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Understanding Beauty in Architecture: Guiding Neuroaesthetics

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © Anton9 | Dreamstime

Can we define what makes a beautiful space? Well, the study of neuroaesthetics is trying to uncover qualities that come together to yield beauty. In the magazine SEED, the article entitled Beauty and the Brain explains that “An object’s beauty may not be universal, but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is.” The article goes on to describe how neuroscience findings regarding direction, location and dimensions of space will have profound implications for architecture.(1)

As architects engage in their design process, will the discoveries of neuroaesthetics impact their project outcomes? In other words, will knowing what triggers more neurons to fire rapidly impact design decisions at the drawing board? Yes, beauty is dependent to some extent on culture and experience; but can beauty be universally understood at some level?

Aesthetic, in architecture, is often linked with order and balance. Rhythm, for instance, is frequently desired within striking architectural compositions. So, is architecture nothing more than the manipulation of space to follow certain rules of beauty? Can architecture break or challenge such rules that are directly connected to the human senses?

When the human nervous system experiences beauty, certain parts of the brain consistently light up. It seems that, to some extent, humans can be taught what beauty means. Again, culture and experience may have a significant role. Yet, there are thought to be certain qualities that are constantly found regardless of culture or experience. These qualities, according to Beauty and Brain are grids, zigzags, spirals and curves. Such findings indicate that on some level, beauty may be universal.(1)

As architects, we strive to create beautiful forms and spaces that inspire humans within. It is often said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”; however, there are a collection of architectural spaces that never fail to stir occupants deeply. Like many designers, architects must follow rules and consciously bend them. To advance as a profession, it is important to learn from the discoveries of neuroaesthetics; but it is equally important to challenge them. Architects should not feel limited by such findings, but rather they should feel freed to learn why occupants respond the way they do — to certain arrangements of space.

Currently, we are increasing understanding of how the human brain works. Isn’t it appealing to unleash what makes good architecture according to our senses? Yes, it may be difficult to conclusively define “beauty” once and for all. For instance, as architects don’t we usually link function to aesthetic? I wonder…Is function inherent to beauty?

It seems to me that the experience of beauty is fundamental to what makes us all human. We may find beauty in different things at different times; however, the joy found in surrounding architectural space and form is universal. As spatial compositions continue to evolve, so too will our understanding of the meaning behind beauty.

Reference:

(1) Costandi, Motheb. Beauty and the Brain. SEED Magazine. September 16, 2008.

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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 multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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