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.
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.
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