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How Vertical Illusion Affects Perception in Architecture

Image Credit: © Ken Cole | Dreamstime

So, how steep is it? In the latest issue of SciAm Mind magazine an article describes how humans have trouble accurately determining height and slope of vertical inclines. To make matters more interesting, the article goes on to discuss how our perceptions are affected. It seems that if you are accompanied by friends (or supportive people) an incline will appear less steep. Conversely, if one is carrying a heavy load then the incline will appear steeper. Thus, the way inclines are interpreted is subjective.

Therefore, what does this mean for architectural design? Does it affect the way architects should design stairs, ADA ramps or escalators? What about atrium heights or even building heights? Also, are all architectural feature heights affected by the context which surrounds them? It is important to remember that extreme height and slope can often inspire a sense of awe. Sometimes designers want this, other times it can be too intimidating.

Let’s discuss ADA ramps. Understanding vertical illusion might help us understand how to design better inclines for easier and more inspired accessibility. Although such slopes are controlled by code, sometimes these sloped elevations seem to go on and on to match the neighboring stair grades. Such ADA accessible grades should be inviting –a positive occupant experience contributing the overall architectural design – not intimidating zig-zags that make one feel as if going through a sloped maze.

The vertical illusions perceived by all incline types should influence how architects design. Steep escalators, for instance, may need to stem from a platform that can house more people; thus, making the incline appear less steep and less intimidating. Conversely, to create a great feeling of awe, architects may want to embed a vertical element that stems from a more confined space so as to squeeze one’s eye upward – perhaps this is a vertical solely meant for observation instead of travel.

All in all, vertical illusions in architecture are important features. Occupants experience space and transitions through them. Considerate attention should be given to how people might perceive verticals by not only focusing on the vertical itself, but by also designing the spatial functions from which they stem. After all, even vertical sloped transitions are anticipatory – needing designed space that prepares one for their experience.

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Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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