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Why We Prefer Curvy Architecture: The Brain & Aesthetic Perception

Think of the buildings, interiors and devices you prefer, do they have any curvy elements? The iPhone’s design went from curvy, to more rectilinear (iPhone 5) and back to curvy...why is that? Experts say it has to do with how our brain is wired. Research shows that a visual object’s shape (be it curved or sharp) greatly influences how a person responds to it. We explore people’s aesthetic perception in an attempt to uncover why we think curved spaces and objects are more appealing.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of Iwan Baan via Dezeen


Are Curves More Beautiful?

Which of these designs appeal to you the most?

Image 1 (Top Left) - Alessio Lin; Image 2 (Top Center) - GDTography

Image 3 (Top Right) - Joel Filipe; Image 4 (Bottom Left) - Coline Beulin

Image 5 (Bottom Center) - Stocksnap; Image 6 (Bottom Right) - Jonathan Singer

If you found the curved architectural images more appealing, you form part of the majority. Neuroscientists’ studies have shown that the preference for curves is a matter of brain function over personal taste. A multidisciplinary team of researchers and designers led by psychologist Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto at Scarborough sought to investigate this phenomenon. They compiled about 200 images of interior architecture that were shown to participants who were under an fMRI imaging machine. The participants were asked to label each image as “beautiful” or “not beautiful.” As you may have predicted, results showed that participants favoured Interiors with more organic, curvilinear forms over linear forms.

In her book ‘Esthetics’, American psychologist Kate Gordon echoes - “curves are in general felt to be more beautiful than straight lines. They are more graceful and pliable, and avoid the harshness of some straight lines” Gordon’s work focused on cognitive psychology and explored vision, perception, aesthetics and memory. Gordon was among the few researches who focused the topic of aesthetic perception in architecture as there is reportedly little known research on the topic.

How The Brain Responds To Curves

When thinking of curves, the British tale of King Arthur and the round table comes to mind. Legend has it that the king introduced a round table for discussions as opposed to a rectangular one, as he believed it gave the impression of an even playing field. No hierarchy, no threat…King Arthur’s hypothesis was not unfounded as his line of thinking aligns with scientific observation that humans are more drawn to curved elements mainly because sharp, edgy elements are perceived as being a potential threat. An fMRI study by Harvard Medical School revealed this notion to be true. Brain imaging showed that the amygdala (associated with processing fear) was significantly more activated when a person was presented with a rectilinear object - signally potential danger to the brain.

Curved features are also said to evoke emotion. Oshin Vartanian's study revealed that people looking at curved interiors reportedly showed more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), compared to people who were looking at linear decorations. The ACC is associated with many cognitive functions, one being emotion. He further explained that "curvature appears to affect our feelings, which in turn could drive our preference.” This explains renowned architect Philip Johnson’s reaction to seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao - which is composed of many provocative curves. He was reportedly moved to tears. This is one example of the influence architecture has on human emotion, through appealing to human’s innate connection to curved elements.

Images: Courtesy of Camanio Cares

On average urban dwellers spend 90% of their time indoors, with the knowledge that architecture impacts behaviour, it is unfortunate that very little research has been dedicated to this area of study. Learning how people react to certain forms is crucial in understanding the body within a space. More experimentation and research needs to be conducted to further uncover what triggers positive responses in people in order to design environments that facilitate wellbeing.

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