What do people like about old architectural styles and how can they be incorporated into contemporary designs?

Bruce Buckland

Architecture as a discipline and a profession is in trouble. The reasons for this are as broad as they are deep, but here I would like to focus specifically on stylistic preference as it relates to beauty.
As an architect, to even attempt to have a conversation about beauty is to be ostracised, mocked, laughed at, hounded, pilloried and pushed to the architectural establishment’s bleak and isolated fringes. There you can nurse your festering carbuncles into fruition and foist them on the world with minimal attention and absolutely zero peer acknowledgement.
The trouble is though, that the public don’t seem to agree with mainstream architectural opinion when it comes to beauty. People really like beautiful buildings. Tourist boards know this very well. The Sagrada Familia, the Taj Mahal, the Palace of Versailles, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Cotswold villages, the cities of Amsterdam, Venice, Bath, and Bruges; the list goes on. But why these and not others? What is it about these places that makes people flock to them? Why do they consistently feature in the likes of ’50 most beautiful places to see before you die’ lists scattered across the internet.
The usual riposte in this debate is that beauty is subjective, and most people just have ‘bad’ taste. Or that sure, many old buildings are beautiful, but why would we do things the same way now? We’ve moved on, it is argued. Times have changed. This is the modern world.
But have things moved on? Or are there deeper factors at play here?
The central problem we have is that architecture is still considered an art, not a science. It is therefore seen as immune from the usual rigorous peer-reviewed objectivity-seeking intellectual standards that form the foundations of mainstream academia. The idea that architecture is more art than science is demonstrably false, but it requires science to prove this point. Unfortunately, because of this bias towards the artistic over the scientific in architectural education, the awareness or interest of architects in any scientific literature on perceptual psychology, evolutionary psychology and neuroaesthetics is virtually zero.
What this means is that architecture develops more along the lines of stylistic whim or fashion, rather than by objective measure and feedback. This is not to diminish the artistic and creative elements, which have indispensable roles to play within architecture, not least in pushing the boundaries of what is possible, but they are not measures by which quality or beauty can be judged.
Is it really about style?
To return to the title question: ‘what do people like about old architectural styles and how can they be incorporated into contemporary designs?’ This question contains two major assumptions which should not be left unchallenged. Firstly, do people really prefer old architectural styles? And secondly, is it the styles they prefer or are there other variables at play?
I could very easily speculate on what may or may not be the relative weight of influence of each confounding variable here, but the only way to really understand the answers to these questions would be to undertake extremely carefully designed psychological or even neurobiological studies that sufficiently measured and controlled for enough variables such that reliable conclusions could be drawn based on the data. In other words, the normal scientific process.
This is precisely what is lacking in architecture, and what has always been lacking. Architecture is mostly about psychological manipulation; about making people feel and behave in a certain way based on their surroundings. But what use is that if you don’t understand the mechanisms by which these feelings and behaviours come about? What is it that people like about old architectural styles? It’s simply impossible to say without data.
For the sake of more immediate progress though, I will offer some of my own speculations as to what might be the underlying causalities behind people’s apparent preference for historical architectural styles. The key word here being ‘apparent’.

Variable 1: Age/History
There is a plethora of emotions that certain buildings can evoke. Some proportion of this emotion however may be linked not to the architectural quality of the building itself, but to its historical associations. To disentangle this particular confounding variable would require comparison between buildings of equal age and historical association, but of different style. Perhaps a good way of thinking about this is the following: consider two identical neo-classical country houses. They are alike in every way. One was built in 1790. The other was built in 2015. How do your feelings differ towards each of them? It is also impossible to disentangle age from historical context, meaning this may be the most difficult of all the variables to control for.
Additionally, age brings with it weathering, and it may well be the case that greater weathering induces greater levels of emotional association, perhaps from a feeling that a building is more connected or embedded in its place, or perhaps from the effects the weathering has on the harmony of the building’s colour palette with that of its neighbours. For example, there is always a certain strangeness about seeing new or cleaned masonry on historic buildings. It somehow seems less authentic, even though it looks like the building would have done when first constructed.

Figure 1 - The difference before and after cleaning St. Paul's Cathedral, London.

Variable 2: Materiality
Further to the effects of weathering, the choice of material itself may well have a significant effect. Historical architectural styles tend to use stone, brick and timber, whilst more contemporary styles more often use concrete, steel, glass, render and panelled façade systems. To control for materiality therefore would require comparing contemporary buildings with historic ones that were of the same materiality, at least externally.

Figure 2 – Fibre cement cladding on a residential block in London.

Figure 3 – The Bloomberg European HQ (Foster + Partners, 2018) uses cladding systems but with natural materials such as stone and wood.

​​​​​​​Variable 3: Visual weight and structure
Related to materiality is the idea that people can perceive the structural mechanisms by which a building stands. Contemporary and especially modernist architecture often includes ‘floating’ cantilevers for example, which could be considered to run contrary to our instinctual perception of physics. Historical buildings however are more often constructed of structural masonry, which necessarily lends them a greater visual weight, which may ease the perceptual transition from the relative ‘lightness’ of a building to the ‘weight’ and solidity of the ground. Many modern buildings deliberately emphasise the distinction between the ground and the building by use of pilotis (stilts) and attempts at blurring the ground level transition between inside and out.

Figure 4 – The Robie House (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1910) has a broad  masonry base that visually as well as physically grounds the building.

​​​​​​​Figure 5 – Villa Savoye (Le Corbusier, 1931) is one of the first buildings to use pilotis, visually disconnecting it from the ground.

Variable 4: Scale
This is a very easy variable to control for, so I suspect the effect is minimal. One can also point to examples such as Chicago, where large scale buildings nonetheless are often considered beautiful. Scale in and of itself I suspect is not a confounder with regards to style. It may be that different styles affect the perception of scale and street proximity differently, which may have an effect on beauty.

Figure 6 – Accordia, Cambridge (Alison Brooks, 2006), a very popular and widely admired development.

​​​​​​​Figure 7 – A typical mews, Kensington, London.

Going from the individual building level to the urban realm however can uncover where scale exerts its primary influence. At the urban level coherence of scale within set parameters may well lend a given urban environment a greater sense of harmony, which additionally may contribute to its perceived beauty.

Variable 5: Formal and visual complexity (ornament)
This is, in my opinion, the most important single contributing factor to beauty. It is also the one most closely related to style. There are a great many reasons why ornament is the most significant characteristic distinguishing historical styles from contemporary styles, and why it is so important in affecting psychological reaction to the built environment. In broader terms though, what are the key points?
To begin with you can look at precedents. Almost all of what are widely regarded the world’s most beautiful buildings are highly ornamented. Indeed of the top 100 ‘Most Beautiful Buildings in the World’ on crowd-voting site Ranker[1], 95% are moderately or highly ornamented. The highest ranking non-ornamented building is the Sydney Opera House which sits at number 35, not-so-closely followed by the Empire State Building at number 53.

The top 5 are:
Taj Mahal
Neuschwanstein Castle
Milan Cathedral
Hungarian Parliament Building

Figure 8 – Taj Mahal (Ustad Ahmad Lahauri, 1653)

Figure 9 – Hungarian Parliament Building (Imre Steindl, 1904)

So why do people like ornamented buildings so much? Well again, it would take detailed research to establish this definitively, but my own thesis is based around one fundamental reason; it’s because of maths. I would suggest that ornament can be understood as a direct reflection of the complexity of underlying mathematical structures and self-similar patterns that cross multiple scales to possibly infinite orders of magnitude. The old trope about the golden section is not so much about the ratio itself, but about the self-similarity of the scaling patterns created by that ratio. For those interested, I have set out these various reasons and their complexities in my paper ‘The New Sympathy’.[2] Let me be clear, this is just my own theoretical framework. To validate this would take a great many detailed scientific studies to build up a sufficient evidence base, which would all need to be peer reviewed and be subject to intense scientific scrutiny and competent causal and statistical modelling.
Unfortunately though, architecture is not sufficiently scientific to undertake such work. Institutions such as the Building Research Establishment (BRE) have done a fantastic job of investigating the environmental and technical side of building and construction, and the Journal of Environmental Psychology[3] has published a number of interesting studies[4], but we have still barely scratched the surface of what is needed.
Until this happens we will make little meaningful progress in understanding what constitutes beautiful architecture. Architectural beauty is no more subjective than anatomical beauty (which definitely isn’t)[5], and it is only through rigorous scientific experimentation that any notion of objective standards of beauty might be reached. Anyone telling you one architectural style is more beautiful than another is guilty of the same offence. Arguments must be backed up with evidence, and as of yet, that evidence is very lacking indeed.
So what do people like about old architectural styles? Well frankly, no one knows for sure yet, so before we start promoting one style or another, let’s do the research and find out.
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[1] https://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-list/the-most-beautiful-buildings-around-the-world
[2] https://brucebuckland.academia.edu/research
[3] https://www.journals.elsevier.com/journal-of-environmental-psychology/
[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494414001030
[5] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090513809000889
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