Furthering the Debate

by | Jan 15, 2018 | Excerpts

John Cleese, in his 2014 book So, Anyway, recounts the strange reaction of an audience at a rehearsal/preview of a London comedy show: “We were not getting the laughs we were accustomed to. […] Then some of the audience started laughing at things no one had ever previously laughed at. […] [W]e were bewildered.” What the performers found was that the tickets had been sold primarily to a conference of psychiatrists. Apparently psychiatrists have a sense of humour that is fundamentally different from that of a less biased population sample. People’s behaviour is frequently surprising.

In a recent article in The Globe and Mail entitled “alt-right vs. the avant-garde” (July 10, 2017), Russell Smith ranted about modernist architecture and its theoretical links with some sort of exclusive, almost subversive, movement of left-wing liberal intellectuals, who create buildings they like, and ignore the preferences of what might be termed the “plain, honest working-class” right. But is that really the case? Without evidence, it is just talk and supposition.

Frequently architectural debate turns into this sort of confrontation between connoisseurs of design and the wider population. While it is obvious that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” there is also a considerable body of research that reveals how and why people (including architects) respond to buildings, streetscapes and natural environments. In other words, normal response to design aesthetics is entirely predictable. Unfortunately, this research usually appears in academic psychology or neuroscience journals, so it rarely finds it way into architectural discussion.

An excellent example of this connoisseur-pubic discrepancy is the Art Museum in Graz, Austria. The building is largely the work of Sir Peter Cook, one of the great architectural theorists of the 20th century, whose lectures I enthusiastically attended as an undergraduate. In my research, I have included an image of this Museum in a collection of images that I show to subjects. The overall responses in the UK and Canada have confirmed that the wider public does not respond well to this building. What is more interesting is that, in workshop sessions, architects and other building professionals (who might be seen as proxies for the nasty avant-garde intellectuals) ranked it even lower – in fact, placing it last among all the buildings being assessed.

Much research supports John Cleese’s experience that experts in specific fields – which, along with psychiatrists, might include foodies, professional musicians and architects – tend to evaluate things differently than the wider population. This appears to provide further evidence that generalized assumptions about group preferences are always inappropriate and often wrong.

With regard to the Graz Art Museum, the difference in opinion between connoisseurs and everyone else is not really relevant. The main point is that somehow a building has been designed that manages to evoke a positive response from hardly anyone. This reveals a chronic problem in the profession: architectural visual design is rarely based on research findings. The evidence is available, and if the appropriate investigation had taken place in this case, the near-universal distaste for this building could have been predicted. Without sensible evidence-based debate, it is difficult to improve the quality of the design of our buildings and cities.

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