Eye Tracking the ‘Villa’: A First Step toward Understanding How We Experience Architecture

Villa Rotunda by architect Palladio is, arguably, one of the most significant buildings in architectural history. Designed in the late 16th-century as a country house in Vicenza, Italy for a retiring  cleric, its captivating elevations would go on to provide the prototype for countless other buildings worldwide including The White House in the U.S.

But how do people actually look at the building? Here’s a gaze path video showing one person taking it in. When you click the arrow, the moving dots and lines reflect what drew the subject’s gaze when she looked at the picture using eye-tracking technology.

The yellow circles show fixations where the eyes stick to the image, and the lines show the saccades, the movement the eyes make—often with no ‘conscious’ control—as they dart from one part of a scene to another. Here’s a gaze path made by another person:

You can see how each participant looks at the world differently—and you can also see how the Villa provides our brain with plenty of eye candy to focus on.

But what do people really focus on?

In the spotlight image below, created by aggregating the gaze paths of 33 viewers, we see that—despite individual differences—people tend to focus on the same things; in this case, the center of the portico and all the statuary atop it. In spotlights, the image glows brightest where people look most, fading to darker grey and black where they look least. We see here how people are hardwired—with no conscious effort, irrespective of age or culture—to check out other people, even stone versions of themselves perched at the edge of rooftops.


And interestingly, the focus on the statuary seems to intensify when viewers look at a photoshopped version of The Rotunda – without windows. Note how the area around the statues appears to glow brighter. For a social species like us, blank walls are of no interest. Our brain, knowing us well, saves its energy for focusing on what we love most: ourselves.


One preliminary conclusion about architecture? Buildings that last feed needs we may not realize we have; in this case, the perennial one to be seen and reflected. Makes  sense, of course, since as a social species designed for interrelating, architecture we’re going to instantly ‘attach to’ and have strong feelings about, has no choice but to trick the central nervous system into believing its seeing one of us.

all photos videos © AnnSussman

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