“Ugly” buildings and the importance of mindful communication

“Ugly” buildings and the importance of mindful communication

One of the most frequently disparaged buildings in recent Ontario history is Toronto’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum (above, photo courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum / Sam Javanrouh). The media have been unrelenting in their criticism of the building. Voting it “worst of the decade,” Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post (“Best of the decade: Architecture,” December 27, 2009) adds, “Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto surpasses the ugliness of bland functional buildings by being both ugly and useless”. The website virtualtourist.com placed the Crystal in the number eight spot in its annual “World’s Top 10 Ugly Buildings” poll.

Recently an essay of mine and two co-authors’ was re-published in the Ontario Association of Architects anniversary book[1] (you can read it here on page 15[2]). Our chapter featured the question of “why some buildings are so ugly”.

By approaching this question from a person-centric perspective, we elaborated on three key themes: (1) the building’s usability and adaptability moderating the perception of a building’s aesthetic quality (2) the socio-cultural context the building stems from and is currently situated in, and (3) the perceptional divide and communicational barriers between experts and non-professionals, which must be overcome to prevent misevaluation and misuse.

I would like to talk about the third theme, its applicability to our everyday work as designers and consultants, and its importance for change management. As we know, successful communication in developing and depicting strategic decisions is key to our work, whether it happens within the team, with the client or with the end-user.

However, it is often forgotten that we do not share the same knowledge, understanding and associations as our clients or end-users, which consequently sets unequal starting points for conversation. Therefore, we as experts have to actively manage the perceptional divide between us and the non-professional counterpart. This requires almost investigative work: active/attentive listening, identifying preconceptions or misinformed ideas and, importantly but labour intensive, translating qualities without drifting into jargon.

By drawing on academic work[3] we found that, although the difficulty in communicating between two “worlds” of expertise is a problem, at the same time, effective communication carries the solution to bridge the gap to a mutual understanding. To successfully build this so-called “communicational bridge”, an understanding of the reasons for the systematic differences in the perception of the built environment between experts and non-professionals is necessary, and will lead to tools for successful communication and, effectively, to successful design solutions.

Generally, this difference in perception is a well-documented phenomenon. Although explanations are varied, we can safely say that a central aspect lies in the background of experiences gained through many years of architectural/design education, professional experience and its socialization, which leads to a difference in the cognitive state. The experts develop a frame of reference which leads him/her to identify connections to current, historical, or technical contexts — to see a building as result of a design and building process. As the non-professional does not wear these “knowledge goggles”, he/she tends not to have this capability and sees a building solely as a surface of hypothetical use.[4]

Alongside this, several studies[5] have supported the existence of “image banks” — a mental database of architectural solutions. For architects and designers, these banks include a wide range of past, international and future projects cognitively “stored” under various categories and are, obviously, more developed than the non-professionals’ image banks. We see this in the differences in perceived meaning of architecture, for example: a monolithic, sculptural style often described by experts as “clear” and “honest” can be perceived by non-professionals as “naked”, “unfinished”, or “heavy block” architecture. Interestingly, the handling of deviation from these “object schemata” varies between both groups: non-experts also tend to prefer buildings which are similar to their norm and experiences, whereas experts prefer innovation and the unusual, pushing the boundaries in the search for innovation. [6]

But the difference itself is not the problem; it is how we communicate across it.

Designs do not necessarily speak for themselves or have the power alone to change behaviours, no matter how good the design solution might be. We must reform our communications to fully understand the user’s needs and preferences, and raise understanding of design solutions. This is particularly crucial to change management processes and is a chance to create designs with people in mind, and guarantee the best reciprocal process possible!

We identified four crucial aspects which generate a barrier to effective communication:

  • Professionals often view architecture as self-explanatory, which is not the case;
  • Some professionals appear to hold the opinion that it is impossible to express design/architectural qualities linguistically;
  • There tends to be a lack of willingness to communicate beyond professional borders, which would include adjustments to terminology;
  • Experts forget or fail to recognize that the public perceives design/architecture differently and, often lacking the willingness or ability to articulate these differences, misleadingly label non-professionals as philistines who are unable to recognise a design’s value.

This leads into four communicational Dos/Don’ts:

  • Explain the design, no matter how obvious!
  • Try hard to explain design qualities even if you struggle to put it into words. Try to explain the experience of use.
  • Use everyday language, not jargon. You wouldn’t want your doctor to explain a medical condition to you in terminology you don’t understand.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the other, try to understand any lack of awareness, and translate (see point 3) the important information for them.

Keeping an eye on these pitfalls will help us to communicate better across borders and to generate design solutions with people in mind. Even though design quality is not easy to express and to explain, an effort should certainly be made to raise clients’, end-users’ and consequently the public’s understanding and valuation of good design solutions.

 

Clara WeberClara Weber, doctorate candidate in psychology, is a consultant at AECOM’s Strategy Plus practice in London. 

Notes

[1]http://www.oaa.on.ca/professional%20resources/resources%20for%20architects%20&%20practices/125th%20Anniversary%20Book

[2] http://www.oaa.on.ca/oaamedia/documents/OAAPerspectivesFall2012.pdf

http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/OAAQ0312/index.php

[3] Benz, I. & Rambow, R. (2011). Sichtbeton in der Architektur: Perspektivenunterschiede zwischen Experten und Laien. Umweltpsychologie, 15(1), 112-129.

Rambow, R. (2000). Experten-Laien-Kommunikation in der Architektur. Münster: Waxmann.

Uzzell, D.L. & Jones, E. (2000). The development of a process-based methodology for assessing the visual impact of buildings. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 17(4), 330–343.

[4] Benz, I. & Rambow, R. (2011). Sichtbeton in der Architektur: Perspektivenunterschiede zwischen Experten und Laien. Umweltpsychologie, 15(1), 112-129.

Canter, D., Sanchez-Robles, J. C. & Watts, N. (1974). A scale for cross-cultural evaluation of houses. In D. Canter & T. Lee (Eds.), Psychology and the built environment (pp. 80–86). London: Architectural Press.

Hershberger, R. G. (1988). A study of meaning and architecture. In J. L. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: Theory, research, and application (pp. 175–194). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, M. & Canter, D. V. (1991). The development of central concepts during professional education: An example of a multivariate model of the concept of architectural style. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 32, 159–172; Wilson, M. (1996). The socialization of architectural preferences. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 33–44.

Wilson, M. (1996). The socialization of architectural preferences. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 33–44.

[5] Downing, F. (1992). Image banks. Dialogues between the past and the future. Environment and Behavior, 24, 441–470.

Stamps, A.E. & Nasar, J.L. (1997). Design review and public preferences: Effects of geographical location, public consensus, sensation seeking, and architectural styles. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 17 (1), 11–32.

Uzzell, D.L. & Jones, E. (2000). The development of a process-based methodology for assessing the visual impact of buildings. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 17(4), 330–343.

[6]Canter, D. (1969). An intergroup comparison of connotative dimensions in architecture. Environment and Behavior, 1, 37-48.

Devlin, K. & Nasar, J. L. (1989). The beauty and the beast: Some preliminary comparisons of “high“ versus “popular“ residential architecture and public versus architect judgements of the same. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 9, 333–344;

Hershberger, R. G. (1988). A study of meaning and architecture. In J. L. Nasar (Ed.), Environmental aesthetics: Theory, research, and application (pp. 175–194). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nasar, J. L. (1989). Symbolic meanings of house styles. Environment and Behavior, 21, 235–257.

Nasar, J. L. (1993). Connotative meaning of house styles. In G. Arias (ed.), The Meaning and Use of Housing: Ethnoscapes (bol.7) (pp. 143–167).

Purcell, A. T. (1986). Environmental perception and affect: A schema discrepancy model. Environment and Behavior, 18, 3–30;

Purcell, A. T. & Nasar, J. L. (1992). Experiencing other people’s houses: A model of similarities and differences in environmental experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 12, 199–211;

Sadalla, E. K. & Sheets, V. L. (1993). Symbolism in building materials: Self-presentational and cognitive components. Environment and Behavior, 25, 155–180.

Uzzell, D.L. & Jones, E. (2000). The development of a process-based methodology for assessing the visual impact of buildings. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 17(4), 330–343.

 

 

 

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