Straight vs. Curved Lines in Architecture – the Importance of Forms for our Well-being

Loving works of architecture is, in a way, like loving people – some are cute, interesting,  not too strange, and appear warm and friendly. They seem somewhat familiar and are easy to love from the first sight. Then there are others, who make a lousy first impression – they seem boring and cold, but when you get to know them, they grow on you. Even more, you fall crazily in love with them.

Farnsworth house, designed by  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951, an icon of 20th century modern architecture; photo by andrewzahn

And this is how I’d describe my love for modernist minimalistic design with its straight lines and rectilinear shapes. It wasn’t until I learnt about the philosophy behind it, that I started to see it as not boring, but pure; not cold, but honest; and not depressing, but rather idealistic. In spite of my initaial lack of interest, I eventually fell in love with it.

Contemporary homes in the South of England, clearly influenced by modernist ideals; photo by clickclickjim

However, there’s no guarantee that people will feel good in a home designed to speak clearly and honestly of its time, a home that’s an embodiment of the architect’s ideals. Edith Farnsworth’s infamous lawsuit against Mies van der Rohe spoke very loudly about her dissatisfaction with what  was critically proclaimed to be a masterpiece of modern architecture. And she wasn’t alone in her criticism. There were counter-movements to follow modernists aspirations.

Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1937, a prime example of his Organic style; photo by wallyg

Among other features postmodernists rejected, there were straight lines and angular forms. It has been stated over and over how much more compatible the free-flowing curved forms are to the human body and mind compared to rectilinear forms of modern architecture. After all, there are no straight lines in nature. A great deal of organic (/green) architecture, which now seems to be more popular than ever, revolves around the idea that the application of curvilinear surfaces in architectural design has a positive effect on human emotions and well-being. Fortunately, there were psychologists intrigued enough to test this hypothesis.

Fallingwater – living room with furniture designed by Wright; photo by wallyg

Dazki and Read (2011) measured the emotional responses to simulated, controlled interior settings of living rooms displaying curvilinear lines of furniture compared with settings displaying rectilinear lines of furniture. Participants in their study were  students were from design and art programs.

Rectangular and round kitchen counters; photo by ChalonHandmade

Even though the participants appraised these simulated grayish environments as generally bland and uninteresting, curvilinear forms elicited more pleasant emotions than did rectilinear forms. Pleasant, unarousing emotions such as feeling pleased, peaceful, contented, calm, and relaxed were associated with the curvilinear settings more. The unpleasant, arousing emotional states such as feeling stressed, annoyed, and angry were associated more with the rectilinear settings.

A chair inspired by natural forms; photo by Nature form furniture

Participant responses reflected a desire to approach the pleasant settings with curvilinear furniture more compared to the unpleasant settings with rectangular furniture. They also desired to spend more time in such settings and to affiliate with others more than in the settings with only rectilinear lines. Dazki and Read concluded that designing settings with curvilinear forms would promote feelings of happiness, calmness, and relaxation.

“Snail shell” Nautilus House in Naucalpan, Mexico, designed by Senosiain Arquitectos, 2007; photo by Sterin

In her doctoral dissertation, Madani Nejad (2007) addressed this issue by presenting drawings of living rooms to participants and recording  their emotional responses. Each drawing contained windows, a fireplace and furniture.

A living room with rectangular forms; photo by Polygon Homes

The original architectural designs did not have any curved forms and were then altered in a three-dimensional computer-aided design environment (ArchiCAD) to introduce curvature in the architectural elements. The same view was changed in eight approximately equal steps, transforming from rectilinear to curvilinear while all other variables remain constant.

A living room with more curvilinearity; photo by Posh Living, LLC

Interiors with increased curvature were rated as more pleasant, elevating, relaxing, friendly, personal, safe, mysterious, complex, and feminine. Madani Nejad also compared  graduate architecture students’ responses to non-architecture students responses. It turned out that the correlation between curvature and positive appraisal was much weaker in the architecture students’ sample for all variables except the Masculine-Feminine variable for which the architect group had a higher correlation. This result suggests that future architects  see curvilinear forms dominantly as feminine. Their experience, knowledge and familiarity with straight lines could explain the smaller difference in response to straight and curved lines, compared to relatively big difference in lay-people sample. However, curvature still elicits more positive responses for them.

I really like this London home by Granit Architects; photo by GranitArchitects

Loving works of architecture is, in a way, like loving people – one might be able to love and admire some of them, but just can’t live with them. I guess that’s the story with me and minimalist, rectilinear masterpieces of modernism. In their most orthodox form they aspire for order and perfection that makes me feel uncomfortable, like I don’t fit there. I have even research to back up the fact that it’s not uncommon to feel that way. So for me, it’s better to admire such works of architecture from afar. However, when I stumble upon contemporary interpretations of modernist ideals which are less strict, but still pure, I get a warm feeling  and experience nostalgia like when meeting an old love. And I even believe I could comfortably live in them.

References

Dazkir, S. S. & Read, M. A. (2011) Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments. Environment and Behavior 20(10), 1–13.

Madani Nejad, K. (2007). Curvilinearity in architecture: Emotional effect of curvilinear
forms in interior design. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University.
Retrieved from http://repository.tamu.edu/handle/1969.1/5750?show = full

About these ads

8 Comments to “Straight vs. Curved Lines in Architecture – the Importance of Forms for our Well-being”

  1. Fascinating. I thought I was a deep thinker. You certainly are and have the credentials to back up your writing. I’m just usually opinionated. Nice blog post. BTW I’ll be in Chicago visiting the Farnsworth house in a few months. I’ll get to form my own opinion of seeing it in person.

  2. Well, I’m posting 3 months after visiting the Farnsworth House in March. I will say that I couldn’t live there. Other than that, it’s amazing to see the pain-staking effort Mies went through. I don’t think most people could really appreciate it or value the effort. I find that if people don’t see how it functions in their realm of culture or comfort, they don’t get it. The only disappointment of my trip is the house is under construction and repair so it was full of scaffolding and temporary barriers. It has not weathered well, but it’s truly an icon worth saving.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Lee. I get that feeling quite often from contemporary works of architecture. Sometimes it’s the ones that strike me the most as beautiful (e.g. glass skyscrapers, all floor-to-ceiling windows, museum-like interior), that I find the least comfortable for living. It’s nice to dream that I could live there for a while, but my real life doesn’t fit at all with such design.

      • I could live in more edgy conditions that my family. However, we only give “awards” to the houses that are most unliveable. Why is that? I may have to write about that.

  3. I loved this article. I’m going to read your others when I get a chance. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Hey..
    I totally agree with the last line of your article.. About the contemporary interpretations of modernist ideals..

    However, talking about the forms of spaces in buildings , I feel that a majority of the people would feel more comfortable in a rectilinear space .. Not only are they functional but they also provide a sense of familiarity since a major of buildings consist of rectangular or square shaped rooms.. And like you mentioned maybe curvilinear setting in a rectilinear form together create the pleasant feeling that people find comfort in..??? Your view on this would really help me .! :)

    • Thanks for your input ayshi94! I agree with you – people seem to like round tables in square rooms, soft sofas combined with rectangular coffee tables etc. I guess that the question that remains to be answered is what is the most pleasant ratio of straight lines and curves for most people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers

%d bloggers like this: