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Making the Case for Symmetrical Cities

The architect Ann Sussman argues urban design should pay more attention to cognitive science.

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

Next time I’m feeling stressed out, now I know what I should do: head down to Charles Street in Beacon Hill in Boston. No, not for a pint of Guinness at The Sevens. Just to look at the architecture.

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.

A symmetrically pleasing edifice in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. (Suzane M / Shutterstock.com)

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. Firmitas, utilitas, venustas—that is, solid, useful, and beautiful—we know from Vitruvius, are characteristics baked into architecture as an imitation of nature. Leonardo da Vinci, Le Corbusier and many others recognized the strange power of mathematical alignment. More recently, the Congress for the New Urbanism reminds us that great places built in traditional design make us feel good. The theory of how this all works is detailed in A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

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? I wonder if one possible result is a restraint on creativity, and cookie-cutter boredom.

Although if boring, in the form of the crescents of Bath, is what we like, far be it for me to argue with a few million years of evolution.

Top image: InavanHateren / Shutterstock.com

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