New study suggests why museum architecture is so curvy, and it’s not because visitors like it so


In 1959 Frank Lloyd Wright defended his design for the Guggenheim Museum from the charge that his curved architecture would subjugate the paintings inside: “Rather, it was to make building and painting a beautiful unbroken symphony. like the art world never before.

Today, a curvilinear “symphony” is the hallmark of many museums designed by starch makers: the baroque museum in Puebla (designed by Toyo Ito), the Guggenheim Bilbao (Gehry), the Heydar Aliyev center in Baku (Zaha Hadid), the Louis Vuitton Foundation (Gehry) and the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum (Santiago Calatrava), to name a few.

But is the public as charmed by all these curved, arched, inclined surfaces as the architects who designed them are? Not according to a new study published in the journal Psychology of aesthetics, creativity and the arts, who compared the architectural preferences of non-experts to those of professional architects and designers.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Photo by Ian West / PA, Images via Getty Images.

When asked to compare four images of curvilinear rooms with four rectilinear, the non-experts – in this case a group of 71 college students who have never studied architecture, interior design or history of art – showed no preference for one over the other. But those who identified themselves as professional architects or designers have always found curvilinear spaces more beautiful.

The researchers suggest that these taste differences could be the result of architectural training programs. “[A]among experts, greater sensitivity to contours could be a function of negative associations with rectilinear contours, refined by professional practice and training, ”they write.

But a second part of the study adds an intriguing paradox to the results.

The researchers then asked the participants how likely they would be to enter each of the rectilinear and curvilinear spaces. And it turns out that the non-experts were Following likely to opt for curved rooms than experts were. “The reason for this difference is unclear,” say the researchers.

They hypothesize, however, that this could be summed up as another effect of the training: even though the experts may have “sharpened” their eyes to appreciate the spaces at the level of purely aesthetic form, they also refrained from doing so. other types of positive associations. ordinary people have a curvy architecture.

What is that? The article argued that “we owe our preference for curvature to a coupling between this perceptual characteristic (ie the curved configuration) and the sensorimotor processes adapted to it in the brain”. That is, the curves trigger an association with the sensation of movement.

“Perhaps when asked to make an entry-exit decision, the functionality or usability of a space becomes the relevant framework of choice for non-expert participants,” the researchers write. “Experts can be trained to visualize images of architectural spaces without passion and be less subject to the implicit behavioral biases rendered by their visual characteristics.”

So, the real result of the study may be that architects do not feel the appeal of their own designs.

The Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee. Photo by Jeff Greenberg / UIG via Getty Images.

The Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee. Photo by Jeff Greenberg / UIG via Getty Images.

The study is just the latest in a large body of ongoing research into the preferences of the rectilinear design over the curvilinear design. Previous studies have shown that infants look at round shapes longer than angular shapes. Monkeys have also shown a preference for curved outlines. And it has been found that travelers favor rounded architecture at airports. But this study is rare in its focus on the role that expertise plays in these judgments.

In short, the public may not necessarily agree with Gehry that the Guggenheim is more of a “beautiful symphony” than, say, the square brutalism of the Met Breuer. But, for reasons we’ll have to leave for future study for now, they’re even more inclined to go inside.

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