The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 18

Frequently architectural debate turns into this sort of confrontation between connoisseurs of design and the wider population. While it is obvious that "beauty is in
the eye of the beholder," there is also a considerable body of research that reveals
how and why people (including architects) respond to buildings, streetscapes and
natural environments. In other words, normal response to design aesthetics is entirely
predictable. Unfortunately, this research usually appears in academic psychology or
neuroscience journals, so it rarely finds it way into architectural discussion.
An excellent example of this connoisseur-public discrepancy is the Art Museum
in Graz, Austria. The building is largely the work of Sir Peter Cook, one of the great
architectural theorists of the 20th century, whose lectures I enthusiastically attended
as an undergraduate. In my research, I have included an image of this museum in a
collection of images that I show to subjects. The overall responses in the U.K. and
Canada have confirmed that the wider public does not respond well to this building.
What is more interesting is that, in workshop sessions, architects and other building
professionals (who might be seen as proxies for the nasty avant-garde intellectuals)
ranked it even lower - in fact, placing it last among all the buildings being assessed.
Much research supports John Cleese's experience that experts in specific fields -
which, along with psychiatrists, might include foodies, professional musicians and
architects - tend to evaluate things differently than the wider population. This appears
to provide further evidence that generalized assumptions about group preferences are
always inappropriate and often wrong.
With regard to the Graz Art Museum, the difference in opinion between connoisseurs
and everyone else is not really relevant. The main point is that somehow a building has
been designed that manages to evoke a positive response from hardly anyone. This
reveals a chronic problem in the profession: architectural visual design is rarely based
on research findings. The evidence is available, and if the appropriate investigation
had taken place in this case, the near-universal distaste for this building could have
been predicted. Without sensible evidence-based debate, it is difficult to improve the
quality of the design of our buildings and cities.
IAN ELLINGHAM is Chair of the Built Environment Open Forum and The Right Angle.

REFERENCES
1. Paul Hekkert, Dirk Snelders and Piet C. W van Wieringen. "Most advanced, yet acceptable: Typicality and
novelty as joint predictors of aesthetic preference in industrial design," in British Journal of Psychology,
94, 2003, pp. 111-124.
2. "The connoisseur effect" occurs when consumers become more knowledgeable about a subject and start
adding more attributes to their evaluation, making their assessments more complex. Wine, for example
can be assessed on a number of dimensions, from the utilitarian (intoxication), to the sublime. Most
people evaluate wine according to colour: red, white and rosé. But connoisseurs have a vocabulary to
describe the subtle nuances of taste and aroma. I particularly like the word "petrol" as a flavour descriptor (contrary to non-connoisseur expectations, a whiff of gasoline in wine is not necessarily a bad thing).
Similarly, people in the building industry are knowledgeable about buildings, so it should not be surprising
that they take longer and use a more complex set of attributes to evaluate buildings than members of
the wider population.

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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017

Message from the Board
Why aren’t All Buildings Beautiful?
Resilience: The Forest and the Trees
Index to Advertisers
Locations: City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - Intro
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - cover1
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - cover2
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 3
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 4
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 5
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 6
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - Message from the Board
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - Why aren’t All Buildings Beautiful?
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 9
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 10
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 11
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 12
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 13
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 14
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 15
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 16
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 17
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 18
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - Resilience: The Forest and the Trees
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - Index to Advertisers
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - Locations: City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - 22
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - cover3
The Right Angle Journal - Winter 2017 - cover4
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