2014 brings us strange new developments on the internet.
@facesinthings is a new twitter account that has taken up the task of documenting the appearance of faces in unlikely places. Among their recent contributions have been an evil lamp, a sorrowful-looking pain-au-chocolat and a startled church. I follow them now and my ever-so-serious twitter feed has become a bit more daft. I recommend that yours should too.
Eyebombing is a meme cousin of @facesinthings. Photos on the dedicated tumblr show everyday objects like ATMs, lamp-posts and watering cans transformed into goggle-eyed companions. Purely by means of plastic stick-on eyes, you can in the words of its Danish founders, ‘humanise the streets, and bring sunshine to people passing by’.
Now, I don’t dispute that both @facesinthings and eyebombing are frivolous – and will probably be short-lived – fads. I would not be surprised to see they had been usurped by @catsfacesinthings or even bumbombing by the end of next week. But despite appearances, I would like to argue they in fact offer surprising insight into how we relate to the architecture around us, and that the Eyebombing starter kit (yours for as little as $6.99) maybe even should be compulsory equipment for architects.
To begin to explain myself I would like to draw your attention to an obscure late nineteenth century Austrian art historian Robert Vischer. His 1873 essay On the Optical Sense of Form Vischer claims the transformation of inert matter into aesthetic experience takes place fundamentally through our capacity to empathise. This ability, which Vischler termed Einfuhlung (literally ‘feeling-in’) he sees as the basic measure of our humanity. Exhibited in primitive man’s ‘pantheistic urge’ to ascribe moods and wills to the trees and mountains around him, and present in our anger when a fire (or nowadays a smartphone) ‘refuses’ to light up. ‘We have the marvellous ability’, he said, ‘to impute our own shape to an objective shape’.
Vischer considered our aesthetic responses to objects to be determined at their most basic level by their consonance with our human body. Thus do we respond positively to objects in the world when we find order, symmetry and regularity (for him characteristically human qualities) and negatively when these expectations are in his words, ‘disturbed’. There is in his view ‘a will within the picture’ – we approach arrangements of forms as ‘comfortable or ‘uneasy’ through a process of sub-conscious identification with those forms. On every occasion we feel our way imaginatively into a painting or a sculpture, attempting, with greater or lesser degrees of success and satisfaction, to assimilate them into a kind of human nature.
Which all means that eyebombers are not just being frivolous. They and the gang over at @facesinthings are acting out a primal tendency to see the world around us invested with the same features and emotions as we know in ourselves. In a way we can’t help it. To be human it seems, is to see ourselves – our humanity, reflected in everything around us. Tommy Shane has written eloquently for this magazine about the implications of this for industrial and automotive design. But what of architecture?
Among those who applied this aesthetic understanding specifically to buildings was the historian Geoffrey Scott. Introduced to the ideas over the dinner table at W. Berensons’s villa outside Florence in the 1930s, he went on to write a book that was published in 1914 called The Architecture of Humanism. A large part of the book is spent leisurely refuting the commonly held architectural theories of the day, but in the last section he lays out a intriguing approach to architectural criticism that sees buildings in similar terms as Vischer had seen works of art.
Opening his argument with an analysis of two commonly-heard descriptions of architecture “a ‘top-heavy’ building” and “an ‘ ill-proportioned ‘ space”, Scott goes on to dissect what has provoked these reactions. Making the sensible point that whilst “It is disagreeable to have our movements thwarted, to lose strength or to collapse …a room fifty feet square and seven feet high does not restrict our actual movements, and the sight of a granite building raised (apparently) on a glass shop-front does not cause us to collapse”, what he affirms has taken place is a empathising process. “We have transcribed architecture into terms of ourselves.” The simple act of looking at the ‘top-heavy’ building has entailed an imaginative occupation of its form, jogging our own physical memory and leading us to conclude it (we) feels distinctly unsteady. A rapid and almost unconscious process, our empathy is nevertheless at work throughout.
Now, Scott is keen to state that this way of thinking should not lead us to the conclusion that buildings should attempt as close a possible replication of the human body’s form. Animating a building more subtle that that. Some of those reading this may remember the unsettling half-familiar protuberances of the Millennium Dome’s Body Project, and that project is a cautionary tale for those that would copy the forms of our bodies with eerie closeness. Geoffrey Scott reminds us ‘that [the] correspondence of architecture to the body… true in abstract principle, [is] vainly sought to prove in concrete detail’. A building after all is a building, not a body, and over-enthusiastically trying to pretend otherwise will just weird people out.
‘Architecture’, Scott asserts, ‘simply and immediately perceived, is a combination, revealed through light and shade, of spaces, of masses, and of lines.’ And, he avers, these spaces, masses and lines – abstract qualities – can be deployed in such a way that they satisfy and delight our tendency to empathise and animate. We can recognise, in other words, human qualities, without needing to be literally shown a nose or a leg.
Take the example of a spire. It’s outline is not taken in by our eyes all at once. We ‘follow’ it up and that upwards movement of our gaze produces a corresponding physical sense of uplift. Hence the spire (we) soars. In general terms, the path of our eye across every building can be thought of as a gesture we make with our body, and like all gestures we make, expresses some mood. So if the spire finished blunt we might instead feel thwarted, or on a different church a squat tower might bring our eyes back to the ground and our shoulders to slump. The spire does not have to look explicitly like the human body* for us to be able to identify with it and bring it alive.
Or look instead at a symmetrical facade or a dome. In both cases, our eyes move back and forth between it’s edges and it’s central point. Scott connects this visual rhythm to the in-out of our breath and suggests this sub-conscious physical analogy accounts for the feeling of poise and calm we have in it’s presence. Of course if this rhythm is too staccato we might not feel calm at all and suffer from the architectural equivalent of hyperventilation. Our final reaction will depend on a complex mixture of impressions; the exact dimensions, the light, its material and our expectations. The practice of architecture is an art not a science and our best tools are always our eyes and imagination.
So my appeals to architects to buy the Eyebombing starter kit should be treated as somewhat facetious. Those wacky internet memes create objects too close to real bodies and enter the twilight realm of the uncanny. But the process they espouse, our instinctive animation of the world around us, should be attended to seriously. All too often it seems design is approached lifelessly, either through purely technical criteria or instead by self-referential aesthetic ones. If we could only recognise the empathy we have with our surroundings – our ability to project into buildings a life that is part ours and part theirs – then we could design more buildings that delight us and reassure us. If we began to treat buildings as beings a bit like ourselves, they might start to be better brick-and-mortar companions. Almost like friends.
* ..oh really, it is not like a phallus..