Art and Neuroscience (3 of 3)

Aalto's architecture is based on sensory realism. His buildings are not based on a single dominant concept or gestalt; rather, they are sensory agglomerations. They sometimes even appear clumsy and unresolved as drawings, but they are conceived to be appreciated in their actual physical and spatial encounter, 'in the flesh' of the lived world, not as constructions of idealised vision.

-Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, pg 71

Architectural beauty as Art form, and Neuroscience

The phenomenon of beauty still remains quite unknown; we know that different brain regions activate when viewing ugly, beautiful, and ‘neutral’ objects. Despite subjective differences, however, there is still a general understanding of the aesthetic qualities of art.§ We should aim to reject the traditional Vitruvian and Wottonian concepts of beauty in architecture as symmetry and proportionality as they fall short of being universal because of being founded on, and thus limited by, Western ideologies. Art is a diversely complex practice whose definition should not be vested in the ‘institutional view’ that limits the appellation of art to a select few, those “persons appropriately situated with respect to “the artworld.”§ This is critical in exploring particularly diasporic forms of art such as architecture which exist across a diaspora of cultures, societies, religions, etc. and in recognizing that beauty is not the entire container of spaesthetic experience (SX), rather, a unit.

Neuroaesthetics research has tended to exclude architecture and other functional art forms in lieu of focusing on traditionally defined ‘high arts’ like painting and music. Perhaps this is because more are familiar with how to grapple with basic aesthetic judgments of painting, (form, composition, balance, etc.) even without the ‘’formal’ training. As compared to architecture, a highly complex SX phenomenon that influences behavior and patterns through spatial manipulation, leaving a much deeper imprint on its users. Additionally, the widespread misunderstanding of architecture as a purely functional form deprives it of the same discourse art receives of judgement and critique.

Neuroaesthetics started out with a focus on beauty as a central candidate for our appraisal of art (Kawabata and Zeki, 2004; Vartanian and Goel, 2004). (...) Beauty has a longstanding history in the arts. It is the most frequent word associated with the aesthetic in general (Jacobsen et al., 2004) and—together with “ugly”—the only category used to describe aesthetics across a multitude of object classes (faces, landscapes, patterns, visual art, etc.; see Augustin et al., 2012). Beauty is, in the empirical literature, most directly related to an aesthetic pleasure component (Reber et al., 2004). Yet this pleasure component makes beauty a problematic candidate: artworks can be disgusting and horrifying, and be nonetheless evaluated as good works of art. Such works can be disturbing rather than pleasant but still highly valued. This does not make beauty a good candidate to underlie appreciation.§


In studies on art perception, researchers could not establish a clear correlation between activities of the “smile” muscle (M. zygomaticus major) and aesthetic ratings. It was rather the perceived content of the artworks, i.e., the valence of the depicted scenes or of the emotions in the painting, that significantly affected the muscle’s activity (Leder et al., 2014). Also, the cognitive dimension that we value in our engagement with art (e.g., being challenged and engaging with complexity) does not fit the hedonic characteristic of beauty experiences. As we have suggested, we may come to experience these works as beautiful after some time, e.g., because we came to appreciate them for the aforementioned cognitive reasons. Yet this then rather constitutes a perceptual consequence of our appreciation, an adjustment after the fact, and not the process of appreciation itself.§


We’ve recognized that the value of art is not solely tied to its beauty, rather the type of engagement which ‘qualifies’ as appreciation. 

There are propositions of multiple emotions that could be seen to qualify as appreciation, though there is agreement that interest is not akin to aesthetic experience. If interest does not breach the threshold of aesthetic experience but the first criterion of Functionalism, that of conscious intentionality, is fulfilled, it is not art. 

This is the main problem for interest: interest is simply not sufficient for appreciation. Even if it turns out that a form of continuous appraisal of both our cognitive capacities and the challenge of the respective artwork is necessary, something beyond interest has to account for appreciation. This becomes even more obvious when one considers possible sources of interested engagement. A TV series or a movie that we follow, interested throughout its duration, might not be appreciated as good: it might challenge us just enough to maintain a level of interest without ever reaching the level of an appreciated work of art.§

We recognize that interest is a step below appreciation, but the emotions involved with appreciation still remain unknown. Joerg Fingerhut and Jesse J. Prinz compare wonder with beauty, interest, and being moved, and argue that wonder is one of the main emotions involved in defining appreciation and analyze “three sub-emotional components: cognitive perplexity, perceptual engagement, and a sense of reverence” to support their claim.§ It is made explicit that art appreciation is not a cognitive response but that it is 

emotionally embodied. Compare, again, morals. It may take much thought to realize that someone lied to us, but once we do, we have a negative feeling toward that person, and this enters into our moral judgment that the person acted badly.§

Being moved introduces an interesting insight into appreciation. While “it is an intense response (which favors it over interest) but not necessarily a pleasurable response (which favors it over beauty). This makes being moved a promising candidate.”§ Yet, “[i]n disaster movies, melodramas, or even soap operas, we might be deeply moved and might watch them for this reason. Yet audiences that find them moving do not necessarily think they are good works of art.” § Fingerhut and Prinz claim that wonder is a good candidate in understanding appreciation because of its sub emotional components and because it 

involves cognitive perplexity, sensory engagement, and a form of reverence. All three components have been addressed by artists throughout human history (...) They [artworks] challenge us, bewilder us, and overwhelm us. Unlike nonartistic forms of communication (such as diagrams or nonliterary discourse), artists make choices that transcend mere communication of ideas, and that challenge us and create a sense of perplexity. Art also instills reverence. We are amazed at technical mastery, at originality, at grandeur, and at outpourings of expression. We revere great artists, and, even when their names are lost to history, great artistic achievements, like the pyramids of Giza, impress us as worthy of deepest respect.§


beauty itself is, arguably, not mere sensory stimulation; it might engage us in more complex mental processing and can also instill a sense of mystery and reverence. Yet, there are many things we admire in art that transcend beauty. We admire skill, extreme perseverance, invention, expression, insight, and raising consciousness. We need an account of appreciation that goes beyond the sensory; the cognitive and spiritual components of wonder do just that. With regard to pleasure, we noted above that some great art is disturbing, harrowing, and even horrific. Wonder allows for this. Natural disasters, such as volcanoes, and human carnage, such as sacrificial rites, can instill wonder. Brutality and tragedy fill us with confusion and awaken existential thoughts about the fragility of life. Wonder, which evokes a sense of our own smallness, can arise in the face of the tragic and the catastrophic.§

Wonder seems the strongest candidate to qualify as a basis for appreciation; but there is no mass consensus on what qualifies as appreciation other than the rejection of beauty and the understanding of interest as a weaker level of appreciation. 

Rejecting Symmetry.

Just as beauty was considered to be an indicator of the value of art, as was symmetry. Vitruvius and Wotton’s ideas of architectural beauty were founded in symmetry and proportionality. Vitruvius writes, 

[t]here is nothing to which an architect should devote more thought than to the exact proportions of his building with reference to a certain part selected as the standard. After the standard of symmetry has been determined, and the proportionate dimensions adjusted by calculations, it is next the part of wisdom to consider the nature of the site, or questions of use or beauty, and modify the plan by diminutions or additions in such a manner that these diminutions or additions in the symmetrical relations may be seen to be made on correct principles, and without detracting at all from the effect.§

Wotton echoes Vitruvius’ thoughts,

In truth a sound piece of good Art, where the Materials being but ordinarie stone, without any garnishment of sculpture, doe yet ravish the Beholder, (and hee knowes not how). And this indeede is that end, at which in some degree, we should ayme even in the privatest workes: whereunto though I make haste, yet let me first collect, a few of the least triviall cautions, belonging to the Materiall Provision.§

Symmetry is the “extent to which one-half of an object (image, organism, etc.) is the same as the other half,” (around an axis); asymmetry is “the state of two halves, sides, or parts that are not exactly the same in shape or size”; and proportion as “the correct or most attractive relationship between the size of different parts of the same thing or between one thing and another.”§

This image:

relays Vitruvius’ ideas most simply; that timeless beauty comes from nature and proportion/symmetry, and that the human body was an emulation of these principles. Also, that the “'ideal' human body fitted precisely into both a circle and a square,” which proved the link between “perfect geometric forms and the perfect body.”§ Thus, an architect should refer “to the unquestionable perfection of the body's symmetry and proportions. If a building is to create a sense of eurythmia - a graceful and agreeable atmosphere - it is essential that it mirrors these natural laws of harmony and beauty.”§ (However, we must also note that such drawings were distortions of the human body to fit it within the geometric ideal; which indicates that the desire to quantify beauty was stronger than the desire to observe and record reality).

There is a substantial amount of research that suggests humans love symmetry. One of the more simpler explanations offered as to why is “[t]he search for symmetry, and the emotional pleasure we derive when we find it, must help us make sense of the world around us, just as we find satisfaction in the repetition of the seasons and the reliability of friendships. Symmetry is also economy. Symmetry is simplicity. Symmetry is elegance."§ Furthermore, symmetry is not subjective and can therefore be agreed upon; so, in trying to find a common ground to discuss the characteristics or ‘beauties’ of an object, it becomes easier to backpedal on symmetry. 

We don’t like unfinished things, which is why our brain will fill in the image below to tell us we’re seeing a cube overlapping 8 black circles. Gestalt theory tells us the whole is other than the sum of parts, which is why we don’t automatically register each component separately. 


“It's [brain] primed to recognize signs of order in the "accidental" chaos, and to follow certain rules or shortcuts to make sense of the world. Symmetry is one of those shortcuts.”§


One of the major deterrents in determining the features of an attractive face lies in the widespread belief that standards of attractiveness are learned gradually through exposure to culturally presented ideals (e.g. through the media in Western society) and this has also led to a general belief that cultures vary dramatically in what they perceive to be attractive [18]. If this were true, it would mean that attractiveness is arbitrary and what is beautiful now could, in a different time or place, be considered unattractive. The well-known phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a testament to our belief that attractiveness is ephemeral (...)

In fact, agreement between individuals is one of the best-documented and most robust findings in facial attractiveness research since the 1970s. Across many studies it has been found that there is a high degree of agreement from individuals within a particular culture and also high agreement between individuals from different cultures (see [2] for a meta-analytical review). If different people can agree on which faces are attractive and which are not attractive when judging faces of varying ethnic background (e.g. [23]), then this suggests that people everywhere are all using the same, or at least similar, criteria in their judgements.§ § §

Symmetry in measuring facial attractiveness is considered more attractive, as well as a supplement to the “‘What is beautiful is good’ stereotype.”§ Furthermore, an evolutionary understanding of symmetry views facial and appearance symmetry as an indicator of mating advantage, ultimately to say that

preferences guide us to choose mates who will provide the best chance of our genes surviving (...) we know that the optimal developmental outcome is symmetry. Therefore, any deviation from perfect symmetry can be considered a suboptimal solution which will result in performance problems in the future. (...) Preferences for symmetry can then, potentially, provide both direct (e.g. by avoiding contagion) and indirect benefits (e.g. by providing healthy genes for offspring) to the perceiver. (...) it should be noted that fitness-related characteristics, such as growth rate, fecundity and survivability, are positively associated with symmetry across a number of species and taxa and ultimately, any link between symmetry and quality, no matter how weak, is sufficient to create a selection pressure on the opposite sex to choose symmetric mates in order to provide genetic quality benefits to their offspring.§

However, in a study of children aged 4 that reported aesthetic differences between symmetrical and asymmetrical visual patterns, “[c]hildren looked longer at the symmetrical patterns, relative to otherwise similar but asymmetrical patterns, but they showed no explicit preference for those patterns” which implies that symmetry may be a pervasively learned trait, and/or a trait necessary for beautiful faces but not other things. §

While Bornstein et al. reported more efficient recognition of vertically symmetrical patterns by 4-month-old infants, they also found that only 12-month-old infants show an attentional preference for vertical symmetry compared to horizontal symmetry or asymmetry, as indicated by longer looking times. It is not clear whether this attentional preference has an aesthetic component for infants. 


For facial attractiveness, symmetry implies health and therefore good mate quality. For young children, however, mate quality likely has no meaning or rewarding value. If this is true, then adolescents after puberty should pay more attention to symmetry related facial attractiveness, and this indeed has been confirmed by studies. §

This further supports the possibility that symmetry may be a learned trait and an indicator for attractiveness in people. These findings on facial symmetry differ from the discourse surrounding symmetry in art and aesthetic objects. Johan Wagemans’ work has found that symmetry drives “tendencies towards good organization and simple organization,” but at the same time, “they're [symmetrical designs] not necessarily more beautiful”; citing that both people with no art training and experts prefer art that strikes an “optimal level of stimulation.”§ Balance and visual salience (paintings) in both symmetrical and asymmetrical pieces seems to be more relevant in stimulation and thus preference.§

Balance judgment is the same for colored and black-and-white reproductions of art works. Spatial location seems more prominent in balance judgment than color or size; and, counter to Arnheim's ecological theory, studies show that vertical position does not affect balance, despite the illusory effect of perspective (McManus et al 1985). Furthermore, cropping the left or right edge of the picture moves the perceived center of balance towards the new middle regardless of specific objects, suggesting that balance results from global integration of information (...) Studies suggest that both art-trained and novice viewers rapidly achieve complex global impressions of artwork gist including balance perception (Locher and Stappers 2002; Locher et al 1996, 2007; McManus et al 1985), perhaps within 100 ms, though these studies did not employ methods to isolate early processing from later cognitive processing.§

So, to suggest that symmetry is casual of beauty, at least in aesthetic judgements of art/objects, this notion is not completely valid. This seems almost intuitive, for in regarding some asymmetrical architectural structures, such as the Seattle Library or Gehry’s MIT Stata Center,  how could we possibly call them not beautiful? How can we disregard the Japanese design principle of fukinsei (asymmetry), which 

can almost be equated with imperfection. It is representative of life, and embraces the incompleteness and imperfection of existence (...) Fukinsei does not mean that design should be lopsided, but a balance has to be struck across the entire subject.§

§“The enso (“Zen circle”) in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.”§

As we reject symmetry and proportionality as casual of beauty, we must put forth another candidate. What do the most successful structures have in common? What makes them flow - spatially, sensorily? The answer seems so simple that we often take it for granted: unity between the individual components of the space! Elbert Peets, a landscape architect, is credited for the idea of ‘flow of space,’ the attribution of the “body’s kinetic sensation” and “the power of space itself.”§  

Hence, architectural beauty must be most holistically founded in harmony, “the combination of separate but related parts in a way that uses their similarities to bring unity to a painting, drawing, or other art object.”§ Harmony between building components resulting in structural unity is architectural beauty. It is appropriate to consider it as a metric for beauty because it is holistic while defined; it accounts for the infinite number of variabilities in architecture and gives them freedom to exist and mutate while maintaining a subjectively and objectively determinable set of criterion: the cohesiveness of the overall. 

As was noted earlier, architecture differs from other aesthetic experiences because it creates active spatial fields which require engagement and awareness on all sensory levels. Thus, we must account for this difference in architecture from other aesthetic practices in our definition to differentiate it.


I understand architectural beauty as an operation of SX. Structural unity can be garnered from a facade visually, but true feelings of unity and harmonious relationships must be a direct result of the sensory stimuli. By way of the materials and spatial practices the building maintains and creates within (typology) and around it (typology), unity is determined by the architect. It is either reinforced or disputed by the spatial participant (the sparti) who performs architecture in entering the space and allowing the collaboration between self, Self, the physical structure, and the spatial attitude to work. 

Following the design philosophy of Functionalism for defining art, I established a litmus test of 2 direct requirements and 1 indirect requirement. Those respectively being: the need for conscious intention to exist in the creative process, and the need for art to engage with its audience/participants. The third, slightly indirect requirement is that not all ‘art’ is art; or, the granting of the ability to exclude and identify art works through mass consensus, which emancipates art from a traditionalist and Westernized perspective, and allows us to consider ‘functional objects’ as art. Relevant as non-Western art objects should not be excluded from art and their cultural purposes should be noted and appreciated for what they are, instead of under the superimpositions of Western standards. As architecture is an intercontinental discipline, this is highly relevant. This democratization allows the general public to make ‘informal’ decisions on whether certain architectural structures are art. Or, if they belong to the other two categories of proxy/operative structures, which I identify as exceptions in architecture as an art. 

The notion of a globalized art form and the ability for people to decide what art is, is mirrored by the findings suggesting that symmetrical appreciation is a cross cultural phenomenon. Meaning, as cross-cultural understandings of beauty of art are not completely subjective speculations, we must give more weight to the idea that we can ‘vote’ through movement and spatial engagement, as a general consensus already exists. 

The implication that symmetry is a learned trait is also supported through studies of aesthetic judgements. Thus, the traditional idea of symmetry as beauty should not be considered as such a cumulative artistic edifice as before. This seems quite congenital as asymmetry persists in art and art objects; so to nix something as art merely on the grounds of symmetry and therefore conflated appreciation of beauty as symmetry, denies the multiplicity of art and architecture as a practice.

All this evidence provided, I concur that architectural beauty is at its core a united harmony: one determined by the sparti through their SX. SX determined through a variety of factors such as the sensory stimuli which are enhanced/created through the usage of physical and spatial qualities the structure possesses, enhances, and fabricates. 

This understanding of architectural beauty is quintessential in a broader conversation surrounding how we define art and understand architecture as part of it. It maintains a flexibility in understanding and incorporating personal tastes (subjectivity/cultural/social etc. difference). It defines the boundaries of art, because we should not consider it to be anything and everything. Functionalism is unfettered in its inclusivity yet simultaneous mindfulness of art and architecture’s context as a cross-cultural and historical practice.



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