Tuesday, May 22, 2018

How do we look at architecture?

Where do we put our attention when we look at a building? 



Here's a photograph of a Civil-War-era field hospital with an eye-tracking heat map overlaid. It shows that observers pay the most attention (red and yellow areas) to direct human presence.

There's a figure standing in the doorway, and a group of other figures to the left. The interest in the upper windows appears to be a search strategy for finding other people, or at least for learning about human presence indirectly. No one looks at the ground, the trees, or the chimney.


What if no people appear in the photograph? How do we respond to the purely abstract elements of architecture on their own terms? Here are two photos of a building, one with the side windows removed by Photoshop.

Researchers Ann Sussman and Janice Ward have discovered from such studies that "People ignore blank facades. People don’t tend to look at big blank things, or featureless facades, or architecture with four-sides of repetitive glass."


They also observed that "buildings with punched windows or symmetrical areas of high contrast perennially caught the eye, and those without, did not."
-----
Eye tracking of Civil War photos
Here's What You Can Learn About Architecture from Tracking People's Eye Movements

6 comments:

Evelyn said...

James, it appears that people anthropomorphize the building and look at its "features" -- most strikingly, look at the face revealed by the map of the house in the lower left! Thanks for another intriguing post.

James Gurney said...

Evelyn, your comment make sense. There have been other studies that have shown that that recognizing houses and cars employs the same structures of the brain that normally deal with face recognition.

To be scientific, we have to be cautious about drawing too many conclusions about why the attention centers where it does on windows or doors. Are we drawn by the symmetry? The contrast? Or the implied human presence? Who can say for sure?

And if something attracts the eye, does it mean it pleases us or gratifies us somehow? Or does it mean that we're scanning for threats, anomalies, or irritating elements?

Other questions: how much variation is there in how individual people look at these photos? What difference would it be if you were looking at the actual house rather than a photo of it? I think all these questions matter a great deal if we're really to understand why we look where we do.

Glenn Tait said...

Your comments raise an interesting point, all the eye tracking examples I've seen utilize two dimensional images (photos, paintings). Have there been, or are they able to do, eye tracking with a live observed scene?

James Gurney said...

Glenn, yes, I believe there have been eye tracking studies in real space, especially to study product placement and package design in store settings. There have also been eye tracking studies in Scotland and Australia showing how we track movement and editing in film. There need to be more studies, though!

Carole Mayne said...

Brilliant deduction, Mr. Holmes!! I think I will add some life to some lifeless landscapes and cityscapes. Thank you!

O Klozoff said...

Brings to mind the famous guy in the gorilla suit psychological experiment... you count the ball tosses by the white (or black) team but miss the gorilla entering the fray, jumping up and down entirely. Jordan Peterson discusses this in light of his point that we "see what we aim at". You would think that our hard-wired predator response system would kick in and notice the gorillla, but for about half the viewers, it didn't. I think evo-psych aesthetics seems to be a field worthy of much more study. As for the the eyes going to the windows and other cave-like openings where beasties could be lurking... makes sense, esp if you aren't particularly looking for anything else, like counting ball tosses. I tend, personally, to start with survival/reproduction questions when looking for clues for why we behave the way we do... even if it's no more than inventing a "Just So" story.