or a neuroscientist?