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Do architects have a different taste in buildings compared to the rest of us? A recent Swedish study delves into this question, and the findings are intriguing.
In the study “Green City Branding – How People Respond to the Built Environment“, people were asked to rate five different urban scenes, each with its own style and period. Surprisingly, both professional architects and the public shared a fondness for traditional architectural designs over modernist ones. But here’s the twist: if everyone seems to prefer traditional styles, why do most new buildings lean toward modernist designs?
While both groups share an affinity for traditional buildings, the study reveals clear distinctions in how they value architecture. The public leans towards visual references, while architects favor associative or conceptual connections. These differences also extend to their views on authenticity.
Mindset Gap: Visual vs. Associative References
Imagine that a new building is to be constructed in a historic part of your town. According to the theory, the residents would prefer visual references, favoring architectural elements like style, form, materials, and color that align with or resemble existing structures. Conversely, an architect would likely rely on associative references. This means that the building may have a completely different appearance from the current surroundings but can establish connections to the town’s history or the nearby landscape through choices like color or an abstract shape.
Look at the example below. Would you be able to identify in what town, or what part of the world, it’s located?
The building is called Park49 and stands in Gothenburg, Sweden. Now, it doesn´t look like any historical buildings in the area, making it hard for most people to pinpoint its location. Instead, this is how the architect describes how it refers to its surroundings:
“The architecture of the house is inspired by water and the sea, where the lower building is meant to reflect the sea and its waves, and the taller building represents the white, towering iceberg. Simultaneously, the green inspiration is drawn from the adjacent park “Trädgårdsföreningen” with lush rooftop areas and terraces.”
Now, there are no icebergs in Gothenburg but the town does lie next to the sea, and the sea can be linked to icebergs. That’s why the building is designed to resemble an iceberg in the sea. In other words, the architect is using associative references. According to the study, these distinctions are rooted in the very fabric of architectural education, shaped by the enduring ideals of modernism.
The gap between the general public, who lean towards visual references, and architects, who favor associative references, goes beyond just adapting to surroundings. In the study, laymen assessed urban environments primarily based on looks and feelings, using words like beautiful or ugly. In contrast, architects employed unique descriptions, like “war”, “window cleaning” or “fruits”, indicating more abstract associations.
Understanding this mindset difference is essential for comprehending the following section – differences in views on authenticity. And why most architects can´t stand the thought of drawing new traditional or vernacular architecture.
Architects’ Preference for New Traditional Architecture
People generally appreciate traditional architectural styles, regardless of when they were constructed. Architects, too, tend to favor traditional styles and often reside in older structures, but the year of construction becomes more critical in their evaluation.
The study refers to a previous academic thesis, where architects and laymen were asked to assess a new building in a traditional style. Initially, everyone liked the building until they learned it was newly constructed. Architects then changed their opinion, while those outside the architecture profession held onto their initial stance. This change could be linked to the concept of authenticity, as architects didn’t consider it authentic to build in a classical style in modern times.
This study partially confirmed this pattern. It showed that architects who were unaware that an area in a traditional style was built in modern times used positive descriptions. In contrast, a clear majority of architects who knew the area was built in modern times used negative descriptions such as pastiche, fake, comical, kitsch, or Disneyland. In other words, architects do not consider it authentic to build new buildings in traditional styles.
Architectural Education’s Impact: Why Mixing Styles Divides Public Opinion and Unites Architects
In one part of the study, there were areas where different architectural styles mixed. Old wooden houses were next to tall buildings from the 1960s and 2010s. This mix of styles made people feel low and sometimes confused. Architects, however, generally liked this mix of styles. They thought it was a natural result of changes in how buildings are made, using words like “organic growth,” “authenticity,” and “co-existence” to describe it.
These differences between laypeople and architects are thought to be established during education. According to the study, the architectural schools are still influenced by modernist ideas where the architectural history is linear. Therefore, drawing new traditional architecture is considered fake.
Shaping Our Cities and Living Spaces – Who Are They Really For?
To conclude, there is a difference between how architects and people in general value architecture. And it is affecting what is being built today, thereby shaping people´s living environment. This does not mean that there is a right or wrong way of evaluating architecture. Instead, it prompts us to ask a fundamental question: When we shape our cities and living spaces, who are we ultimately building them for?
Click here to read the whole study.