by Ann Sussman, RA + Hernan Rosas
The results are in for Study #1: Eye Tracking Public Architecture. How do people look at these buildings? What immediately draws their eye? Do some buildings make people feel happy and others less so? How does architecture enhance or degrade the public realm?
Researchers at theHapi.org ask these kinds of questions and use state-of-the-art biometric tools to help answer them. This summer, as part of a study funded by the National Civic Art Society, the nonprofit invited participants to take part in a series of studies using iMotions-online eye-tracking software, to learn how we actually look at buildings, exploring both our conscious and non-conscious, or subliminal behavior.
BuildingStudy#1 used images from a 2020 Harris Poll, originally put together by the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), which paired traditional and modern civic buildings and asked: “Which of these two buildings would you prefer for a U.S. courthouse or federal office building?”
Over 2,000 Americans took part in the poll, conducted online, and the answer came back that nearly three-quarters of participants (72%), across political, gender and socio-economic lines, preferred traditional architecture for U.S. courthouses and federal office buildings. Could the survey possibly reflect biological biases that are hardwired in us – as innate as our need for water and air?
Employing the same paired images as in the survey, theHapi.org, used eye tracking to reveal how people actually take in the images. Eye tracking is a key biometric tool that follows non-conscious and conscious eye movements. Frequently used by marketers since the 1980s to better understand and predict consumer behavior, when applied to architecture, eye tracking lets us forecast human behavior in the built-environment, including how quickly people will find a front door, or whether they spend time gazing at a facade. It can even predict which buildings people will easily walk towards, and which they ignore.
For the biometric study of the Harris Poll, also conducted online, using iMotions software, 62 participants looked at the same images on laptops, using web-cams to follow their eye movements taking in each scene on screen in brief, 12-second, intervals.
Here are the findings – the original study images appear first with the colorful eye-tracking results below them:
Eye-tracking data is collected and aggregated to form heat maps which glow reddest where people look most, and fade to yellow, then green, and finally, no color at all, in areas ignored. Note above how the reddest and largest heat map falls on the traditional building, the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building, (EPA headquarters) in Washington DC (at right). The modern, Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, at left, also in Washington DC (HUD headquarters), did not draw the eye the same way; people barely focused on any of it.
And that was the remarkable, and remarkably consistent, finding this eye-tracking pilot-study revealed; no matter where the buildings were in the U.S., traditional civic architecture consistently drew viewer attention and focus while modern-style counterparts did not.
For instance, in the pair below, the Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse (at right) in Cleveland, Ohio, clearly captured attention; we see how much of the building’s facade glows bright red. While, in contrast, the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse, in Phoenix, Arizona, (at left) barely has any strong red hotspots.
The same thing happens with the U.S. Courthouse in Toledo, Ohio, below left, and its modern counterpart, the Hansen Federal Building, at right, in Ogden, Utah:
Even more so! Note how the modern-style building barely generates a single red dot; this indicates the brain did not direct people to focus on it, and they didn’t! With its repetitive parallel lines, it is systematically ignored and always will be.
These kinds of eye-tracking studies matter and suggest how biometric tools are critical not only for advertising but for assessing architecture – because they show how the human response to visual stimuli happens. Design is about interaction, and with biometrics, we literally ‘see’ how the interaction starts and how different cues prompt very different results. These studies let us piece together and predict behavior in the built environment and help us understand the 2020 Harris Poll findings too.
We can theorize that people tended to favor the civic buildings they most easily could look at; people tended not to favor buildings that didn’t draw their eye and that they could not readily focus or fixate on.
“When you know the mechanism, you can use that understanding in countless ways to drastically improve the human condition,” notes author and MD, Nadine Burke Harris. “That is how you spark a revolution. You shift the frame, you change the lens, and all at once the world is revealed, and nothing is the same.” (The Deepest Well, 2018)
Indeed, this is what we can now do in our time, known as a new Age of Biology, by understanding ourselves better, honor innate human predispositions that acknowledge our subliminal need to connect to our surroundings, and in so doing build better places for people. For in the end, making urban spaces and places that both respect and reflect our biology will make for a happier and healthier public realm. What could be a better goal for our time?
After all, as Francis Bacon, the reknown 17th-century English philosopher, noted:
‘We cannot command nature except by obeying her.’
Isn’t it time to follow the wisdom?
Here are the four remaining eye-tracked Harris Poll results:
Pair #5 compared the Frank M. Scarlett Federal Building, in Brunswich, Georgia, at left, with the U.S. Court House, in Waco, Texas, right.
Pair #6 paired the Martin V. B. Bostetter, Jr. U.S. Court House, in Alexandria, Virginia, at left, with the U.S. Courthouse in Newport New, Virginia, at right.
Pair #2 displayed the National Archives Building, in Washington DC, at left with the Hubert H. Humphrey Building (HHS HQ), also in Washington DC, at right.
Pair #7 showed the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House, in Louisville, Kentucky, at left, and the Hammond Federal Courthouse, in Hammond, Indiana, at right.
All original paired images ©National Civic Art Society (NCAS); All heat maps ©theHapi.org
Links to recent articles further revealing how human perception of architecture and urban planning happens include:
- Insights into wayfinding: urban design exploration through the use of algorithmic eye-tracking software, https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/BHRK2AMQKJVNRB2RYBFF/full?target=10.1080/13574809.2022.2118697
- Visual Attention Software: A New Tool for Understanding the “Subliminal” Experience of the Built Environment, https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/11/13/6197
- How Biometric Software is Changing How We Understand Architecture and Ourselves, https://commonedge.org/how-biometric-software-is-changing-how-we-understand-architecture-and-ourselves/
- Α survey-based study of organized complexity (found in nature and pre-modern architecture) and aesthetic preference: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0235257
- Many posts on GeneticsofDesign.com
And, finally, if you are interested in taking part in future Biometric-Building Studies, do check out:
Other on-going BuildingStudies, #4-#5 here:
We hope to have their results out soon. Feel free to check them out!
Questions: email Contact(at)theHapi.org
Thanks to Estilos Arquitetônicos for translating this post into Portuguese:
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Well written article on an emerging topic
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Thanks Peter! Can’t wait to apply it further in our research projects! best, Ann
Great well written article.