How We See Architecture

Ryan Davis, Assoc. DBIA

There are many factors that contribute to great Architecture.  One very important factor is our visual perception of the built environment and the elements that contribute to the pleasure we derive from what we see.

How the mind interprets forms and patterns is the subject of Gestalt psychology (Gestalt, German for “form” or “shape”).   It is through this study and the understanding of our brain’s hardwired inner workings that Architects are better able to design buildings that are pleasing to the eye.

So what is it about Architecture then that makes it great, beautiful, or ‘pleasing’?  Is it merely in the eye of the beholder?  Is it subjective? Why does something look “just right” to you?   Is the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner doing the same things as the guy who drew up your local big box store?  Well, it all depends…

Our mind, without us necessarily knowing it, organizes visual data using certain built-in preferences such as:

Proximity: Click Link

Repetition: Our mind will equate things as equal (spacing, etc.) when we see more of them, even though they might not actually be equal.

Simplest and Largest Figure:  Our mind will complete/subtract (from) images in order to recognize and understand the simplest and largest figure.

Figure/Ground Relationship: Click Link

The ‘parts’ we perceive are greater than the whole.  Each part or element contributes to what we perceive as the ‘whole’ and thus how we interpret and enjoy it.  It is order out of visual chaos.

Important Elements that contribute to our “delight” in seeing Architecture include:

Proportion: The mind seeks out mathematical and geometrical relationships whether we like it or not.  Some are more pleasing than others.  This concept is as old as time and is the foundation and basis for not only Art and Architecture, but music and many other sciences.                        The most well known proportional system in architecture is based on the Golden Section or Golden Mean. Also see, Modular.

Scale: The relationship of the building and all its elements to the average size of the human body.  It is our perception of how ‘big’ things are and/or supposed to be.  The parts (e.g. doors, windows, etc) relate to the whole and give us visual clues to piece together a full concept of what we are looking at and how big it is. When elements are ‘out of scale’ our minds typically are confused by this and     therefore it is less enjoyable.  More information on Scale in Architecture.

Rhythm: Click here for more on Rhythm in Architecture and an exercise.

Texture: In terms of building materials/methods, both optical (visual pattern at the large scale as compared to smaller local human scale) and tactile (what can be physically felt by the human being). Each greatly affects our perception, feelings, and understanding of a building.

Light and Color: One of the most powerful element in the perception of Architecture. Without light we do not see, and the light determines ‘what’ we see.  Colors can affect our mood and change the perception of elements.

Our mind looks for these elements whether we like it or not.  It is wired into us as human beings.  These principles are all around us in nature and we experience them every minute of every day.  The design of great architecture is not accident.

Whether it is a big box store, or any other building, if it is designed with these principles in mind then it should prove to be good Architecture and pleasing to the eye.   What is pleasing to the eye should draw more attention and hopefully customers thus helping your bottom line.


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