Blog about architectural and design psychology

The charm of the ancient

Historic buildings seem to have a certain attraction that never wears off. Why do we like historic building so much?

Many of the most popular and favored places in cities around the globe are buildings from former centuries. They seem to attract citizens and radiate a feeling of comfort and grace. But why exactly do we like historic buildings that much and why are many modern buildings not able to create the same aura? This article attempts to explain, why antiquity never seems to wear off.

The old outlives the new

The historic city centers of many German cities were destroyed in Second World War. After the war had ended and ruins were removed, there was a big need for housing and buildings in general. In only a decade or two, the appearance of major German cities changed profoundly. For example, Frankfurt am Main merged from an old medieval trading town to a financial hub with skyscrapers and office buildings.

At the beginning, many of the new buildings were perceived as a sign of recovery and prosperity. With the millennium drawing to an end, however, dissatisfaction with the new city design rose. Ultimately, this led to relatively new buildings being demolished and replaced by replicates of the historic precursors. In Frankfurt am Main, the technical city hall from 1974 was deconstructed in 2010, only 36 years later. Now, the “new historic city center” Dom Römer is approaching its completion. Prices in this neighborhood will be quite high, not only because it is located very centrally, but also because of its historic looks.

Construction site of Humboldtforum in Berlin.

Construction site of Humboldtforum in Berlin.

Another very prominent example is the Humboldtforum in Berlin. The building’s façade is a replicate of the Berlin Palace, which was partly destroyed in the Second World War and ultimately demolished in 1950 by the GDR government. Subsequently, the Palast of the Republic was built at the very site in 1976. The building, which served as office of the GDR parliament, can be described as modern and beautiful, as this article on Spiegel Online shows.

However, there were several reasons why this building was deconstructed in 2008. This was not only because of the political changes after the German reunion and potential health hazards, as the building was contaminated with asbestos. It is also because the building was situated on Museum Island, which features a number of impressive museums and builds the core of pre-war Berlin.

Notably, it was not decided to erect another modern looking building, but to create a cultural forum with a façade imitating the Berlin Palace. Most people living in Germany today, though, have never seen the original Berlin Palace themselves. Neither have they ever walked through the historic streets of Frankfurt am Main. So why is such a large number of people excited about these and other projects? Why do we like historic buildings that much?

The science of pleasant buildings

As Philip Hubbard points out in his study, there are probably to distinct factors that render historic buildings particularly pleasant: their visual appearance and the meaning they convey. In fact, there are a few studies on what makes buildings pleasant in general that can help explaining this fact.

Complexity

Researchers Pall Lindal and Terry Hartig have found that people generally prefer urban surroundings of medium complexity. Complexity is caused, amongst others, by the number of varying buildings in a block and the number of different, incoherent elements at each building’s façade. Also, the more turns there are in a building silhouette, the more complex it is. If buildings are too simple, they may be perceived as monotonous and boring. It seems that many modern constructions like low-budget, postwar residential buildings fall into this category. In the opposite, if they are too complex, they tend to be perceived as chaotic and disturbing.

Interestingly, many minimalistic buildings are actually quite popular. From my perspective however, there is quite a difference between, say, a Bauhaus building and a postwar building. While Bauhaus indeed is characterized by a reduction or omission of ornaments, the arrangement of different building elements is usually quite unique. Each building tells a story of its particular purpose and interacts with its environment.

This can be observed in the Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, Germany, where complexity is realized across different buildings. Each building looks relatively minimalistic on its own, as it is barely ornamented and decorated. But each building is still unique within the neighborhood, which creates a moderate level of complexity. Many postwar buildings, though, are somewhat isolated form their environment and show very little complexity both in itself and compared to other buildings in the vicinity, as also Philip Hubbard mentions.

The reason often is that modern architecture is too large in scale. Due to the process of how historic cities emerged, they tend to consist of smaller houses of different width and height. Some modern projects try to imitate this pattern by dividing the façade in parts of slightly different design. Yet if the building’s height and general structure is the same for every part, people can easily identify that the they all belong to the same construction and positive effects are probably going to be small.

Bild 2 Alt und Neu

Modern architecture often only takes full effect in the context of old buildings.

Familiarity

Even though historic architecture was mostly build before our birth, we are highly familiar with its style. In a given geographical region, historic architecture of a particular age usually has a set of patterns and styling that are fairly easy to recognize. This is why the familiarity of historic architecture is often higher than of modern buildings. According to Philip Hubbard, we especially tend to like moderately familiar architecture.

In addition, also new and unfamiliar architecture can be pleasant, as long as its unfamiliarity is not too extreme. Interestingly, Jack Nasar reports a study, which found that architects most liked buildings that lay persons found least pleasant and vice versa. Accordingly, some modern architecture seems to be too exceptional and progressive to be appealing to the majority of people. An example may be brutalist architecture from the 1950s to 1970s. This may imply that at times, architects should aim to create designs that they personally find slightly boring.

On the other hand, cases like the Eiffel Tower show that buildings can become popular even though people did not like them at the beginning. Nasar indicates that buildings with high complexity and unfamiliarity can be perceived as exciting, too. However, this will not be the case in any circumstances. It depends on the context and purpose of a building, if familiarity should be high or low. In the case of the Eiffel Tower, which served as a landmark for the 1889’s World Fair in Paris, excitement may have well been a desirable characteristic. For a residential area, a rather prototypical building, that incorporates popular style elements and has a well structured façade may be a better choice, as it elicits a pleasant and calm feeling.

Naturalness

Several studies have shown that natural materials are generally more pleasant than artificial ones, as Nasar mentiones. In modern architecture, the use of artificial materials is higher than in historic architecture, which is because most artificial materials were not available back in the days. It may often be a question of financial resources or energy efficiency whether natural resources can be used for a building. However, it certainly makes sense to apply such material for stories that are directly visible to pedestrians.

Symbolism

The appearance of a building does not only convey a certain aesthetic value, but also a particular meaning, as Philip Hubbard stresses. However, it is not as much the actual history of a building people care about than what they read into it. The presence of obviously old buildings alone can give people a feeling of preservation, rootedness and meaningfulness. People can think of themselves as being part of a longer history. This way, old buildings can create a feeling of belonging and collective group identity. They may also highlight the importance of sustainability and cohesion.

In general, also modern architecture may help building a local identity. However, in today’s globalized world modern architecture can look very alike in completely different parts of the world. In contrast, historic architecture may be relatively homogenous within a geographical area, but highly heterogeneous between different areas. This may be a reason why modern architecture is not able to replace historic architecture in its function to build a collective identity and feeling of belonging.

Is some modern architecture too large in scale?

Is some modern architecture too large in scale?

Underlying reasons

While we have discussed different aspects in which historic and modern architecture are different, this still leaves us with the question why historic buildings often fulfill these criteria better. A possible explanation would be the different social order that was in place when historic buildings were built. Societies were much less individual as they are today. It was probably not appropriate to create a building that was contradictive to the current zeitgeist, much as it didn’t befit a painter or author to create something very unusual and obscene. Today, this might exactly be what a building contractor is asking for.

On the other hand, the architectural profession has changed, too. Historically, architects used to be generalists and responsible for the construction of the entire building. This implies that they had less resources to create disruptive designs than a today’s architectural firm with several employees.

Additionally, technical possibilities have evolved profoundly. Architectural elements like large glass facades, unsupported ceilings and rooftop pools were only made possible by modern materials and construction methods. What is more, the construction time of buildings was much longer and buildings had to last for longer periods of time than today. A frequent alteration of architectural styles was neither desirable nor actually feasible.

Wrap-up

It seems that historic architecture in some cases is visually more appealing as it features a balanced level of complexity and familiarity and often is build from natural resources. At the same time, it can give people a feeling of belonging and identity. Modern architecture would be able to accomplish this, too. However, technical possibilities, the magnitude of modern construction projects, financial restrictions and requirements of private clients sometimes seem to impede attempts to build decent and delicate designs. Additionally, what may seem just appropriate to architects can be way too chaotic and unusual to everyone else.

A solution my be to involve citizens in both particular construction projects and in the creation of development plans and architectural style guides. Fortunately, there is plenty of modern architecture that can catch up with the design quality of historic buildings.

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Architecture
Facade
Historic
Modern