O-x-y-t-o-c-i-n: The 8-letter Word Every Architect Should Know

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Capitol Building, Havana, Cuba ©wikimedia

What are attributes of great design? It draws the eye. And you delight in taking it in—no matter your age, background or the times you live in. The buildings wordlessly beckon.

But how?

Turns out to understand why great buildings and streetscapes, like the one above in Havana, have timeless appeal, you need to know something about architecture—specifically the architecture of our nervous system. As mammals, we’re hardwired to look at the world and approach or avoid things instantly. Our survival depends on it. If we had to stop to consciously ponder our every move, we simply couldn’t and wouldn’t exist.

Enter oxytocin, sometimes called ‘the cuddle hormone’. This neuro-chemical not only has a significant role to play in parental bonding and significant-other relationships (including ones with our dogs), making us the social creatures we are, but is at work getting us to move towards things in our environment too.

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Villa Rotunda, Vincenza, Italy, ©wikimedia, ©geneticsofdesign.com

Take a look at the two versions of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda above, a 16th-Century UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vicenza, Italy. Which would you rather head towards, the real one with windows or a photoshopped-version without them? Don’t think too much, just choose!

We’ve asked hundreds of people the same question at lectures, and no matter their age or demographic, we always get the same answer quickly: the building at left. Why? Humans as social animals are hard-wired to respond to direct gaze, this is when oxytocin, that hugging-hormone, is released (from the pituitary gland) getting us to move toward another person or, as in this case, an inanimate object that suggests one. 

It can’t be any other way, of course, once you stop to think about it. After all, our brain and nervous system are artifacts of 3.8 billion years of evolution, and for most of that time (say 99.9% of it) there were no man-made buildings—just animals and nature—so that’s what we’re built to see—no matter how modern we may think we are!

In many fields, including advertising, travel and graphic design, it appears they’ve intuited the science, if not actually figured it out. The Havana photo above, for instance, was on the cover of a recent Tufts Travel brochure.

Architects, for the sake of their future and ours—should take note!

This entry was posted in Architecture, Biology, People-centric Design, STEM and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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