The 5 Principles of Human-Friendly Facades

Positive space - old town square
Positive space: It forms a closed whole. In the book “Soft City”, Jan Gehl and David Sim describe reasons to return to buildings cities this way. Source: Unsplash / Thomas Konings.

In the recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about public space. We often hear how important is the right size of a square, the appropriate choice of greenery, comfortable sidewalks for pedestrians or ergonomic design of benches. We hear a little less, however, that one of the most important elements of public space is the buildings that surround and shape it.

There are several reasons for this. First of them might be a practical one. Under today’s conditions and with the current form of the zoning plan in many European cities, the city simply does not have much impact on the appearance of buildings. In some countries, we encounter so-called “form-based” zoning plans. Meaning those that determine the formal appearance rather than the function of buildings in a certain zone, so that the whole neighborhood looks pleasing and unified.

The second reason is the orientation of today’s architecture on individual buildings and their authors, rather than the creation of harmonious neighborhoods. And the third one is the strong legal protection of private property, which results in weak powers of the city in regulating the appearance of buildings.

Negative space - modern development
Negative space is not enclosed, it forms the background for buildings. Outdated standards often lead to it. Source: Hi Development

Public space: Positive or negative?

We should not perceive public space as a “negative space”, a kind of a background for individual buildings. We should perceive it as a “positive space” – the foreground that should be surrounded and shaped by buildings. This is exactly what Jan Gehl or Christopher Alexander talk about. Such a space carries a much higher quality of human experience. It becomes a “place”, not just a “space”. Lighting norms bearing a modernist heritage, however, often prevent the creation of such a space in many countries.

But there is another reason why we should focus on building facades when thinking about public space. It’s more recent than the urbanist tradition, but at the same time it brings very similar recommendations. This reason is the scientific knowledge about humans. You may not have heard of it yet, but today the sciences that examine the relationship between man and his environment are becoming more and more popular.

You can find them under names such as environmental psychology, psychology of architecture, cognitive science, neuroscience or neuroaesthetics. They ask themselves how our environment affects us and how to design the cities on the basis of this knowledge.

An evolutionary legacy for the 21st century architecture

These sciences are creating knowledge that points to a mismatch between the needs of our bodies and brains on one hand, and the way we build our cities on the other. This can be attributed, among other things, to modernism of the twentieth century, which, in collaboration with the industrial production of buildings, threw away a thousand years old architectural tradition.

This tradition allowed cities to grow organically, on a human scale and on the basis of aesthetic criteria that are natural to humans, because they are based on the geometric principles of nature, in which we have evolved over millions of years. In animals, we have understood these principles long ago. During the twentieth century, it was fashionable to build modernist enclosures in zoos. One example is Lubetkin’s penguin pool at London Zoo.

However, it was later found that this impoverished environment is not suitable for animals because it does not provide them with enough stimuli, does not mimic their natural environment (also called “environment of evolutionary adaptation”) and thus leads to animals that are stressed and behave restlessly or aggressively.In reaction to that, we soon started building enclosures focused on animal wellbeing, resembling their natural habitats. But architecture for people is still lagging behind.

Our cities need buildings and facades that match the structure of our perception and our brain. Those that people used to create intuitively because they considered them pleasant and beautiful – whether vernacular architecture with folk ornament or urban public buildings built according to classical principles.

Lubetkin's penguin pool
Lubetkin’s penguin pool proved to be unsuitable for animal life because it did not resemble their natural habitat. Architecture for people, however, is still built on modernist principles. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What facades does a good city need?

The simple answer: A good city needs facades that increase the quality of life of as many of its inhabitants as possible.

Facades that help reduce stress and create places to which people can form emotional relationships. Those that carry within themselves the qualities of humanity and thus reflect ourselves. It needs buildings that are not too large, have lots of small details, reflect the symmetry of the human body and living nature, do not attack us with sharp angles and edges, are not too monotonous, but at the same time not too chaotic. They are tailored to humans and their architects place people at the top of their values.

A more complicated answer: A good city needs facades that meet the criteria of biophilic design and reflect how our brains view the world around them. Cognitive science has long used terms such as “embodiment” and “extended mind”. These theories say that our perception does not only work as an independent observer: “I see, think and react.” Our mind uses its environment as an extension of itself. A simple example is research which shows that people better remember information in the same place as where they learned it.

Tilted building from Zaha Hadid
Architects of Zaha Hadid probably did not work with psychologists when designing this building in Antwerps. Visually unstable and inclined structures can cause anxiety. Source: Unsplash / Claudia Lorusso.

Embodiment, on the other hand, says that we do not perceive objects (and buildings) around us as just a mixture of lines and colors. Our minds use so-called “mirror neurons” (which help us to be empathetic), for empathizing with the inanimate objects we look at too. They relate to them on the basis of experience with our own body.

Today, for example, we can build a structure that seems to resist gravity, such as a dramatic overhang or tilt of one of its elements. At the rational level, people know that the overhang will not fall down on them. But on an emotional level, such buildings can cause tension. And our emotions, although we are not always aware of them, shape our lives much more strongly than our rational, evolutionarily younger part. Based on this scientific knowledge, we can start creating principles for a human-focused architecture.

The principles of humane architecture are nothing new. You have probably heard about most of them and you have almost certainly seen them in number of older buildings. But what makes them more relevant today than ever before is the knowledge about human psychology. It shows that we need to return to these principles and create a new kind of architecture – modern, but human-centered. And designing good facades is one of the key parts of this process.

But first we need to talk about beauty. In the past century under the influence of philosophy and modern art, most of us have adopted the adage that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” But even this belief is slowly falling apart thanks to science. Of course, there are differences in what we find beautiful. But research also shows that, in reality, we are much more similar in our perceptions of beauty. This is because beauty is not just an inexplicable and purely subjective concept. Beauty is also a feeling with which our brain responds to the environment and sensations which help us survive.

What we perceive as beautiful actually reflects the geometric and visual principles of living, healthy and friendly nature. However, architects are still trained to ignore them during their university studies. The same principles can be found in vernacular and traditional architecture around the world, regardless of the culture that lived there. It all changed only in the 20th century, when this perception of beauty receded into the background. And we should change that.

Fractals in traditional architecture
Fractals have been used in architecture for thousands of years and reflect the basic principles of natural beauty. Source: Unsplash / Mohamad Mahdi Abbasi

So what are the principles on which we should start designing beautiful and friendly facades for cities of the 21st century?

1. Symmetry

Symmetry in nature signals health. Prehistoric people have already appreciated the symmetry of objects so much that they made their stone tools symmetrical, even though they had no functional reason to do so. Symmetry has also been often used in traditional architecture. But it is not only the „global“ symmetry that is important. Many traditional buildings were not symmetrical as a whole. We need to create „local“ symmetries, manifesting themselves on a smaller scale. For example, in the design of windows, doors, gates or in the structure of ornaments.

Global and local symmetries in a traditional facade
Symmetry can be applied in architecture at both the global and the local level. Local symmetry in smaller scale is more important (Dunajská 38 in Bratislava). Source: Michal Matlon

2. Natural materials, colors and textures

Natural materials, such as wood, have a measurable positive effect on humans. The presence of wood with a visible texture can calm us down. Unpolished stone, which is left with its natural roughness or rough plaster with an irregular, imperfect texture, has the potential to create a more authentic and human atmosphere than synthetic materials or perfect and flat glass. Minimalism and white or grey color, so popular today, signal an inhospitable environment that would not provide us with good conditions for survival in nature.

Natural materials on a modern facade
The facade of Blumental project allows the eye to pause on a variety of tiles with a natural stone decor. The tiling looks solid and soothing even at the ground floor level. Source: Michal Matlon
Bland and chaotic facade
Nová Mýtna combines a chaotic arrangement of windows with a smooth, one-color facade without texture or natural materials. Source: Michal Matlon
Rough plaster
The facade of a residential building on Račianská 20/A is monotonous and minimalist, but makes a good impression thanks to a rough plaster. Source: Michal Matlon

3. Natural patterns

We have been evolving in nature for millions of years. There, certain visual principles prevail, because of how biological organisms grow. Our brain, for which a quick understanding and mapping of its surroundings was very important, developed a compatibility with the geometry of nature.

That is why spending time in nature has such a beneficial effect on us. It is an environment in which our brain can orient itself easily. When we visit a familiar place, it even switches itself to an another mode, of so-called “undirected attention”. During this, we can better regenerate our mental capacities. Whenn walking through a city, with all its pitfalls, such as car traffic and industrial, angular geometry, we must use our “focused attention” which exhausts our brain’s capacities.

It is therefore important that in architecture we try to get as close as possible to the geometrical organization of the natural environment. For example, when choosing patterns and textures to decorate facades of buildings. Such ornaments are by no means superfluous. They have an important emotional function. They are, so to speak, food for our brains.

Sant pau hospital
The architecture of Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona is full of natural patterns, shapes and ornaments. Source: Michal Matlon
Modern hospital in Barcelona
The hospital, which grew up next to the original Sant Pau in Barcelona in 2009, is almost indistinguishable from a logistics center. Its facade is confusing for our brain because it does not contain enough naturally organized information. Photo:

4. Organized complexity and fractals

When we look at a tree, we see that it is visually very complex. It has a lot of small details, leaves and twigs. Nevertheless, we can quickly understand the principles of its growth. A twig grows, it is divided into two, then another two, and after a certain number of repetitions, the leaves appear at the end.

However, if we take a closer look at the structure of the leaves themselves, we will find that similar principles are repeated here again, only on a different scale. Natural geometry can be simply described by certain rules. And these rules have been reflected in architecture for hundreds and thousands of years. Organized complexity is one of them.

Over the last hundred years, architects have often sought to achieve visual extremes. They either built minimalist, functionalist buildings that provided insufficient visual stimulation and an inhospitable environment for the human brain, or they responded to such buildings with an extraordinary complexity that did not have these easy-to-understand geometric rules. Even today, the order of windows and loggias is often used to make the facade look less organized and boring. But if such an increase in complexity does not show understandable rules, it is as confusing to the brain as the lack of visual stimuli.

Alsterdam old town
The traditional Amsterdam development is an excellent example of organized complexity. The height and width of the buildings are almost identical, the human scale is preserved, but the individual buildings have the opportunity for self-expression. Source: Unsplash / Isabella Jusková

5. Human scale and detail

Last but not least, it’s about the scale in which we build. From the point of view of urban planning, it is ideal to keep the buildings in a city at maximum of five floors. This is because it’s approximately the distance from which we can still recognize the faces of the people underneath and thus the connection with life around is not lost. Also, the longer it takes to come down to the ground floor, the more we perceive the transition to outside as a separate “event” and the less likely we are to make short, spontaneous visits to the public space where community is formed.

But it’s not just the scale of the building as such. The scale of the details is also very important. When we talk about the fact that the facade should have organic shapes, we are not talking about monumental, organic buildings, which you will only see in a photograph or from a helicopter. We are talking about details on a human scale – ornaments the size of a few of centimeters to a few millimeters. For example details on door handles or cornices.

New traditional building in Berlin
The presence of small details is important for the human brain. The picture shows a new Berlin building Rosengärten from 2013. Source: Patzschke & Partner Architekten

In order to start building people-friendly buildings, we need to overcome many obstacles. We need to update architectural education with scientific knowledge about humans. We need to create new norms that will enable the creation of such buildings and public spaces. And we need to overcome the fear that often keeps developers and architects from designing well. In this case, however, we should not throw ourselves into artistic experiments. Architecture should become a craft that, based on scientific knowledge, will create a good environment for people’s well-being.

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