Architectural Myopia: Designing for Industry, Not People

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The following article originally appeared on Shareable.


We highlight a
little-understood cognitive phenomenon that may play a key role in the
maladaptive failures of the modern human environment. There are implications
for the future ability to integrate built environments into sustainable
ecosystems. By discussing vision we mean how architects interpret what they see
in front of them, not the brave new world they envision populated with their
own designs.


Seeing the World Differently.

Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and
wondered, "what were the architects thinking?" Have you looked at a supposedly
"ecological" industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly
ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you
uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and
replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking "these
architects must be blind!" New research shows that in a real sense, you might
actually be right.

Environmental psychologists have long known about this
widespread and puzzling phenomenon. Laboratory results show conclusively that
architects literally see the world differently from non-architects. Not
only do architects notice and look for different aspects of the environment
than other people; their brains seem to synthesize an understanding of the
world that has notable differences from natural reality. Instead of a contextual
world of harmonious geometric relationships and connectedness, architects tend
to see a world of objects set apart from their contexts, with distinctive,
attention-getting qualities.

Photo by Cooky Yoon.

There are many such confirming studies. For example,
Gifford et al. (2002) surveyed other research and noted that "architects did
not merely disagree with laypersons about the aesthetic qualities of buildings,
they were unable to predict how laypersons would assess buildings, even when
they were explicitly asked to do so." The researchers traced this disagreement
to well-known cognitive differences in the two populations: "Evidence that
certain cognitive properties are related to building preference [was] found."

This phenomenon has important consequences for the
kinds of structures that architects produce – consequences whose seriousness we
believe are largely under-appreciated, and, very likely in some cases,
repressed. We can begin to explain common contradictions as, for example, when
architects produce a building they clearly think is wonderful, but a large
majority of non-architects are found to hate it. The phenomenon of "architectural
myopia" may also explain the repeated mistakes that architects make in
fashioning built environments for others, which turn out to be woefully unsuccessful
in what may seem obvious ways to laypeople. Lastly, "architectural myopia"
explains the often-disastrous attempts that architects have made to fashion
urban schemes for entire neighborhoods and cities. Architects do not see how
certain designs disconnect and isolate people and create hostile environments
that cannot be shared.

We hasten to add that we do not use this observation
to criticize architects as a group. Rather, we raise it as a cautionary alert.
Every profession suffers from its own narrow perspective – its tendency to
behave like the carpenter with a hammer, who sees every problem as a nail.
Architects may only have a particularly strong variety of this narrowed view.
In that sense, "architectural myopia" may prove to be a helpful model to explain
some of the things that have gone wrong with the built environment, and ways
that we can correct them with effective compensating remedies. At a time when
we are faced with economic challenges, declining urban health, resource
depletion, climate change and a host of other ills, it seems these issues are
not trivial.


2. Academic Training is Rooted in Industrial Design.

Why do architects see the world in this unique way? In
part this seems to be because of the peculiar environment in which students of
architecture are educated (Gifford et al.,
2002). Students are typically asked to produce drawings that are pinned up next
to one another, and then evaluated in a "crit" (or critique). In such an
abstract setting, it is difficult for anyone to evaluate how well a project
integrates with its context, if at all. Moreover, projects that are especially
distinctive – object designs that stand out visually in an imaginative way by
presenting an unusual structure – tend to get more attention from the faculty,
and often, better grades. Those architects get rewarded, and selected out to be
the later stars of the profession.

This focus on object-design has a deeper history in
architecture. Up to about 1900, architects were understood to be practicing an
adaptive craft, in which a building was an inseparable part of a dynamic streetscape
and a neighborhood. "Blending in" respects the extant complex connective
geometry, where components contribute to overall coherence. A building was
assumed to meet the physiological and social needs of the people of that
neighborhood first and foremost, and only then it would express its artistic

With the coming of the industrial revolution, and its
emphasis on interchangeable parts, the traditional conception of architecture
that was adaptive to context began to change. A building became an
interchangeable industrial design product, conveying an image, and it mattered
a great deal how attention-getting that image was. The building itself became a
kind of advertisement for the client company and for the architect (and in the
case of residences, for the homeowner seeking a status symbol). The context was
at best a side issue, and at worst a distraction, from the visual excitement
generated by the object.

Peter Behrens, the father of corporate branding, was
given the challenge of developing the first architectural "branding" for the buildings of the German
Electrical Equipment Firm AEG. He did so by using elementary industrial
geometries, formed into a romantic and iconic expressive shape. The building
itself was now a kind of billboard for the company – an attention-getting new
product design in its own right. It was not a coincidence that three of his
young colleagues went on to profoundly shape architecture in the 20th
Century: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.

Their buildings all certainly celebrated the
individuated form, as objects standing dramatically apart from context. To
heighten this drama, those architects masterfully employed the then-alien new
language of early industrial technology (cubes, planes, cylinders, repeated rectangles,
etc). As we have written elsewhere, this was a kind of "geometrical
fundamentalism", combining these elementary forms to create dramatic,
attention-getting objects, fundamentally different from the model for
architecture up to that time (Salingaros, 2006). Coherence was abandoned.

Since the early modernists saw their work as a
revolution, this radical break was an important symbolic element of their
agenda. Previously, architects took relatively straightforward, human-adaptive
building types, and created elaborate ornamentations of them. These artistic
ornamentations were fantastic, exciting, moving; yet they remained within the
discipline of a human-adapted building. After the caesura of the Bauhaus, one
could mutate the entire structure to create some kind of extravagant dramatic
visual statement – perhaps sheer size, or daring engineering feats of
cantilevers and the like. Those would show our technological prowess, our
economic prosperity, or our status as enlightened moderns.

This "Novelty Spectacle" approach has become the
dominant model for architecture, remaining very much with us up to the present
day. However surprising and novel the forms of today's new architecture might appear,
they remain tightly bound within this almost century-old model. Indeed, the
Novelty Spectacle became the model not just for buildings, but also for whole

Jane Jacobs, in her classic 1961 book The Death and
Life of Great American Cities
was not kind to Le Corbusier in particular for employing this seductive (to
other architects) form of architectural drama:

"Le Corbusier's dream city has had an immense impact on our
cities. It was hailed deliriously by architects, and has gradually been
embodied in scores of projects… His city was like a wonderful mechanical toy.
Furthermore, his conception, as an architectural work, had a dazzling clarity,
simplicity and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand.
It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement."

But she went on to say that, as to how the city
actually works, Le Corbusier's city told "nothing but lies". This was because
it was not a contextual solution within a real, living city, but rather, an
object inserted onto the landscape for mostly visual effect. It was an
imaginary vision of a city drawn on paper by someone who had no idea of how a
living city functions: namely, that it operates not through the power of
abstract imagery but through networks and connectivity, information exchange,
and energy flows on different scales (Salingaros, 2005). People will connect only
if a city's human-scale geometry creates shared spaces with the right

A related disorder confuses between the structures of
life and the structures of art. As Jacobs also noted, art is an enormously
important part of city life – but it is
not the same as city life
We cannot treat the fabric of buildings and neighborhoods as mere canvas for
our art, and expect that if the art is great enough (by whose criterion?), all
will be well. This is not unlike the "magical thinking" of ancient cave
dwellers who drew bison on the walls, hoping to ensure a successful hunt. Yet
many architects today seem wholly ignorant and even disdainful of the real
social and psychological needs of the human beings in their care, and much more
concerned with the look of their buildings as expressive objects of art. Jacobs
noted later in her book, "to seek for the look of things as a primary purpose
or the main drama is apt to make nothing but trouble." And the trouble, as she
documented, came in torrents.

In the last half-century, the clear result of "architectural
myopia" is buildings whose makers have been so concerned with the drama of
their appearance that they fail on the most fundamental human criteria. They
isolate people; they do not provide enough light; or provide a poor quality of
light; they provide a hostile pedestrian environment at their edges; they cause
excessive shade; or create winds in what is known as a "canyon effect"; or they
trap pollutants in the "sick building syndrome"; they use resources wastefully;
etc. Moreover, the buildings themselves are a wasteful use of resources,
because they are not likely to be well-loved, cared for, repaired, modified,
and re-used over many years. In short, it is not just that people find them
ugly, but they represent a fundamentally unsustainable way of building human


Training to See a Parallel Reality.

Training is required to induce "architectural myopia"
in a student, as the research suggests. The reason is that the peculiar
industrial aesthetic now considered normal within architecture runs contrary to
our physiological needs (Salingaros, 2006). We humans have evolved inside a
complex, fractal, structurally hierarchical environment, so that our
neurophysiology responds positively to and receives sensory pleasure from
natural environments. Traditional architecture and urbanism in all of their
multiple variations manifested over millennia and across geographical distances
precisely follow this natural geometry, which is why our brains recognize them
and respond to them.

Training adds additional layers of preference on top
of our instinctive, evolved responses. Architecture school invests several
years conditioning the student to respond preferentially to abstract industrial
forms and surfaces. At the same time, this industrial aesthetic is touted as
superior to all previous, traditional expressions of built geometry. Elaborate
theories of history and technology are given as apologias for this now-correct
aesthetic, solely appropriate to this wholly unique climax period in history (Banham,
1960; Giedion, 1941; Gropius, 1965). All of this effort creates individuals
that see things differently from the rest of us.

This long-term program of psychological conditioning,
has, since its development in the original Bauhaus, turned out to be
extraordinarily effective. An architect experiences the world in a very
different manner to any person who has not undergone the same training. By
internalizing preferences derived from abstract images that override our
neurological structure, over time, responses become automatic and crowd out
other, more innate responses. The result of this aesthetic hegemony is the
phenomenon of "architectural myopia", an interpretation of reality that
conforms to ingrained beliefs.

In those situations where emotion isn't triggered
instinctively by human physiology, our evolutionary makeup is not decisive and
can be bypassed. Thus, in front of drawings or designs on a computer screen
there is sufficient emotional isolation, and an architect judges the
industrial, minimalist, "contemporary" designs positively as isolated objects
possessing a pleasing clarity and monadic legibility. (As Jacobs put it, the
designs "say everything in a flash, like a good advertisement.") At the same
time, anything that resembles the complexity of traditional architecture is
automatically judged negatively (its meaning is supposedly associated with
reactionary or philistine culture) and it is rejected without any reflection.

The situation becomes much more complicated, however,
whenever the architect experiences a structure in person, immediately,
physically, at full scale. Here, cognitive dissonance comes into play any time
he/she physically confronts a structure. For example, in front or inside a building
sporting a contemporary "look" with minimalist industrial characteristics and
perhaps deliberate structural imbalances, the architect's body gives definite
signals of alarm, whereas his/her mind recalls the positive prejudgment imprinted
during training. In the opposite instance, in front or inside a traditional
building with all the human-scale complexity contributing to compositional
harmony, the architect's body receives positive signals of wellbeing and informational
nourishment, while at the same time his/her mind is retrieving the acquired negative

In both these situations the architect is receiving
mixed signals – in fact mutually contradictory ones – from the built
environment. Whenever ordinary intuition is short-circuited, our organism can
no longer trust its visceral interpretation of the world. Our self experiences
an alarming sensation of disembodiment. The brain thus turns to stored
reference images in order to interpret reality – it is forced to adopt whatever
lies at hand, in this case, the images of an abstract industrial modernity
assimilated during training. From that point on, many architects do not "see"
the connective, coherent complexity of the world, but instead substitute their
eyes' visual image with an alternative artificial reality constructed in their


How Architects Justify Cognitive Dissonance.

Discordant signals will continue to clamor for
attention during the entire time the architect physically experiences a
building, producing stress that could lead to physical illness. The same stress
is felt, however, by the non-architect who is forced to experience a building
embodying alien, non-adaptive geometries.

Architects have managed to adapt to this resulting
stress in a rather disturbing way. They have embraced it as an actual goal of
the work of art itself, rationalized as a way to provoke deeper thought and
experience (Eisenman, 1982). This is a common rationalization of what was once
called Deconstructivist architecture. Of course it's one thing to provoke such
stress in a gallery setting where viewers have some preparation and choice to
attend, and quite another to do so at the scale of a neighborhood or city.

Yes, our architect friends share much of the blame,
but let us remember that city officials, corporate executives, urban
developers, mortgage bankers, and many others were part of this process of
"architectural commodification", creating attention-getting product design
rather than good sustainable environmental design. Clients, following what they
took to be general consensus on what is great architecture, commissioned
architects to build inhuman structures.

There is abundant evidence that individuals will go
along with the herd to an extraordinary degree, and with what they perceive as
credible authority. Psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous study showed that
people surprisingly suspend their own moral judgments, beliefs, and ethics in
the presence of perceived authority (Salingaros, 2011). The same is true with
perception and aesthetic preferences in the presence of others. Group opinion
can override one's own senses. People will decide that they see or like
something merely because they think others see it or like it. But the "others"
may be doing exactly the same thing – meaning that no one really believes or likes
what they see!

This effect echoes the old fable of "the emperor's new
clothes". No one wants to be the one to say the emperor has no clothes, for
fear of being laughed at. Only the little child has the nerve to do so, shaming
all the adults around him. In a similar vein, many non-architects are frankly
afraid to speak out – afraid of being seen as architectural philistines,
ignorant of "good design", ignorant of "professional excellence", or simply out
of step with what they perceive to be the majority. In fact, they may have
their fingers on real issues of concern that the architects, in their zeal to
make a "statement" or an attention-getting sculptural object, have ignored or
repressed: such matters as whether people feel well in the building, or can
find their way to the entrance, or find it disagreeable to walk down the street
in front of it.

All of these things are not, of course, trivial. They
are the essence of a functional whole urbanism, in which people are able to
walk, navigate, feel well, and even feel any desire to live there in the first
place. In short, the desires and gut reactions of the community are the very
essence of a great, living city, as opposed to a banal and dysfunctional one.
The dysfunction of such image-based urban places – sadly all too common in the
post-war era – is what has sent many people fleeing for the suburbs, with their
simplistic ideas of retreat into a private garden. (Generations of developers
have made fortunes by encouraging this suburban flight through the opposite
misleading images: of mansions sitting in vast lawns). This too has turned into
a dysfunctional failure of traffic congestion, blighted strip development, and
isolated, car-dependent homes.

Clearly, if we want a sustainable form of settlement,
our buildings will have to work much harder to create a convivial, salubrious
environment for all
human beings – not just appease the elite connoisseurs of object-buildings.
This means, among other things, that the problem of "architectural myopia" be
taken seriously, just as we take night blindness seriously among drivers. We
need corrective lenses.


5. The "Corrective Lenses" for Architectural myopia.

What are these corrective lenses? First of all, re-integrate
the needs of human beings, their sensory experience of the world, and their
participation into the process of designing buildings. Leading design theory
today advocates "co-design", in which the users become part of the design team,
and guide it through the evolutionary adaptations to make a more successful,
optimal kind of design. Architects spend more time talking to their users,
sharing their perception and understanding their needs: not just the
architect's selfish need for artistic self-expression, or worse, his/her need
to impress other architects and elite connoisseur-critics. We are not dealing
with objects in a sculpture gallery, which can be regarded or not by those who
choose to do so, or do not. Clients, academia, politicians, and the media have
forgotten this basic fact, which is the key to constructing living urban

We are now dealing with an environment in which such
image-based sculptural buildings are imposed upon people, whether they choose
them or not. Very simply put, architects have a professional duty of care to
their clients and users. They are not
artists free of all responsibility
, contrary to all of their academic
training that encourages aspirations to become the new "starchitect". If their
image-based sculptural buildings fall down, they are responsible. Likewise, if
such buildings "fall down on the job" of meeting human needs – if they are
unduly stressful, or damaging to the quality of life – then that is a kind of
architectural malpractice, and nothing less.

Second, the obsolete model of architecture as a kind
of product, mutated in dramatic sculptural ways to attract attention, gives way
to a model of architecture as an integral part of a living human landscape.
It's not enough to initiate this change merely by speaking out: it is up to
clients, politicians, and common people to insist upon an adaptive criterion
for all buildings from this point onward, otherwise we will only see a
continuation of business as usual. There is still ample scope for the adventure
of art, for the dramatic illumination of real structural qualities, in place of
the abstract expressionism that is far too close to product design and

Third, we can learn from the processes that nature
uses to create complex adaptive forms. By comparison, those of our own time are
crude and primitive, and no amount of imaginative artistry or "magical
thinking" will make up for this fundamental weakness. An inherently dangerous
arrogance is noticeable among contemporary architects who wish to defy nature.
Such an attitude does not prepare a practitioner to learn from nature.
Architects need a new way of celebrating the majesty and the beauty of the
city, and its place in the natural scheme of things. This new way of designing is
integrated with our own innate needs as human beings. That is "the place of
art" within architecture – not as master, but as servant, to life.

The promising new field of biophilia suggests that
human beings have evolved with certain basic aesthetic and physiological needs:
the presence of vegetation, water, sunlight, animals, and also the geometric
relationships that have accompanied our evolutionary experiences with these
structures. By tapping into this rich vocabulary of biophilic design elements,
we can have an extremely rich variety of design possibilities – a rich range of
artistic expression – while still meeting the needs of human beings. And within
the same life-affirming process, we can meet the ecological needs of the
environment too.


A Problem of Opposites.

So often we have debated the phenomenon of "architectural
myopia" with architects, who dismiss it and insist that is all about aesthetics,
or a matter of opinion. But that old relativist narrative is flatly
contradicted by a growing body of modern scientific findings. True, people have
enormous varieties of experiences and tastes – and it's wonderful that they do –
but these phenomena are generated by a common set of structural processes that
are identifiable and sharable. Some experiences are unquestionably damaging to
health and wellbeing, in the same way that, say, the structure of car exhaust
molecules is damaging to health and wellbeing. It does no good to say our
narrative about car exhaust is such and such, we want people to experience it
and be provoked by it – that will not change the fact that we are making people

We can readily appreciate this point by imagining
artwork being introduced into a psychiatric ward where suicidal depression is
being treated. Imagine an artist who said, "I am an artist, and I have the
right to put up my disturbing, dark forms wherever I like." We would likely
say, "No you don't, not here." But how is the rest of the city, with its mix of
people in varying states of health, really any different?

Doctors have learned that certain aspects of the
patient environment promote wellbeing, and they now use this "evidence-based
design" to improve the quality of life of their patients. In the same way,
adaptive, human-scale architecture and urbanism rely upon discoverable rules of
design. We proposed the existence of such rules (Salingaros, 2005; 2006) while
at the same time conjecturing that a non-adaptive aesthetic is easily reached
from the adaptive design rules by simply reversing them. That is, since guidelines
for designing adaptive, contextual environments are known instinctively, do the
opposite to generate a form that strikes an observer by its visual novelty and
lack of context.

Our colleague Jaap Dawson recently reinforced this
idea in telling us of his teaching experience:

"The unconscious
rules us, however hard we try to become conscious of a little bit of our lives.
What I've also discovered in working with students the last 27 years is that
they pick up the design rules of Modernism very quickly – without consulting
their own experience of buildings or spaces. And if you look at those rules,
then you simply have to conclude something else: in order to follow them, you
need to know the normal, vernacular, classical, archetypal language of building.
If you know that language, then you simply do its opposite in order to get
Modernism. My conclusion: awareness of the timeless language is present in
people, but they learn to suppress it. But there's something underneath
groupthink, I think; and that's a fear of trusting your own experience – in
body and soul – of buildings and spaces. Any child trusts that experience."

And thus we conclude that "architectural myopia" is a
symptom of adopting a contradictory and opposite way of viewing the world. It
also explains architects' insistence – continuous, strident, and bordering on
the obsessive – of the need to "educate" the public. For every time public
debate focuses upon the basic dichotomy in perceiving architectural form
between architects and non-architects, the standard response by the former is
to beg for more "education" of ordinary citizens, and to dismiss natural human
responses to their work as being "unsophisticated" and "philistine". Architects
really wish that normal people would undergo the same reversal, and then
everyone might agree on the same non-contextual, non-adaptive building

Since the non-indoctrinated continue to see complexity
and coherence in the living environment and refuse to accept "architectural
myopia", the architect's strategy is simply to replace the built environment so
that it no longer contains those essential elements of living structure.

Many of today's leading architects feel compelled to
change the world drastically to make it conform to their preferred lifeless
industrial paradigm. Unless non-architects (i.e. the rest of the population)
stand up to this pressure, we risk the slow loss from attrition of all of
humankind's most emotionally-nourishing creations. For example, architects see
a well-functioning and beloved urban space but perceive it as ugly and
offensive, desperately in need of immediate "re-qualification" to turn it into
a contemporary hard industrial object. Politicians are happy to go along so as
to please construction companies who profit from the unnecessary tearing down
and rebuilding. The result is a sterile open space, unused, dysfunctional, and
dead – but in the eyes of the architects, the operation has been a success!

A culture based upon an abstract, disconnected
conception of space is re-shaping our world right now for the worse. The
parallel reality is replacing the living one. Enthusiastically supported by
politicians and the building industry, architects have been commissioned to
destroy historic buildings and urban spaces worldwide. Because "architectural
myopia" is justified as perfectly normal in the press, such interventions are
praised by their promoters but turn out disastrous for the urban fabric, and
are hated by potential users. Those projects all tend to look and feel the same.
This is not surprising, since the designs are generated by the same abstract
modernist images in the minds of architects oblivious of the connective
geometry that would catalyze the eventual life in such a space.

The architect Rem Koolhaas has recently argued that one-off icons do not add up to higher quality, but in fact degrade from urban quality.
This slide appeared in a presentation by Koolhaas, and later a post on the ArchitectureWeek blog.


7. The New Architect.

We desperately need a new kind of architect: one more
focused on process than on product, on context rather than on objects.
Preparing our new type of architect for practice, we should re-examine the ways
that architects are rewarded today: the corrupt and incestuous system of
financial incentives, corporate branding, and image-making that rewards the
extravagant "starchitect" over the contextual practitioner. Once we have
created a consensus for radical change, it will be straightforward to find new
ways of compensating good work, through more incentives such as awards,
commissions, scientific research that identifies both successes and failures,
and other, stronger feedback.

Most important of all, we must reform the architecture
schools without further delay, and place a new emphasis on design that is
evidence-based, that pays attention to post-occupancy evaluations, and that, in
short, values the outcome for human beings and takes their needs seriously. It
is a democratic society's duty to teach students to see and interpret the world
without ideological blinders.

Last but not least, we applaud medically blind architects
who courageously practice despite their handicap. Giving an example to the rest
of the profession, they visualize spaces in their "mind's eye", experience with
their fingers a building's plan as printed on embossed paper, and physically
walk through a building to optimize the user's experience. Those blind
architects put to shame their colleagues who, blessed with the gift of sight,
refuse to use their eyes.


For more information read The Metropolis Essays here



Banham, R. (1960) Theory
and Design in the First Machine Age
, Praeger, New York.

Eisenman, P. (1982) "The Alexander-Eisenman Debate", Katarxis 3, 2004

Giedion, S. (1941) Space,
Time and Architecture
, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gifford, R., Hine, D. W., Muller-Clemm, W. & Shaw,
K. T. (2002) "Why Architects and Laypersons Judge Buildings Differently", J. Architecture and Planning Research, Vol.
19, No. 2, pages 131-148.

Gropius, W. (1965) The
New Architecture and The Bauhaus
, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great
American Cities
, Random House, New

Salingaros, N. A. (2005) Principles of Urban Structure, Techne Press, Amsterdam, Holland.

Salingaros, N. A. (2006) A Theory of Architecture, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany.

Salingaros, N. A. (2011) "Cognitive Dissonance and
Non-adaptive Architecture", P2P
, 2 February 2011; reprinted by the Permaculture Research Institute, 9 February 2011; reprinted by
INTBAU Essays, 17 March 2011. <>


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